Appeared in Winter 1996, Vol. XXII, No. 4 Download PDF here

In this essay I would like to reflect on the role of pluralism, especially religious pluralism, in what I take to be the failure of the American experiment in ordered liberty. My argument is that, examined from the vantage point of the turn of the millennium, American claims to exceptionalism and superiority, clustered around the idea of ordered liberty, have proven unjustified. Enough American history has passed to see how the instability, internal incoherence, and inadequacy of the founding American assumptions about God, man, and society daily make the dream of ordered liberty ever more remote. The evidence of profound social disorder, of disordered liberty, lies all around. The jibes against Europe, that in America a fresh historical beginning, freed from Europe’s burdens and mistakes, would sustain something better than Europe had known, a novus ordo seclorum, seem now premature and naive.1

In America it is most uncommon to admit this. Awareness of the manifold signs of disorder which mark one’s daily life rarely results in acknowledgment that there might be something wrong with the experiment itself. Indeed, the pseudo-scientific language of “experiment,” especially William Penn’s sacralized language of “holy experiment,” puts off indefinitely any day of reckoning, for one can always say not enough evidence is in on whether the American experiment “works.”2

In the past fifty years the logic of older forms of liberalism, both French and Anglo-American, central to the American Founding has been revealed in a radical liberalism unafraid to embrace what always had lain in liberalism’s premises. I use “liberalism” in an etymological way, to describe any politics to which the quest for liberty in its evolved modern sense of “freedom from” is central. As Alasdair Maclntyre pointed out, liberalism, although originating historically in attack on tradition and aiming at a social order founded on “universal, traditionindependent norms,” has itself become a tradition.3In it an intially deficient idea of human autonomy, in which insufficient attention was paid to the relations between the individual and both other human beings and the cosmos generally, has worked itself out in an arbitrary freedom which takes the form of moral relativism and utilitarian and hedonistic domination of others. Similarly, an initially deficient idea of man, endemic to Protestantism but much exacerbated by the Newtonian idea of techne, in which man is not recognized as first of all a contemplative being, has unrolled itself in an almost completely mechanistic view of life in which man is interiorly empty and exteriorly manipulative.4

Even were somehow the developments of a half century to be rolled back, we would be left with the earlier liberalisms, which continue to exist, and their flawed views of the nature of human autonomy and man’s relation to God. This would give us as little warrant for hope as were we spectators at a rerun of Daedalus’ experiment. Jose Casanova may well be right that a worldwide rebellion is taking place against the privatization or marginalization of religion which accompanied modernization and secularization.5Still, wherever it has occurred, such rebellion has hardly done other than to reassert older cultural forms without engaging the historical quandries which helped generate modernity in the first place. Thus the public reemergence of Evangelical Protestantism in the United States beginning in the 1980s seems aimed at something like recovery of the hegemonic status of nineteenth-century Protestant civil religion. Nineteenthcentury civil religion feared (and late twentieth-century Evangelicalism fears) unabated pluralism especially religious pluralism and, while unable to eliminate a primary datum on which America was founded, attempted to reduce its most deleterious effects. In America, a country in which the need to facilitate the coexistence of differing religious views has been primordial to all constitutional arrangement from the beginning, the worthy goal of “deprivatization” of religion, which is really a name for attack on or restriction of deep pluralism, can only develop in quite constricted limits.

I have written elsewhere on the distinction between cultural pluralism and deep pluralism, the latter of which might also, following John Gray’s brilliant critique of Isaiah Berlin, be called “value pluralism.”6Although these two shapes of pluralism constantly invade each other’s territory, I have suggested that at least in principle we can distinguish between a cultural pluralism which enriches life together and a deep pluralism which, because embodying irreconcilable views of the good, true, and beautiful, undermines the possibility of a shared life. I have suggested that Americans have not been very open, indeed probably not very self-conscious, about the logic of their experiment, insofar as it involves pluralism. Some writers have, for instance, written as if the various religions in America could indefinitely share in public life while retaining their distinctive identities. This seems to me a religious form of the national myth, e pluribus unum, that a meaningful unum is possible which allows the pluribus from which it was constructed to live on. Such an idea is not fully historical. It seems to me, rather, that to the degree a shared life is achieved, deep pluralism, here including the pluralism of real religious differences, recedes.7To the degree that deep pluralism advances, the unum recedes. Perhaps this is not obvious to many Americans because they do not see how profoundly the American experience has remolded the historical religions. That is, to the extent that an unum has been achieved, it falls under the categories of civil religion, the flag, the Fourth of July, the American Way of Life. In America-and of course not only AmericaClassical Calvinism, Classical Lutheranism, Dogmatic Catholicism, hardly exist: what has replaced them for most is American civil religion, the religion of the American Way of Life itself This is not deep pluralism, but an emptying of an earlier real variation between religions into a kind of suburban religion of sameness.