Q&A With William Hutchison

William R. Hutchison served for 32 years, 1968 to 2000, as Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at Harvard Divinity School, and is now Charles Warren Research Professor. His most recent book is Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal, published by Yale University Press in 2003. HDS staff writer Wendy McDowell sat down with Hutchison to talk about his book.

Q: The topic of your book is quite timely, but what in particular interested you in pluralism, as a historian?

The short answer would be that I found it essential, in the courses that preceded this book, to deal directly and repeatedly with issues of religious diversity, and with pluralist (i.e., accepting) and anti-pluralist responses to diversity. It's not a recent interest, and that would be true of most people I know in this and related fields. We've all been struggling over the last 25 or 30 years to fit into the general scheme of religious and cultural history many phenomena, groups, and religious expressions that had not been dealt with in the standard history but that we all realized should be included. So, practically speaking, my interest in pluralism has been a matter of figuring out how to deal with diversities that should be included in the story of American religious history, and how to analyze the reception or non-reception of diversity.

Somebody who is cynical about all this would say that the real motive here is "political correctness," but in the book I express my discomfort with that term, because it's an insult. In many contexts, it's a way of saying, "Oh, you're doing this because it's the thing to do, not because you really consider it important, much less believe in it." Well, I call myself a card-carrying pluralist. It's my natural inclination.

My insistence on putting diverse points of view and formerly unacknowledged religious expressions into my course began in earnest about 25 years ago. I'd begin with the usual story, acknowledging diversities along the way, but then we'd get to a point in the course where we'd focus very directly on what I called, in the syllabus, "Alternative Americas." Having observed, for example, that mainstream religious thought by the end of the nineteenth century generally championed free-enterprise capitalism, we focused on the ways in which the social gospel offered a fundamentally different vision. And where the American writer and cleric Josiah Strong had made a very big thing of the Anglo-Saxons, including Anglo-Saxon types of religion, one way to recognize the emergence of various other groups was to focus on African Americans, including W.E.B. DuBois, who had a different take on what even liberal religionists in America took to be the reform of society.

I examine in the book, as we always did in the course, the moderate social gospel of Charles Sheldon's In His Steps, which imagines the reappearance of Jesus as a poor vagrant, and pictures church people responding to him. Well, DuBois wrote a parallel piece called "Jesus Christ in Georgia," where Jesus also reappears. People don't know who he is but assume he's a "negro," and he's lynched. This was DuBois's way of saying, "Look, there's a whole other problem here that white America isn't recognizing." So I had a section on these alternative views, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the feminists of that time who said the way the Bible is usually read is not valid, and Theophilus Gould Steward, who argued that Strong's conception of Anglo-Saxon dominance in the world's future was simply wrong—that the world's future is going to be in the hands of what we would now call the third world.

Do we have any myths about the history of pluralism in America that need to be dispelled?

Exaggerated depictions of American religious diversity—especially that of the colonial period—and of pluralist acceptance of this diversity have contributed to a myth of America that is partly true but also, in important ways, not accurate. That is probably the fundamental revision involved in this analysis, that pluralism has not been a great American success story. I agree to a large extent with those like Sydney Ahlstrom who have called pluralism the great American failure, considering our founding ideals. Ahlstrom overstated that, but fundamentally I agree with him.

In what way has it been a failure?

Americans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries congratulated themselves on the pluralism of their religious culture, and America's admirers, including visitors who were writing books for Europeans, commonly pictured America as a land of almost unbridled religious freedom. This looks to most people now like an exaggeration. The most obvious non-religious expression of the American failure is slavery: "All men are created equal," but there are some exceptions. (All "men" was supposed to mean "men and women," and we didn't really mean that either.) In that sense, there was a failure to follow through on stated ideals.

When it came to religious freedom, there were serious curtailments and some actual persecution. One needs to point this out in any full telling of the story, but one also needs to understand why such mistakes were made and why this kind of self-congratulation of Americans came as easily as it did. It was not just propaganda and certainly not willful distortion in all cases. Compared with the religious conditions in other cultures, even just in other Western cultures, the conditions in America were better and the degree of fulfillment of ideas of religious freedom and the recognition of diversity was, on average, more impressive.

You also have to take into account that this kind of assessment, not just in religion but all across culture, was proleptic. That is, we were talking not just about what was happening in America, but at least as much about what we were confident was going to happen. Yes (many Americans admitted), there's still a great deal of intolerance—nativism, anti-Catholicism, latent anti-Semitism, intolerance for the behavior of dissenting religious groups. But Americans held to a real faith, a faith shared throughout the Western world, that where there was persecution, it was going to pass away. All this meant that perfectly well-intentioned people who abhorred persecution tended to celebrate too much the supposed success of pluralism.

You point out that contentiousness around pluralism still exists today, and give good examples, but you also say that part of the reason is that the rationales for pluralism are often not made clear. What clarifications would you make to the rationales as part of your call for a more positive kind of advocacy for pluralism?

One way that the rationales for pluralism need in general to be clarified is theological in nature. There is a strong tendency, maybe a little more in the United States than in other cultures in the West, to say "it's got to be this or that," or in this instance, if as a pluralist you acknowledge validity in other religious traditions, then you don't really believe what you say you believe; you don't have strong convictions. In fact, as I say in the book, it doesn't make sense for a pluralist, who presumably agrees everyone should have a right to convictions (even absolute ones) to then turn around and deny such a right to himself or herself. So it really doesn't make sense to say that a pluralist can't hold strong convictions.

