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Religion has been a central aspect of American life since its beginning. Eastern North America was settled in the seventeenth century by members of diverse Christian groups. Scholars writing about American religion tend to see “in American Puritanism the first statement of America’s self-consciousness as a divinely appointed “redeemer nation”; the Puritan tradition shaped American consciousness throughout the nation’s subsequent history (Stout 1982, p. 19). By the late eighteenth century, the strict religiousness of Puritanism was partially replaced by the values of the French Enlightenment, and belief in a more abstract God allied with Reason and Nature. Yet the America’s founding fathers sought to keep the language of the Bible in American life. On the one hand, the first amendment of the US Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, and the separation of church and state. On the other hand, Christianity and the Bible continued to serve as the basic guidelines of American moral life. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the United States became less Christian. Turning to the twenty first century, a number of scholars have written of America’s declining religious values. Yet today, according to a number of surveys, 98 percent, or 95 percent, or 84 percent of Americans claim to believe in God (Shapiro 1992, p. 40). This paper, by referring to a number of scholarly articles and sources analyzing the issues of colliding religious beliefs and diverse cultures in America, argues that, from the ethical standpoint, it is possible to stay true to one’s religious beliefs while offering adequate care to individuals from other cultures.
There are grounds for skepticism at the high figures presented above, but clearly Americans claim religious belief to a far greater extent than members of other contemporary societies. In American public life, presidents Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and now Obama have continued regularly to bring into play God, not just because of pressure from a newly emergent politicized Christian Right over the past 20 years, but more, in continuation of the American religious tradition. The civil religion is apparent in the speeches of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, proclaiming America as providentially guided by God—a religion that while often not specifically Christian, does seem to be a direct descendant of the Puritans.
Despite this, however, it seems clear that the decline of the Christian beliefs of the American past has continued to a high degree. Those 90-or-so percent of Americans claiming to believe in God often have very different conceptions of what God is. “The most singular fact about religion in the United States…is diversity. Perhaps no other industrial nations have such an amazing variety of religious groups” (Stark and Bainbridge 1999, p. 41).
This is certainly true of popular religious conceptions, but is also true because of American exposure to worldwide religions. Eastern religious beliefs have long held a small place in American life, but the beginnings of widespread exposure really began in the late nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, particularly in the post-World War II era, Buddhism began to enter into American life. Figures such as D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts brought their depictions of Eastern religions to American mass media; Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and other beat writers brought Buddhist themes to their American literary voices. The social movements of the 1960s created an American generation receptive to Buddhism and other non-Christian religions (Lindsey 2002). In any large and many small American cities, one may go to dozens of different meetings of all different worldwide faiths, and one may take classes explaining virtually all the major religious beliefs held in the world.
With a great number of world religions on the territory of the United States, all these spiritual practices must compete to gain their audiences and recognition from the government and public alike. This is true of the newly imported Eastern religions: as one Korean Zen master said, “We Buddhist teachers—those of us who came from Asia—are like transplanted lotuses…. Here we find ourselves in the marketplace—as dharma [Buddhist teachings] peddlers, you might say” (Qtd in Stark and Bainbridge 1999, p. 45). This seems equally true of Christianity: Christian books, music, greeting cards, T-shirts, and so on, form major segments of the American market, and so too the Christian religion itself, which has become “an ordinary commodity” (Kosmin and Lachman 1993, p. 20).
There are two basic contradictory principles at work in American religions and culture. These contradictions underlie America’s cultural conceptions of itself in past and at present as well. One principle is that of the Christian religion in its particular truth, a truth shared by no other religion. At the same time, Buddhists may also make claims as to the truth that they particularly hold. This is the truth proclaimed by Christian evangelists, but also in less specifically Christian form, in America’s civil religion: the sign “in God we trust” on the US Dollar currency and the American claim of America as “one nation under God.” This religious formulation of America is that which is rooted in the Puritan tradition.
The other side of America is that preserved by the Declaration of Independence: human beings have “certain inalienable Rights,” among them “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” One is free, by this promise, to pursue one’s happiness down whatever path one chooses. “The United States… has come to epitomize the modern consumer’s dreamland”; and what is true for material consumption seems true for cultural consumption as well (Bocock 1993, p. 10). “It’s my life; I can do what I want,” is a common phrase in the United States. America is the home of the diverse groups of people from all over the world, and this of course includes hosting different religions on its territory. America is “the land of the free,” in which one is free to believe whatever makes a person happy.
