The Frightful, Beneficial Mess of American Religion

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

This article is adapted from a presentation at a forum on Religion and Public Life sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, the Community Renewal Society in Chicago and DePaul University. This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 14, 1988, pp. 1150-1152. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Religious differences in the United Sates are numerous and varied, yet they rarely lead to extended violent conflicts such as happens in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, the subcontinent of Asia , and in many other places. Determining the reason for this realative tolerance could prove useful for future civil crises.

Why does religion in America not produce or encourage lethal conflict, as it does in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, the subcontinent of Asia, and many other places? How is it possible for groups of Jews, Catholics and Protestants to form alliances for the sake of the common good or to protect their own interests, and later break them? Religious differences in the United States are numerous and varied, yet they rarely lead to extended violent conflicts. Determining the reason for this relative tolerance could prove useful for future civil crises.

The uneasy peace among the diverse American religious groups must be attributed to something other than special natural virtues possessed by people who live here. The godless U.S. Constitution and its First Amendment surely contribute. The geographical dispersal of religious groups has helped. In Lebanon, for instance, one knows where to point the guns: on one side of a hill are Muslims, on another are Christians, across the valley are Druse, and to the south are the Jews. While in most American areas one religious group predominates, it shares space with others, and people interact on many levels.

One of the best explanations comes in a combination of quotes from the 18th century. Voltaire observed about England what became true in the United States: "If there were one religion in England, its despotism would be terrible; if there were only two, they would destroy each other; but there are 30, and therefore they live in peace and happiness. " James Madison seconded the notion in The Federalist papers: "Security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights; it consists in the one case in a multiplicity of interests and in the other in a multiplicity of sects."

But the variety of forms and shapes of those "sects" is also important. Without pretending to exhaust the explanations, let me therefore add one more, which occurred to me while doing research on American religion in what John Higham called "the tribal twenties" and the dreary aftermath in the 1930s. Some, afflicted with nostalgia, romantically remember these as "the good old days." They were anything but that. Citizens came as close then as ever to shooting each other across religious boundaries. This was an era of the Red Scare, immigration restriction, the Ku Klux Klan in the North, men versus women, wets versus drys, Zionists versus anti-Zionists, birth controllers versus their opponents, Coughlinites versus everyone else, fundamentalists versus modernists, and, through it all, "everyone else" against Jews, Catholics or various kinds of Protestants. Still, there were few actual fatalities on that spiritually and politically torn terrain. Why did American conflict take on this peculiar character and how can potential damage from future outbreaks be limited?

One clue came from a study promoted in 1933 by the much-needed National Conference of Jews and Christians (as the National Conference of Christians and Jews was then called): Claris Edwin Silcox and Galen M. Fisher’s Catholics, Jews and Protestants: A Study of Relationships in the United States and Canada (Institute of Social and Religious Research and Harper & Brothers, 1934). The authors spend a few pages puzzling over the form of religious clusters, and their observations can help us understand today’s discontents and contentments.

We usually focus on the content of faiths and policies in disputing groups; for example, the Catholic bishops’ pastoral letters, the sermonic messages of Martin Luther King, Jr., and black churches, Mormon doctrines about equality or inequality, New Christian Right teachings based on revealed truths, or Jews’ concepts of the land of Israel. Silcox and Fisher agreed that "philosophical differences" among the groups they studied were powerful, such as in arguments over birth control. But as sociologists they wanted also to examine social forms. "After all," they asked, "who and what are Protestants, Catholics and Jews?"

The Jews first: "The bitterest comments against the Jews come, not from the people who are the most intimately associated with the churches, but from those on the periphery, if not entirely outside church life altogether. " But " What are the Jews?" Do they constitute a racial group, a religious group, a national group, or just a group? The authors quoted important Jews who supported one of these designations against the others, or supported combinations of them. Silcox and Fisher thought that multiple definitions worked against Jews by providing multiple reasons for prejudice: "In short, the whole situation is a frightful mess, and by his strange dexterity in playing the triple role of a racial, religious and national group, the modern Jew brings down upon his head a triple type of antipathy. " I would argue that the Jew thereby made a contribution to civil peace by being hard to focus upon as the object of prejudices and hatreds.

The authors had as much trouble then as we do now answering, "What is a Protestant?" "The Jew divides the human race into Jews and non-Jews; the Catholic into Catholics and non-Catholics." But even in those tense times, it was hard for Protestants to do such dividing. Should they include or exclude Mormons and Unitarians? Was the Episcopal Church Catholic or Protestant? What about the fact that there were "more important lines of differentiation within any of the recognized Protestant denominations than between them," as the then-current fundamentalist-modernist struggles made all too vividly clear. Protestant differences were "temperamental, sometimes racial and historical, occasionally doctrinal, and not infrequently almost purely social." The authors did not know then, nor do we today, exactly what Protestants were or what Protestantism was.

As for Catholics—for the moment Roman Catholics only—Silcox and Fisher knew that there were "much greater unity and less ragged edges" than in Jewish or Protestant communities. Catholics had a more centralized administration and policy, formal parish and other jurisdictional boundaries, and, of course, an officially defined and tended doctrinal system. But "while unity is a note of Catholicism, diversity is also present," as one glance at ethnic or national differentiation, religious orders and communities, and personal factors made clear. All these affected "the future cooperative adjustments between Catholics and the larger community." They still do, a half-century later.

These groups and others should first be located along certain generic lines before dealing with the species within them. These conceptions still raise fears and prejudices that mark American life and "cooperative adjustments."

Protestantism in 1934 included the overwhelming majority of Americans, and today 49 percent of people surveyed tell pollsters they "prefer" various forms of Protestantism—or 58 percent will do so if one includes black Protestantism, though we shall see that formally it differs from other Protestant bodies. From 1607 until 1789 Protestant churches were more often than not legally established, and after disestablishment they were reestablished in custom, mores, ethos and clout—and remained so when Silcox and Fisher wrote and continued so symbolically until the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960.

What is postestablishment Protestantism? It is perhaps best thought of as a movement of peoples, some of whom define themselves doctrinally, some by polity, but who cohere often on the basis of shared memories, practical necessity (e.g., clerical pension plans) and—more than one might have expected—ethnicity. Mention Germans, Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Finns and Icelanders, and one thinks of Lutherans. The Scotch-Irish have found their home in Presbyterianism. Episcopalians are held together not by doctrines as much as by some elusive factors—but one need not be long in their company before becoming aware of Episcopalians as a people. Southern Baptists are also a people, though today many linguistic and ethnic varieties are mixed with their historic Anglo-Saxon peoplehood.

Protestants, then, with all their internal diversity, have not been "a racial group, a religious group, a national group," but just "a group," to use Silcox and Fisher’s terms. And nonwhite Protestants are better off for being, in the terms of our mentors from 1934, "a frightful mess" of a movement. They saw themselves as a movement of reform within Western Christianity and, for all their institutionalization, they still bear the marks of a movement.

American Protestantism has promoted and still often employs, almost unconsciously, certain fundamental ideas when it moves into the public order. Most Protestants see the political sphere to be a gift of God, an arena for divine service. They inherit the language of covenant, which can lead them sometimes irresponsibly to claim God for their causes, and at other times responsibly to seek to discern the divine will and follow it. Frightfully messy as they are, virtually all feel sufficiently at home in the political order to protect their own interests. Try

taxing them, violating their zoning interests, or overregulating them to learn how political they are and can be. Characteristically they define themselves as seeking the public good and thus doing more than saving souls.

When this movement of peoples still retained enough vestige of establishment to prevail as a people, others suffered. In the 1920s and ‘30s they had enough of a consensus against Catholic presidential candidate Al Smith, the birth of Israel, and the immigration of non-Protestant peoples to make them look like a bloc. They have no such causes today, and if they did they have no forums for expressing them.

One illustration: during the Six-Day War in Israel in 1967, Jews called on Protestant bodies to provide their immediate support. Few if any of such bodies did. Individual editors, writers, preachers and others spoke up; some groups did, as causes or caucuses. But Protestants had to explain to Jews that the white Protestant half of America did not cohere sufficiently nor have mechanisms to act efficiently to be of instant help. Pro-Arab sentiment by a few Protestants, including some highly placed figures, was far less significant than the fact that a "movement of peoples" cannot unite very quickly.

Whatever the immediate problems of 1967—and they were terribly urgent—Jews profit more from the frightful mess of Protestantism than if it were the official or unofficial established church or, worse, a single political bloc. Jews will lose support from some in this Protestant movement while picking it up from others. On some Israeli causes they will find their best allies in dispensational premillennial fundamentalism, while on issues of civil liberties and other causes they will coalesce with moderate-to-liberal Protestants. That has worked to their good and the common good, and to interreligious and civil peace.

The Jews, meanwhile, are more distinctly a people. Race alone does not make a people, though it may be the more prominent feature in public perceptions. Thus Jews are not the only group that is "a people," and that also works to their good and the good of others. Blacks are a people. Members of the African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches are really Methodists, and National Baptists ("of America" or "U.S.A. Inc." in their conventions) are really Baptists. But to white Methodists and Baptists, sociologists and the public, they are "the black churches."

