American Ecumenicalist Pluralism

Charles Blow tells an amusing story about the essential ecumenicalist pluralism of the United States (“Heaven for the Godless?,” The New York Times, 26 December 2008, p. A25):

In June, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a controversial survey in which 70 percent of Americans said that they believed religions other than theirs could lead to eternal life.

This threw evangelicals into a tizzy. After all, the Bible makes it clear that heaven is a velvet-roped V.I.P. area reserved for Christians. Jesus said so: “I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” But the survey suggested that Americans just weren’t buying that.

The evangelicals complained that people must not have understood the question. The respondents couldn’t actually believe what they were saying, could they?

So in August, Pew asked the question again. (They released the results last week.) Sixty-five percent of respondents said — again — that other religions could lead to eternal life. But this time, to clear up any confusion, Pew asked them to specify which religions. The respondents essentially said all of them.

And they didn’t stop there. Nearly half also thought that atheists could go to heaven — dragged there kicking and screaming, no doubt — and most thought that people with no religious faith also could go.

The full study results are here (“Many Americans Say Other Faiths Can Lead to Eternal Life,” 18 December 2008).

I suggest that this means that Americans are essentially communitarian, consequentialist and anti-foundationalist in their moral outlook.

For the fundamentalist religious person, right belief about metaphysical and factual matters is paramount and right behavior secondary. Right belief is often seen as being of such a higher order of importance that it alone is sufficient and gross moral deviance on the part of the righteous is perfectly acceptable, hence modern day religious fanaticist terrorism. But for most Americans it is the reverse. The conception of the good is primary and they bend the rest of their beliefs around this. The particular beliefs that lead to the right behavior aren’t all that important, just so long as the result is someone who is a good person. (I think here of Aristotle’s suggestion in the Nicomachean Ethics that for he who has “been brought up in good habits … the fact is a starting point, and if this is sufficiently plain to him, he will not need the reason as well; and the man who has been well brought up has or can easily get starting-points.” §1095b)

But if Americans don’t believe that right and wrong consist in adherence to a particular book of maxims, then where do they think they come from?

People decide right and wrong prior to religion — at least logically prior, if not chronologically prior. Most people think religion an okay source of moral instruction for children, but eventually attain a level of ethical sophistication where they use their own standard of right and wrong to judge religious teaching, rather than vice-a-versa. It’s Daniel Dennett’s point that many more people believe in belief than actually believe. Chronologically, I imagine people probably go through something like Kierkegaard’s three phases of the slave, the knight of infinite resignation, and the knight of faith. People develop an idea of good from their upbringing, a host of stories in the culture, their moral exemplars, their conception of their own life, their own moral experimentation and so on. Moral discourse is an equal opportunity endeavor. Armed with that, they recognize fellow good people based on an intersubjective or commonly held standard — differing one person to another, but demonstrating “family resemblance.”

The Christian right attempts to bolster the case for its monolithic policy preferences by arguing that the United States is a Christian nation, that it’s becoming more religious or that religion is essential for morality. To the degree that any of these are true, it’s not in a way that helps the case of the right. Americans are essentially pluralist, tolerant, even polyglot, pragmatic and not particularly concerned with the finer points of principle — exactly what one would expect from a real liberal democratic polity.