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Ethnicity: The Skeleton of Religion in America'

  • Martin E. Marty (a1)


“The story of the peopling of America has not yet been written. We do not understand ourselves,” complained Frederick Jackson Turner in 1891. Subsequent immigration history contributed to national self-understanding. Eighty years later historians have turned their attention to a second chapter in the halftold tale of the peopling of America. They have begun to concentrate on the story of the regrouping of citizens along racial, ethnic and religious lines, and of their relations to each other in movements of what have come to be called “peoplehood.”



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1. Quoted in Benson, Lee, Turner and Beard: American Historical Writing Reconsidered (Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1960), p. 82.

2. Gordon, Milton M., Assimilation in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), popularized the concept of “peoplehood,” which is the “sense” of an ethnic, racial, or religious group. The word turns up frequently in literature on ethnicity and new movements. Sometimes these movements, among them Women's Liberation, the New Left, “the counter culture,” and the like, speak of themselves in the terms of “peoplehood,” but this essay restricts itself to study of those groups which have at least a minimal claim on some sort of common ethnic origin and orientation. Significantly, the term worked its way into Webster's New International Dictionary during the 1960s; it did not appear in the second edition (1960) but is present in the third (1969): “Peoplehood: the quality or state of constituting a people; also: awareness of the underlying unity that makes the individual a part of the people.”

3. The literature on black religion is rapidly expanding; Nelsen, Hart M., Yokley, Raytha L., and Nelsen, Anne K., The Black Church in America (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1971) is an excellent anthology on every major aspect of the subject. The suggestion that 1968 was a watershed year in black religious consciousness appears in this book, pp. 17ff. Cleage is quoted on p. 18 and Bishop Herbert B. Shaw, speaking of ties to Asia and Africa, on p. 21. Cone, James H., A Black Theology of Liberation (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1970) is a representative charge that most of what had previously been seen to be a generalized and universal theology in America is actually an expression of “whiteness.” See also Gardiner, James J., S.A., and Roberts, J. Deotis Jr, Quest for a Black Theology (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1971).

4. Deloria, Vine, We Talk, You Listen (New York: Macmillan, 1970) was a widely noticed expression of new American Indian assertiveness; it included an explicit suggestion that our impersonal, homogenized America should relearn the tribal model from the original Americans.

5. Rubenstein, Richard L., “Homeland and Holocaust” in Cutler, Donald R., The Religious Situation: 1968 (Boston: Beacon, 1968), p. 45.

6. Cohen, Arthur A., The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), was written to help “break through the crust of harmony and concord which exists between Judaism and Christianity” and to help “destroy that in both communities which depends upon the other for authentication” (p. vii). Cohen believes that the myth of the common tradition was largely devised in America in the face of a secular religiosity; it induced two faiths to “join together to reinforce themselves in the face of a common disaster” (p. xix).

7. Rendon, Armando B., Chicano Manifesto (New York: Macmillan, 1971), uses figures (p. 38) from a survey taken in November, 1969: 9.2 million persons claiming Spanish descent would represent 4.7 percent of the population. Three quarters of this number were native born; the rest were immigrants, with half coming from Mexico. See also p. 325.

8. Fitzpatrick, Joseph P., Puerto Rican Americans: The Meaning of a Migration (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1971) is a brief but comprehensive survey of the situation of this minority.

9. Scammon, Richard M. and Wattenberg, Ben J., The Real Majority (New York: Coward-McCann, 1970), p. 66.Greeley, Andrew M., Why Can't They Be Like Us? America's White Ethnic Groups (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1971) introduces this conglomeration of hitherto separate ethnic forces. He also points to the fact that in part because its members spoke English and were Catholic the large Irish immigrant group does not fit easily into “the white ethnic/white Anglo-Saxon” Protestant combination. Nor, it might be added, did Germans and Scandinavian Protestants, who did not speak English.

10. References to the Church as “the new people of God” can be found throughout Abbott, Walter M.S.J., ed., The Documents of Vatican II (New York: Guild Press, American Press, Association Press, 1966). In actual practice, ethnocentrism, competing ethnic sub-communities, and isolated or rival “national” parishes throughout American history have blurred the vision of their being a single “people of God.”