I think the rationale for pluralism in these religious and theological terms needs to be exploited and utilized more than it is. There are strong arguments for pluralism in Jewish and Christian traditions. If, as the neo-orthodox in this country and their counterparts in Europe emphasized, "only God is God" and it's idolatrous to make absolutes out of that which is not absolute, then even scriptures and creeds have to be considered relative, and have to be understood historically. 

If one is claiming to be a pluralist and wants to justify a pluralistic stance, you don't have to rely only on secular arguments having to do with civil liberties and freedom of thought. There are theological rationales. Of course, not everyone has to agree, but if you are a pluralist, you should make use of these perfectly good rationales. I think that's being done more and more, to argue for pluralism on that theological basis.

I think that the other most important rationale is really a response to the criticism that pluralism spells anarchy or at least a kind of balkanization. That is, pluralism does not allow for the degree of unity that is necessary to hold a culture or society together. Pluralists generally have struggled with that but have been able to argue that in the moral ordering of society as well as in political and other realms, ideals of individual freedom and other values can be very strong even with a pluralistic reading that respects diverse convictions.

The philosopher Horace Kallen, whom I refer to in the latter part of the book, outlined the various ways in which American society would hold together even while recognizing and appreciating different subcultural values. A common language will persist even if various ethic languages are recognized and accepted. The society will continue to honor common governmental and legal institutions, and common values religiously.

Kallen used the metaphor of the symphony. The violin is still a violin, and the oboe is still an oboe. They retain their individuality, and yet fantastic and marvelous forms of harmony are achievable. John Dewey said in response to Kallen: "I agree with your symphonic metaphor, but one has to be careful that the instruments are not playing against each other." But they don't have to, and that's what we should be trying to achieve—harmony rather than cacophony.

I think where the discussion can go here is to relative goods. You have to consider what are the alternatives to pluralism, if pluralism means the recognition, appreciation, and acceptance of diversity. How comfortable is any given person, for example, with an alternative that means some law-abiding citizens of the same country, nation, society, culture are treated as second-class citizens? The Massachusetts Supreme Court has just made that point quite forcefully and has made it the basis for acceptance of gay marriage, though not everyone will accept that particular application.

You mention the propensity of pluralism's opponents to "identify our country with God's country," which has come up a lot recently in public debates. When you hear the public discourse around these issues, what do you think? How would you respond when this kind of language is used?

The current unilateralism, and what many of us think is arrogance in the presentation of an "American" view of the world, raises some very serious questions. Do we want to go back to an acceptance of unilateralism if that means an imperial America has a right to do whatever we think is noble and righteous? We are trumpeting our belief in democracy, but then when it comes to giving other societies or nations some kind of equivalent voice or even consideration, then we're not so sure.

When I was invited, recently, to audition for the chorus Pro Musica, it was suggested that I could just be ready to sing a verse or two of "America." But I thought the Director might be tired of hearing those words, so I sang the second verse of the British counterpart, "God Save the Queen." That's a verse that most Englishmen no longer acknowledge, let alone sing. It's an eighteenth-century expression of an imperial mentality, and sense of chosen-ness that we've all supposedly left behind. The words are: "Oh Lord, our God, arise. Scatter her enemies, and make them fall. Confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks. On thee our hopes we fix. God save us all." You and I, and most people we know may consider this is a perversion of the idea of being a people of God; yet its fundamental assumptions are, as you implied, still out there in public discourse, or at least lurk not far beneath the surface.

Have your ideas been affected by these current debates?

As I've made clear, this topic is not something I got interested in just a few years ago as the discussion of pluralism was rising. But a teacher and lecturer is of course also affected by the questions he or she is being asked by students and audiences. So that certainly is reflected in a lot of ways in the book. These are perennial, and therefore very current, issues. You don't have to manufacture the connections between past and current discussions.

You note that the future of pluralism remains an open question. What do you see for the future of pluralism?

I certainly do not mean to say that, now that we're in a new stage of pluralism—one that goes beyond mere toleration and even beyond mere "inclusion"—that now at last we've "got it." Some of my former students who saw my original drafts warned that I might be misread as touting a new form of triumphalism—a pluralist triumphalism. The older structurings—a Protestant Kingdom on Earth, the idea of progress—are no longer usable or acceptable. But we cannot simply replace them with a new, cleaned-up, pluralist form of the same triumphalism.

Besides, the kind of pluralism now dominant in public policy—what I call participatory pluralism—is quite volatile. As David Hollinger argues in Post-ethnic America, group participation and group preferences are going to change because it's becoming more a matter of choice what ethnic or racial group, and religious group, people belong to. The lines are becoming less clear.

If the "next stage" in our evaluation of pluralism is not a new triumphalism, I would say also that the next stage in pluralism itself will not be the old melting pot (the one that tried to melt everyone into white Protestants) under new auspices. I think the recognition of religious or ethnic groups as having a right to fulfill their own destinies does not need to mean that they're going to take over. I don't think that's what the pluralist should be after. We've had quite enough historically of control by a particular group, white Anglo-Saxon males; and though some of the rhetoric has indeed called for other groups to simply take over, I don't think that's the dominant idea of pluralism. Rather, I hold to the idea of shared control and participation in an increasingly diverse, truly multi-ethnic society.