These two formulations of America broadly correspond to the two conceptions of culture and to the opposing principles of state and market. In other words, culture is presented as a particular way of life, and culture is seen as information and identities chosen from the global perspective. America as “one nation under God” corresponds to the first of these principles, and America as “the individual pursuit of happiness” corresponds to the second. In fact, these two sides of American cultural definition seem, in some respects, not to have been directly opposed. The founding fathers of the United States were not evangelical Christians, basing their ideas of God on the religious ideals of the French Enlightenment. Their understanding of God could, without contradiction, preside over the multitude of paths through which free human beings might pursue happiness. Nonetheless, from the Puritans through to evangelical Christians of the present, the American God has been interpreted by many as the Christian God. A declared contemporary Christian belief is that of a once Christian America now lost to the evils of secularism:
The United States of America, founded as one nation under God, has truly betrayed its heritage…. We have become a nihilistic, hedonistic, self-centered, humanistic nation. The Lord has blessed this nation so greatly…. No other nation has been so blessed, yet, like the ancient Israelites, we have become proud and haughty. We don’t thank God for our blessings. We take them for granted. That, my friends, is always a sure recipe for disaster with God” (Lindsey 2002, pp. 214-215).
More historically informed Christian writers point out that the God of the founding fathers was not necessarily the Christian God; but it does seem to be the case that in the United States today a struggle is being waged between adherents of these two principles: a struggle between the one God of universal truth, and a multiplicity of gods, representing individual taste.
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In his 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, James Davison Hunter examines this struggle at length: the conflict of cultural definitions of America in such areas as politics, law, family, education, and the arts. As he depicts this struggle, it is between Christian fundamentalists, Orthodox Jews, and conservative Catholics as against more secular liberals and progressives for control of American culture. “Relativism is the American way … The American mind…is by nature and tradition skeptical, irreverent, pluralistic and relativistic” (Hunter 1991, p. 113). As opposed to this, the author illustrates is an argument that “only by godly leadership can America be put back on a divine course”; there is a call for an America based on Christian culture; there is a claim that “We are, in the words of ‘The Star Spangled Banner, a heav’n-rescued land. We should teach these patriotic values because we have a higher responsibility than other countries” (Hunter 1991, p. 114).
Hunter’s (1991) idea of a culture war has been criticized for presenting more troubles on the American terrain than there are in reality. In fact, most Americans are in the middle, between these extremes of belief. But in a deep sense, this depiction of the present differences is valid, for it is an argument over the nature of truth, for which a middle ground may be difficult to find.
Many Americans do what they can to avoid the implications of this dispute over truth. The evangelical Christian may pray in their church on Sunday, but on Monday deal kindly with her non-Christian friends. But, if one’s religion is true, then those friends may be doomed to hell if this person does not persuade them to become Christians. To keep the peace and keep her popularity within the modern world, one must keep her belief in the absolute truth of the religion to himself, but this may be a violation of the principles of his religion. The American Buddhist may maintain the relativism of all truth, and see meditation as no more than a form of this-world therapy. Yet, when a teacher from Tibet claims that a certain meditation practice will lead to liberation in seven lifetimes rather than sixteen lifetimes, the American Buddhist may become puzzled. In other words, it is not clear whether reincarnation and relativism both be true. After all, who knows what’s ultimately true. But then people may start asking themselves why they are practicing Buddhism if they are not sure if what it says is true. Both these individuals, like most religious Americans, find themselves in the middle of an irreconcilable contradiction over the nature of truth (Lindsey 2002).
The dispute can be summed up as one of “truth vs. taste”—is there an ultimate religious truth that everyone in common should follow? Or is one’s religious pursuit more similar to a hobby, a personal pursuit of one’s own truth that others need not share? This dispute, this confusion over the nature of spiritual truth, is linked to contemporary conceptions of American cultural identity. “Truth vs. taste” corresponds to the idea of a spiritual national culture—“America as God’s country”—versus the cultural supermarket—“America as one’s own pursuit of happiness.”
It is essential to provide an example of how a particular religion (e.g. Buddhism) co-exists with the mainstream Christian thought in the US. This is done to conclude whether staying true to one’s religious belief while caring for those from different cultures is at all possible in the America. Some writers claim that Buddhist America is more American than Buddhist: taken-for-granted American values such as individualism are interpolated into Buddhism by Americans recreating American way of life wherever they go (Marty 2003). Beyond this, it is possible to argue that in today’s United States, values such as individualism are taken for granted largely because they are the values of the cultural tradition. In other words, the individual pursuit of happiness is transmuted into the single principle of the economic and cultural belief, where the consumer is a king. Can Buddhist America escape this? Modern scholars argue that “Buddhism can fit many containers; don’t mistake the tea for the cup. But perhaps the container does alter the liquid therein: maybe the tea is indeed the cup, at least in the United States” (Kosmin and Lachman 1993, p. 43)
Some artists coming from the Eastern background struggle to invent their own home from the US cultural tradition, but may have trouble doing so because those forms continue to seem so foreign. The American Buddhists seem to have an opposite problem: they struggle to achieve wisdom and perhaps create an alternative American way within an imported spiritual tradition, only to find that the American tradition they already have is so powerful that it challenges any alternative to itself. If, for some artists, materials from the US culture must somehow be transformed into home, for American religious seekers, the place where they dwell in is already their home, and perhaps cannot be escaped: for them, foreignness is perhaps not inevitable but impossible (Marty 2003).
