AMERICA AND THE CHALLENGES

OF RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY

By Robert Wuthnow

Princeton Univ. 391 pp. $29.95

The United States is not a "Christian nation" in an official sense, because the Constitution specifically forbids the establishment of a state religion, but it could certainly be said to be a Christian nation in an unofficial sense, because the vast majority of Americans call themselves Christians, and Christianity has definitively shaped American culture. This state of affairs, in which Americans have readily defined their society as a "Christian civilization," is coming to an end, argues Robert Wuthnow, a distinguished sociologist, and most American Christians are ill-prepared to deal with it. Although according to a recent Newsweek/Beliefnet poll, some 85 percent of Americans still consider themselves Christians, recent waves of immigration from Asia and Africa have added millions of adherents of non-Western faiths -- Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Zoroastrians and others -- to the traditional American religious mix. While these groups still make up a small minority even of America's immigrant population, Wuthnow notes that they are a growing minority.

Wuthnow has conducted careful research, including thousands of interviews, to find out how ordinary American Christians deal in their day-to-day lives with this new religious diversity: how they think about non-Christians; what sort of encounters they have with them, from workplace chatter to interfaith services and even intermarriage; and how they and their pastors deal with such theologically troubling issues as whether non-Christians can be saved or whether Christians should make active efforts to convert them. Jesus declared in the Gospels, "No one comes to the Father except through Me" -- but how does that relate to the people worshipping at the mosque or temple down the street, or one's co-workers, or even one's own spouse and children?

Wuthnow divides his informants into three groups: "inclusive Christians," who are mostly mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics; "exclusive Christians," mostly evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics; and "spiritual shoppers," the people who disdain organized religion and prefer to mix their own faith cocktails out of yoga, mysticism, Buddhist meditation and whatever else is on hand. Needless to say, the spiritual shoppers have little problem with religious diversity, since they feel all religions are equally good. Inclusive Christians, by contrast, maintain a distinct preference for and affiliation with Christianity, but their way of coping with people of other faiths is to sand down the rough edges of their Christian theology. Inclusives typically believe that the Bible is a cultural artifact not always relevant to current reality, that God is too loving to send anyone to hell, and that it is wrong to try to convert people of other faiths. Exclusive Christians, as might be expected, reject all of this and take literally the New Testament's assertion that Jesus Christ is the sole source of human salvation. Still, as Wuthnow's research reveals, even exclusives tend to shy away from activities such as aggressive proselytizing that would put them at odds with nonbelievers who otherwise strike them as good people. The result, he says, is "a kind of tension that cannot be easily resolved . . . a tattered view of the world held together only by the loosest of logic."

All very interesting, but it raises several questions. How much of a problem is any of this? For one thing, the percentage of self-defined U.S. Christians has dropped only slightly from the 91 percent that Will Herberg reported in his famous 1955 study "Protestant-Catholic-Jew." If America seems less a "Christian nation" now than it did 50 years ago, it is not because of the relatively small increases in adherents of non-Christian religions but because of the growing secularization of American society, and by larger numbers of Americans who profess no religion at all. With a few notable exceptions, such as the anti-Catholic hysteria of the 19th century, tensions between native-born Americans and immigrants spring not so much from religious differences as from ethnic, cultural and class differences -- or in the case of Muslims, from post-Sept. 11 fears of extremist terrorism (a subject that Wuthnow scarcely touches upon in this book). America is not Western Europe, where large waves of Islamic immigration have coincided with marked decreases in Christian observance and the Christian birthrate.

Wuthnow argues that American Christians should adopt what he calls "reflective pluralism," in which they would actively learn as much as possible about other religions, engage in frequent contacts with their adherents and develop the ability "to say that different religions all have some access to the sacred." Leaving aside the question of whether many adherents of non-Western religions would be willing to do likewise, Wuthnow's prescription sounds like telling exclusive Christians that they should forsake their religion's truth-claims and become more like inclusive Christians or even spiritual shoppers, something I don't think many of them are inclined to do. In point of fact, American Christians generally have a pretty good record of getting along with a non-Christian immigrant minority that has been on these shores since before America's founding: Jews. Anti-Semitism in America has historically ranged from relatively restrained by European standards to practically nonexistent. There is no sign that these friendly but boundary-respecting attitudes have abated with the arrival of more non-Christians and their exotic houses of worship. Even in the aftermath of Sept. 11, there was remarkably little of the anti-Islamic violence that some had feared.

Wuthnow does not seem to believe this. He writes of "hate crimes, such as swastikas painted on synagogue walls and violence toward Jews and Muslims" without taking into account that most U.S. Christians have condemned such acts as profoundly un-Christian. Instead of advising American Christians to modify their beliefs and habits, he might do better to re-examine American history. There he will find a centuries-long record of disparate groups of Christians who viewed each other with as much suspicion as, say, some exclusive Christians do Hindus today. Yet somehow they generally managed to get along, to fashion a civil society based upon the values they held in common, and to fight side by side against common enemies. *

Charlotte Allen is the author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus."