Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Broad-minded intentions, blind spots. Looking outside mainline Protestantism

Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans, by R. Laurence Moore. New York: Oxford University Press. 243 pp. $22.95. The last 30 years have produced vast shifts in the American religious landscape. The influence of liberal Protestant churches long considered ``mainline'' has declined. Evangelical churches have been growing. Militant fundamentalism has become a political force. A Roman Catholic has long since been elected president, and his church is now regarded by the majority of Americans as part of the religious establishment. Dozens of new religious groups outside this establishment have come and, in many cases, already gone.

Not surprisingly, these developments have also produced shifting perspectives on America's religious past. Few historians today would deny the profound role of religion in the shaping of society. But many are rethinking the way the religious history of the world's most pluralistic nation should be interpreted.

About these ads

``Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans'' is evidence both of the rethinking going on and of the need for more. The author admits that the book is less a unified narrative than a series of essays on a wide range of groups which, at one time or another, have been set apart from mainline denominational life: Mormons, Roman Catholics, Jews, Christian Scientists, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, some Christian fundamentalists, black Christian churches, and the Nation of Islam (formerly known as the Black Muslims).

R. Laurence Moore, a professor at Cornell University, contends that conventional histories too often overemphasize the dominance of the major Protestant denominations in American religious culture. The result is that other churches and traditions, while not unrecognized, tend to be considered secondary -- not part of the main story except as they relate to this dominant culture.

Dr. Moore says the main story of religion in the United States is its diversity and pluralism, not its Protestantism. Large numbers of Americans have always found their religious identity outside the established churches, he accurately points out. He sees the proliferation of new religious groups in the 1960s and '70s as a continuation of this tendency rather than a sharp break with the past.

This viewpoint is not entirely new. It stands at odds with those emphasizing the ``consensus'' values widely shared by Americans and the relative harmony of this country's religious life in spite of sectarian divisions. Moore, by contrast, emphasizes the depth of sectarian divisions in spite of the surface harmony. He regards the latter as tenuous and uneasy, a harmony growing less out of mutual respect than out of the practical necessity for coexistence in an environment where no single religious group has gained full sway.

The difference is at least partly that between seeing the proverbial glass half full or half empty. Moore's focus on dissenting religion offers a correction to the mainline bias in past historical writing, but it is itself biased.

Although it affects the treatment of a number of groups, this bias is probably most distorting in the chapter on Christian Science. Serious factual errors and flat misstatements about the teaching of the denomination mar virtually every page of the chapter. It is frankly hard to imagine, for instance, how even a casual reader of Christian Science literature could have come to the conclusion that ``whether God played any role'' in the teaching was ``left a bit unclear.''

These errors would be puzzling in a sophisticated academic work if they were merely a matter of careless research. But on a deeper level, they reflect a blind spot caused by the preconceptions brought to the book and a major fault line in its argument.

About these ads

The central thesis of ``Religious Outsiders'' plays down Protestant (and particularly Puritan) influence in American religious life. Christian Science, however, has deep spiritual roots in the New England Puritan tradition, as recent scholarly studies have brought out clearly. Its Christianity is not peripheral. To maintain his thesis, the author is compelled to ignore these roots, along with a multitude of other inconvenient facts, discounting any genuine religious impulse in Christian Science in the process.

The resulting caricature is regrettable, since Moore seems sincerely to believe that new religious movements should not automatically be treated as illegitimate or abnormal. In spite of broad-minded intentions, his assumptions reduce new and old religion to little more than a social or psychological adjustment mechanism for the unenlightened. The most important lesson of the book may be that this analysis is simply not adequate, even when fortified by fashionable theory, for a real understanding of the meaning of religion in real people's lives.

Rethinking American religious history means more than replacing one set of stereotypes with a more elaborate set. While ``Religious Outsiders'' illumines some corners of this history, there is still no substitute for respecting religion as religion if one seriously hopes to understand its many-sided role.

Dr. Thomas Johnsen, who studied American culture at Harvard and Johns Hopkins Universities, has written on the history of Christian Science in the New England Quarterly and other publications. He is currently an editorial associate with the Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.