But then, the Buddhist ideal is not to recreate home but to transcend home; as the American teacher of Tibetan Buddhism Pema Chodron has said, “Becoming a Buddhist is about becoming homeless”: having no particular place, culture, nation as home, but rather all the cosmos, nowhere, and everywhere (Qtd in Marty 2003, p. 220). Whether Buddhism can enable its American adherents to go beyond all sense of home, or rather will merely confirm that all the cultures have their place in America’s home, is perhaps the key question facing Buddhist America today.
Advocates of the idea of having many religions in America rightfully state that the idea of religion is so complex that there can be no universal way of understanding it. Many people who argue in favor of providing an opportunity to practice their religions to all people living on the territory of the US state that there are at least three reasons for this.
In the first place and chiefly, religious experience is an inward and subjective thing. Furthermore it is highly individualized. Each person reads into the word his own experience, or what he takes for religious experience, in such a way that no two people who exchange views about religion are ever talking about quite the same thing.
The second reason is that there is nothing about which people are capable of feeling more strongly than their religion. Religion is, at least to the average man, a virtue word. This word is one like democracy, with such favorable connotations that almost everyone tends to want to be identified with it, as opposed to smear words like atheist or Communist which almost everyone treats with caution (Stark and Bainbridge 1999).
Marty (2003) points out it is possible to accuse a person of almost any deficiency other than the lack of a sense of humor; at that point he will probably get red in the face and explode. The author might well have included religion with his statement. There are very few people who can stand being called irreligious. In general, people will readily admit that they don't go to church, or that they don't believe in God (though they will not like to be called atheists), or that they look on all kinds of religious practices as silly, but as soon as one accuses them of being irreligious their blood pressures immediately begin to climb and they become violently defensive. Perhaps an exception to these statements is a certain type of scientist for whom religion is unacceptable; but he will react just as emotionally in the opposite way. Hence there is always a potential emotional charge lurking in the background in any discussion of the meaning of religion. This will tend to distort any attempt to define the term.
Finally, a concept of religion will be influenced by the purposes of the person making the definition. The pastor with a declining congregation is keen to associate religion with churchgoing; the mystic is bound to emphasize inwardness; while the sociologist studying religion is likely to define it in terms of observable activities and customs. Each scholar naturally will define religion for his own purpose. Of course, this is a problem encountered in defining all terms, but the difficulties are sufficiently magnified in the case of religion to explain why social scientists tend to become exceedingly evasive when asked to define the term. Nevertheless, even though people are in a field where no one, or perhaps everyone, may set himself up as an authority on what religion is, it is none the less important that anyone who sets out to discuss it feel the obligation to try to make as clear as possible just what he is describing (Stark and Bainbridge 1999).
In conclusion, it should be stated that there are broad parallels between the different groups of people trying to establish their own cultural tradition in the US and the different groups of American religious seekers attempting to practice their won religions. In other words, some individuals may see their native culture as the essence of their hearts, but an essence now forgotten by most of their people. American evangelical Christians may see America as a once-Christian nation now Christian no longer. For instance, some Japanese contemporary artists see Japan as a cultural obstacle blocking their pursuit of their universal arts; some American liberal Christians see their Christianity as a path given them because of their culture, but only one of many paths to universal truth. Some Japanese artists see themselves as world citizens pursuing their arts within the global cultural supermarket; some American spiritual seekers seek wisdom through their choices as consumers from the global marketplace (Marty 2003).
This parallel is remarkable, but it hides a fundamental difference between people from diverse cultural backgrounds and American religious seekers, in their conception and use of the cultural tradition. For people who came from different countries to live in the US, the American cultural tradition tends to be thought of as other than their won; it is foreign, or, as more typically put, Western. For some American Christians, the cultural tradition may be seen as bringing strange Eastern religions to America’s shores, subverting Christian values, but more typically, the global culture is seen as American, embodying the pursuit of happiness that is thought to be every American’s birthright.
To a degree, assimilation is a threat to the unique culture of people who came to America. US religious seekers’ consumption from the global cultural tradition is a confirmation of their American way. This is not only because the principles of consumption are the American cultural principles of free individual choice and the pursuit of happiness; it is also because of America’s global power in shaping cultural images and cultural values.
In the course of American religious history, one sees the ongoing expansion of the cultural tradition: from a largely Christian America, to an America with a multiplicity of religious beliefs, to an America open to all the world’s religions. One result of this is the shift from truth to taste as the dominant marker of religion in America. When there are so many different religious paths to choose from, when so many people have so many different spiritual choices, who is to say what is true and what is not? One thing is clear: America is a democratic country hosting diverse populaces and providing opportunities to all people wiling to contribute to its growth and development. As experience shows, it is not only possible but also right to stay true to one’s religious beliefs while providing adequate care to those coming from diverse backgrounds.