11. Wattenberg, Ben J. and Scammon, Richard M., This U.S.A.: An Unexpected Family Portrait of 194,067,296 Americans Drawn from the Census (New York: Doubleday, 1965), pp. 45f.

12. Harrell, David Edwin Jr, White Sects and Black Men in the Recent South (Nashville, Tennessee: Vanderbilt University Press, 1971), p. viii.

13. Killian, Lewis M., The Impossible Revolution (New York: Random House, 1968), p. 18.Means, Richard L., in The Christian Century, 78 (08 16, 1961), pp. 979–80, began to discuss the significance of Anti-Protestant Prejudice, a theme which subsequently received increasing attention, and which may serve to cause more WASPS to affirm the self-designation they had once shunned—if the experience of other more obvious victims of group prejudice is to be repeated in this instance. See also Peter Schrag, “The Decline of the Wasp,” in Harper's Magazine, April 1970. While the WASPs “still hold power, they hold it with less assurance and with less legitimacy than at any time in history.… One can almost define their domains by locating the people and institutions that are chronically on the defense. … For the first time, any sort of settlement among competing interests is going to have to do more than pay lip service to minorities and to the pluralism of styles, beliefs, and cultures.… America is not on the verge of becoming two separate societies, one rich and white, the other poor and black. It is becoming, in all its dreams and anxieties, a nation of outsiders for whom no single style or ethic remains possible. …We will now have to devise ways of recognizing and assessing the alternatives. The mainstream is running thin.”

14. This definition and two subsequent definitions of “skeleton” are from the Oxford English Dictionary.

15. Anderson, Charles H., White Protestant Americans: From National Origins to Religious Group (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), p. viii. “Every American, as we shall use the term, is a member or potential member of an ethnic group—racial, religious, or national in origin.”

16. See Weber, Max, “Ethnic Groups,” translated by Kolegar, Ferdinand, in Parsons, Talcott et al. , Theories of Society, Vol. 1 (Glencoe, Ill., The Free Press, 1961), pp. 305ff. “Any aspect or cultural trait, no matter how superficial, can serve as a starting point for the familiar tendency to monopolistic closure.” “Almost any kind of similarity or contrast of physical type and of habits can induce the belief that a tribal affinity or disaffinity exists between groups that attract or repel each other.” “The belief in tribal kinship, regardless of whether it has any objective foundation, can have important consequences especially for the formation of a political community. Those human groups that entertain a subjective belief in their common descent—because of similarities of physical type or of customs or both, or because of memories of colonization and migration—in such a way that this belief is important for the continuation of non-kinship communal relationship, we shall call ‘ethnic’ groups, regardless of whether an objective blood relationship exists or not.” “Behind all ethnic diversities there is somehow naturally the notion of the ‘chosen people,’ which is nothing else but a counterpart of status differentiation translated into the plane of horizonal coexistence. The idea of a chosen people derives its popularity from the fact that it can be claimed to an equal degree by any and every member of the mutually despising groups.”

17. Charles H. Anderson, op. cit., pp. 43ff. locates Swedes with WASPs. “They have been granted WASP status on the basis of their successful adaptation to Anglo-Saxon America. In a sense even today Scandinavians are second-class WASPs; nevertheless, Scandinavians know that it is better to be a second-class WASP than a non-WASP in American society.”

18. Vecoli, Rudolph J.. “Ethnicity: A Neglected Dimension of American History,” in Bass, Herbert J., The State of American History (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1970), pp. 70ff. sets the stage for the present essay on religious historiography.

19. Quoted in Hayes, Carlton J. H., Nationalism: A Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1960), pp. 20f. Hayes provides one of the best analyses of the dimensions of national cultural religions in Chapter XII, pp. 154ff.

20. Beecher, Lyman, Address of the Charitable Society for the Education of Indigent Pious Young Men for the Ministry of the Gospel (Concord, Mass., 1820), p. 20.

21. Hodge, Charles, “Anniversary Address,” in The Home Missionary, Vol. II (New York, 1829), p. 18.

22. Dohen, Dorothy, Nationalism and American Catholicism (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1967) brings testimony of numerous nineteenth-century Roman Catholic leaders on this subject.