So the Muslims are also seen as "a people," however racially and ethnically diverse they are. Mormons, whether white or, as they increasingly are, nonwhite, make up a people. Before addressing the Mormon History Association some years ago I had to tear up my manuscript after hearing the Mormon papers. It had become clear to me that this was not a "church," despite the name the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but a people. This fact is most noticeable in Utah, but I felt it also at this Omaha conference and have recognized the same kind of bonding elsewhere.

Peoples may have doctrines and polities, but they have peoplehood most of all. I recall a great Reform rabbi once thundering a sermon in defense of Jewish theism to his congregation at its centennial. He voiced profound theological kinship with much of what the Christian theologians present (Rosemary Radford Ruether, Schubert Ogden and I) had had to say. But then he made it clear: "When the life of Israel is at stake, I would have less in common with these three believers, despite their common witness to our God, than with the atheist Golda Meir." You have to know how seriously this rabbi took God, our God, to know how important this typical affirmation of peoplehood was.

For five mornings in 1961 I addressed hundreds of black pastors at Hampton Institute. They took notes. In the afternoon each day Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed them. They participated. Not often given to envy, I found myself that week envying not only King’s rhetorical and spiritual gifts but the fact that he was relating to a people. Most of the hearers were from small, poor, southern black congregations, but they were a people on the move. I was to head back to a fine, comfortable white suburban parish. Were we or other white Protestants, or Protestants as a people, on the move? It was hard to discern the plot.

Jews have their story, from Abraham and Exodus through the Exile and past the Holocaust. Mormons have their stories, as the Book of Mormon and their saga of a cross-country trek and kingdom-building make clear. Blacks’ story is about Promised Lands, Moses, and victory over slavery and segregation. These stories and the sense of peoplehood (which has very little to do with the concept of the Volk which got Europeans, especially Germans in so much trouble) give focus to the public and political life of the many entities which make up these peoples. Once again, it is all a "frightful mess" to those who like neat definitions or boundaries. But it is healthy for the common good that those who are not the people—for example, "gentiles," whether on Jewish or Mormon soil—can create and drop coalitions with different elements among these peoples, for differing causes.

Catholicism, on the other hand, while including peoples, as Silcox and Fisher pointed out, is a church and not a movement, bloc or sect. In 1934 most Protestants were fearful of this churchly aspect and of Catholicism’s putative unity not only in doctrine and polity but in policy and program. A half-century later Catholic dissent and diversity are as visible as any unity.

Neighbors of Catholics know that four out of five Catholic women of childbearing age disagree with and disregard papal teaching on birth control. Informed Catholics are on many sides of the issues that bishops address in respect to nuclear weapons, the economy, or, women and their roles. Informed non-Catholics know that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II succeed through coercion, as in the case of ruling women out of the priesthood. But each act of coercion only stimulates more dissent where coercion is ineffective and attempts at persuasion fail.

The result is a "frightful mess" in the eyes of Catholic traditionalists, intransigents and legalists, but it works toward the public good. This messiness is especially evident in a free society. But Catholicism has always been a catholic church, making the potential for diversity great even as it now increases and is manifest. Catholicism did not turn out to be a bloc, and that benefits the common good, allowing for the forming and dissolving of coalitions on a variety of causes.

Bloc Catholicism appeared formidable. Protestants thought Catholicism could "win" America if it managed to attract 51 percent of the people. They thought Catholics had to and would take orders, had to and would act united—that they were a monolith or a juggernaut. Catholics did sometimes vote in blocs when Catholic self-interest was at stake, as Protestants, Jews, blacks or Mormons sometimes have done when their interests were at stake. But on most issues some Catholic element or faction will coalesce with a non-Catholic for civil purposes.

Of course, Catholic doctrine and "philosophical backgrounds" are still relevant. They show up on concerns about abortion and genetic issues; they lead Pope John Paul II to criticize our consumerist capitalism and to promote certain kinds of human rights. But if these approaches always showed up in coherent form with coercive intent, as they would in a bloc or a sect, the republic would suffer.

Those who would coerce, who prefer closure to openness, who cannot stand messiness, who are fanatic about their readings of divine revelation and human doctrine, are uncomfortable with our frightful mess. But the National Conference of Christians and Jews would never have emerged had there been an unyielding Protestant bloc or an effective Catholic sect. Those who like neat definitions and boundaries, unanimous opinions within groups and utterly predictable action toward out-groups, abhor the mess and yearn for homogeneous kingdoms past or future. They need not wait: they can find all kinds of neat and well-defined religious doctrines and polities in many other nations. But unless you are part of the group that is running the show, you wouldn’t want to live there. Two cheers, at least, for our frightful mess.