Religious diversity as part of civil religion

Posted: December 8, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Pluralism

Sociologist of religion Peter Berger relates the story of his visit to a Hindu house of worship in Temple, Texas:

A few months ago I was driving with a colleague in central Texas. As we passed the town of Temple, he asked me whether I would like to look at the recently constructed Hindu sanctuary. Of course I did. (I don’t know whether the choice of location was dictated by the name of the town.) My colleague was not sure of the way, so we had to ask. Everyone knew how to get to the “Hindu church”. It is an impressively large building. The architecture is unmistakably Indian. There was no priest there, but we were shown around by a very friendly lay member of the community, an engineer. (As is typical of Hindus in America, most of whom are professionals with higher education). Two things impressed me on this tour. One was the physical setup inside the sanctuary—a large common area for community worship services, attended on important holidays by large numbers from all over the region, and some eight or ten small chapels, each dedicated to a specific divinity. Our guide explained that in India, most temples are dedicated to one or two gods. This cannot be done here, as immigrants come from all over India. So the temple has to have provisions for the worship of an array of gods and goddesses—a wonderfully American modification of Hindu piety. The other thing that impressed me was our guide’s reply to a question of mine. I asked him whether they had encountered any hostility from the neighbors. None at all, he said. People were curious, but consistently friendly. Note: This is the heart of the Bible Belt. I wonder whether the neighbors’ reaction would have been equally friendly, say, fifty years ago. Putnam and Campbell are right: America has become both more diverse and more tolerant. Good news, I think.

Berger discusses this in the context of how Americans deal with religious diversity (and he believes that religions are truly diverse, in contrast to the belief that all religions are basically the same).  Interestingly, he also discusses religious diversity in the context of American civil religion, which I usually think of as a broad belief that God is pleased with our political system and a hope that he will bless us in the present in future as he has in the past.  Berger defines American civil religion differently:

As to the American civil religion, it is built on a very profound insight indeed—the intrinsic worth of every human individual as an individual, regardless of any collective identifications, including the ones based on religion. This civil religion has, of course, its sacred texts (notably the Constitution), which are often understood in a fundamentalist manner. But more importantly, I think, this creed is lived by many people who don’t read any texts.

I found these insights to be quite interesting.  I don’t know what all the positive or negative implications for Christian faithfulness are, but I thought that I would pass this on.


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