23. Schaff, Philip, America: A Sketch of Its Political, Social, and Religious Character (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), p. 51.

24. Quoted by Vecoli, op. cit., p. 75.

25. Dewey, John, A Common Faith (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1934). While the book uses the term “God,” it is non-theistic and advocates an imaginatively-based synthesis or unification of values in which the many take part.

26. Williams, Robin M. Jr, American Society: A Sociological Interpretation (New York: Knopf, 1951), p. 312.

27. Williams, J. Paul, What Americans Believe and How They Worship (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 477592. The first edition appeared in 1952.

28. See especially Sidney Mead, E.. “The Nation with the Soul of a Church,” Church History, Vol. 36, No. 3 (09 1967), pp. 262ff. Williams quotes Mead with favor, op. cit., p. 479, in reference to the religion of the democratic society versus the religion of the denominations.

29. Mead, Sidney E., “The Post-Protestant Concept and America's Two Religions,” in Ferm, Robert L., Issues in American Protestantism: A Documentary History from the Puritans to the Present (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1969), pp. 387f. Following Paul Tillich's distinction, it might be said that Mead affirmed “the catholic substance” in a common national religion because he trusted the presence of “the protestant principle” of prophetic protest. Those Mead criticized tended to stress “the protestant principle” even where they affirmed the common faith because they feared that its “catholic substance” could be idolized or imposed on people.

30. Miller, William Lee. Piety Along the Potomac: Notes on Politics and Morals in the Fifties (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964);Rose, Stephen C., Sermons Not Preached in the White House (New York: Baron, 1970).

31. Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America” reprinted by Cutler, op. cit., pp. 331ff., especially p. 346. The paper was first presented at a conference in May, 1966, before the liberal academic community had largely turned its back on the Johnson administration. After the escalation of the Vietnamese war, the rise of the New Left and the intensification of black power movements, this community was somewhat less congenial to the expressions of a national religion once again.

32. Vecoli, op. cit., pp. 74f. Crévecoeur first published his Letters from an American Farmer in 1782.

33. Quoted by Sherman, Stuart P. in Essays and Poems of Emerson (New York, 1921), p. xxxiv.

34. Bloch, Marc, The Historian's Craft (New York: Vintage, 1964), p. 8. Such a “thrill of learning singular things” was not characteristic of Leibnitz, who tried to transcend variety and pluralism. Over against this, William James posed A Pluralistic Universe (New York: Longmans, Green, 1909), which may be seen as the philosophical grandfather of the American schools which tolerate or encourage particularisms.

35. Murray, John Courtney, S. J., We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960), p. 23.

36. In America, 01 9, 1971, pp. 10f.

37. Secular and religious approaches to world integration are sketched by Wagar, W. Warren, The City of Man: Prophecies of a World Civilization in Twentieth-Century Thought (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963).

38. For a review of secular theologians' positions, see Marty, Martin E., “Secularization in the American Public Order,” in Giannella, Donald A., Religion and the Public Order, Number Five (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969), pp. 33f. and “Secular Theology as a Search for the Future,” in Schlitzer, Albert C.S.C., ed., The Spirit and Power of Christian Seoularity (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969), pp. 1ff.

39. Wilson, Bryan, Religion in Secular Society: A Sociological Comment (Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin, 1966), pp. 40ff. and 121.

40. Lipset, Seymour Martin, The First New Nation: The United States in Historicai and Comparative Perspective (New York: Basic Books, 1963), pp. 151f.

41. Jefferson to Fishback, J., 09. 27, 1809, in Bergh, Albert Ellery, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, 1905), XII, 314316; the second reference is quoted by Stokes, Anson Phelps, Church and State in the United States (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1950), Vol. I, 335.

42. Whitehead, Alfred North, Religion in the Making (New York: Macmillan, 1926), p. 58.

43. James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Longmans, Green, 1903), p. 31.

44. Luckmann, Thomas, The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society (New York: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 97f., 105f. While Jefferson, Whitehead and James often advocated private limitations of religion, Luckmann merely observes it and regards it as a burden for moderns seeking an identity.

