DECEMBER 31, 2001
Stories of the Year and of History
-- Martin E. Marty
At years end observers of American culture are busy trying to make sense of the religion they have been sighting as seldom before in 2001. For many, this means choosing the "Top Ten" religion stories of the year or, more appropriately, choosing the second to the ninth top stories, since number one is an obvious choice. For others, it means trying to assess trends.
Among these is Stephen Prothero of Boston University, who is making a mark in the teaching ranks and as historian and author (currently "Purified by Fire: A History of Creation in America.") On occasion, Prothero uses the bully pulpit of The Wall Street Journal to critique trends. He does this effectively in his December fourteenth summary of the year and the changes brought. His is not the last word, but a good word along the way to inspire more inquiry and debate.
Prothero has heard the "God Bless Americas" and "One nation under Gods" of the season. He has watched the president attending a mosque and speaking well of mainstream Islam. A Muslim chaplain from a Jesuit university was heard praying in Congress. What happened, Prothero asks in a controversial line, to the "clash of civilizations" motif prophesied by Harvards Samuel Huntington "and so fervently desired by Osama bin Laden." The administration did not take the bait. "When it comes to Islam, love bombing seems to be the U.S. governments strategy."
Here Prothero stops observing and steps in with what strikes some of us as a sensible observation. An historic reconfiguration is going on. The U.S. has always been paradoxical. Disestablishment of Christianity in the early republic led not to its demise but to its prosperity. As Christianity expanded, it coexisted creatively with Buddhism and Hinduism. The de jure secular nation had been de facto Protestant, and then "Judeo-Christian" -- the term is not historic, but an invention of World War II brotherhood seekers. Now National Geographic evokes fewer negative reactions than one might have expected with a cover story on "Abraham: Father of Three Faiths."
Prothero notes that reconfiguration does not come easily, and quotes the Reverend Franklin Graham criticizing the administration for its friendly strategy toward Islam, "a very evil and wicked religion." Then the Boston professor skips across the field and notes that many find "Abrahamic," "Jerusalemaic," "People of the Book"-type inclusions too exclusive. What about Hindus (who often affirm many gods) and Buddhists ("who typically affirm none.") Are they "somehow un-American?" Should they be overlooked, as they were, in services like the interfaith event at Washington National Cathedral?
Keep your eyes open, counsels Prothero, who is adept at relating old-time America to its new, complex, religious mix.