Diversity and the Pluralist Ideal

Hutchison, William R. “Diversity and the Pluralist Ideal.” In Perspectives on American Religion and Culture. Peter W. Williams, ed. Pp. 34-47. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1999.

In “Diversity and the Pluralist Ideal,” William Hutchison traces the meaning of religious diversity and pluralism in America from “toleration” in the 19th century through “inclusion” by the mid 20th century to “equal participation” today. Pluralism is “the celebration or at least genuine acceptance of diversity.” The writer finds that, after two centuries of Protestant homogeneity in America, the 19th century witnessed a period of “great diversification” in which the population came closer to the 60 percent Protestant society of today. Acceptance during this time of radical change, maintains the author, was based on outsiders’ willingness to “behave themselves” according to general cultural and religious (that is, Protestant) standards. Hutchison shows, though, how the unitive force of America’s “Protestant Establishment” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries ultimately planted the seeds for greater religious inclusion and, later, for equal participation in setting America’s religious and social agendas. Today’s decline in Protestant hegemony—traceable to the early 19th century though largely visible only in last few decades—creates a fierce struggle between those concerned that pluralism and “multiculturalism” will fragment society and nullify convictions and those who feel pluralism represents respect for others without necessarily discouraging one from holding firm beliefs.