45. Quoted in Cahn, Edgar S., ed., Our Brother's Keeper: The Indian in White America (New York and Cleveland: World, 1969), pp. 184, 175.

46. Lenski, Gerhard, The Religious Factor: A Sociological Study of Religion's Impact on Politics, Economics, and Family Life (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1961), p. 11.

47. Herberg, Will, Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1955), pp. 88102. Lenski and Herberg did not regard the common religion of America with favor. Among those who did were Kailen, Horace M., in Secularism Is the Will of God (New York: Twayne, 1954) and Howlett, Duncan J., though they treated secularism or humanism as The Fourth American Faith (New York: Harper and Row, 1964) which still had to contend for place with Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism. Mueller, Samuel A., “The New Triple Melting Pot: Herberg Revisited,” in Review of Religious Research, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Fall 1971), suggests that a new set of categories should be “white Christian, white non-Christian, and black.” He bases this on a sociological study of lines between these and Herberg's three groups in the matters of “marriage, friendship, residence, occupations, and politics.”

48. Baltzell, E. Digby, The Protestant Establishment (New York: Random House, 1964), p. 53.

49. Mann, Arthur, “Charles Fleischer's Religion of Democracy,” in Commentary, 06 1954, p. 557.

50. Cogley, John, ed., Religion in America: Original Essays on Religion in a Free Society (New York: Meridian, 1958), p. 9.

51. Meyendorff, John, The Orthodox Church: Its Past and Its Role in the World Today (New York: Pantheon, 1960), p. 107.

52. Mead's essay is reprinted in Mend, Sidney E., The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America (New York: Harper and Row), 103ff. Karl Hertz writes on denominationalism in “Some Suggestions for a Sociology of American Protestantism” in Neve, Herbert T. and Johnson, Benjamin A., The Maturing of American Lutheranism (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg, 1968), pp. 36, 42.

53. Bryan Wilson, op. cit., pp. 47, 51.

54. Mead, Sidney E., The Lively Experiment, pp. 132 f.

55. Glock, Charles Y. and Stark, Rodney, Religion and Society in Tension (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965), pp. 86f.

56. Hadden, Jeffrey K., The Gathering Storm in the Churches: The Widening Gap Between Clergy and Laymen (Garden City, New York, 1969), especially Chapter IV, “Clergy and Laity View the Civil Rights Issue.”

57. Reimers, David, White Protestantism and the Negro (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 29.

58. Quoted in Landis, Benson Y., Protestant Experience with United States Immigration,1910–1960 (New York: Church World Service, 1961), pp. 12f.

59. Gordon, op. cit., p. 38.

60. Harding, Vincent, “Black Power and the American Christ,” in Barbour, Floyd B., The Black Power Revolt: A Collection of Essays (New York: Collier, 1968), p. 97.

61. Denis W. Brogan, “Commentary,” in Cutler, op. cit., p. 357.

62. Baird, Robert, Religion in the United States of America (Glasgow, 1843); see Chapter VI, p. 35ff.

63. Shea, John Gilmary, The History of the Catholic Church in the United States (New York, 18861892), four volumes.

64. Dorchester, Daniel, Christianity in the United States (New York: Hunt and Eaton, 1890), p. 765.

65. Bacon, Leonard Woolsey, A History of American Christianity (New York: Scribners, 1898), p. 292.

66. Strong, Josiah, The New Era; or The Coming Kingdom (New York, 1893), pp. 5455; Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis (New York, 1885), pp. 178, 174175.

67. Mode, Peter, The Frontier Spirit in American Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1923), pp. 6, 7, 14. Mode-Sweet-Mead represent a University of Chicago succession which is most familiar to me. See also Sweet, William Warren, The Story of Religion in America (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1930); another student in this tradition, along with Robert T. Handy (see note 68), is Hudson, Winthrop J., whose Religion in America (New York: Scribner's, 1965) pioneered at least in its sense of proportion, since it devoted much attention to black Protestantism, Judaism and other non-WASP religious groups.

68. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. For another attempt to isolate WASP history and to treat WASPs as an ethnic group, see Marty, Martin E., Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America (New York: Dial, 1970).

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