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Turning Fifty 

Not me.  That happened fifteen years ago.  No, this year marks the anniversary of two significant events that occurred in October, 1965 which have changed the way many Americans think about religion.  One took place in Rome where the closing sessions of the Second Vatican Council issued the landmark document, Nostre Aetate, the “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.”  The second took place in New York where President Johnson signed Immigration and Nationality Act at Ellis Island  These seemingly disparate acts have radically reshaped the face of religion in the United States.

In the mid-1960s most Americans were still pondering the significance of the election of a Roman Catholic as president a few years earlier.  The Protestant Mainline continued its ascendance in the American mind, though the first inklings of post-Christendom were beginning to be evident to any who really paid attention to such things.  Fundamentalists and Evangelicals remained in their self-imposed ghetto, and the enormous Roman Catholic institutional structure of schools, hospitals, parishes, seminaries, convents, etc., while about to be shaken, seemed to be thriving.  Jews had moved into the social and cultural mainstream and at least some Christian scholars were beginning to examine the implications of the Holocaust for their own theological reflection, prompted by books like Richard Rubenstein’s After Auschwitz published in 1966.  Muslims numbered less than 200,000 in the total US population; Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs were still exotic to most Americans, as intriguing and as unknown as they had been at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago.

By 1965 many Americans had accommodated to the fact that Jews were no longer confined to geographic, economic, commercial, academic, and religious ghettos.  Some Protestant parishes and Jewish congregations had forged relationships of dialogue and encounter.  But world-wide Sunni Islam remained a mostly “foreign” reality; only the Black manifestations of Islam in the U.S. really registered for most white Americans, and usually not in comfortable ways.  In the United Church of Christ relationships with Jews was the responsibility of the “Homeland” board; relationships with Muslims was the responsibility of the “World” board.  Will Herberg’s classic, Protestant – Catholic – Jew, published in the mid-1950s, suggested a tripartite accommodation of three distinct and separate religious Americas.  But for most, America was one nation “under God,” and a decidedly Christian God  in Protestant hue at that.

And then things changed, or at least began to change.  The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act radically altered the quotas that determined who could come to the U.S., opening the door to vast numbers of Asians, Africans, and Middle Easterners from heavily or predominantly Muslim countries as well as countries with significant Hindu populations.  As the ethnic and cultural fabric of America became more diverse, so did the religious landscape.

Meanwhile, the bishops at the Council encouraged a new understanding of non-Christian religions in the adoption of Nostre Aetate.  “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions.  It has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from its own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women.”  It urged Catholics to “enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions,” and “while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, together with their social life and culture.”

This sounds rather tame today.  But it was ground-breaking at the time in the permission it gave Catholics and, by extension, other Christians to see religious diversity as an enriching element of our national life rather than as threat or as intrusion into the competitive spiritual marketplace.  In the ensuing years interreligious scholarship blossomed, clergy formation began to include interreligious study and encounter, interfaith organizations in local communities were established, mosques and temples began to be added to the nation’s skyline, not only in the urban centers, but in many growing suburbs as well. 

Not everyone, of course, was pleased!  Many Americans continue to harbor suspicion, even contempt.  Many continue to live as if Protestants still rule the roost.  Caricature, stereotype, and worse are not uncommon.  Hate crimes directed at religious minorities are not infrequent.  Zoning still continues to be used by hostile neighbors who want to keep “them” and their domes and towers out.  The political rhetoric of presidential campaigns can grow ugly.  But one gets the sense that this is more the dying – though still dangerous – gasp of Americans who can’t imagine and accept a very different world, people who have now become the extremists rather than mainstream.

The big observation in all of this is the astonishing rapidity of change that has taken place over these fifty years.  It is no less remarkable than the changes wrought by technology over the last half-century.  That there is resistance and misunderstanding should not surprise us.  What other generation anywhere has been asked to engage in such a radical religious and cultural shift in less than one lifetime?  While the road ahead is long and will certainly be challenging, the distance traveled in such a short time has been nothing less than astounding.

These are fiftieth birthdays worth noting and reflecting upon, indeed, celebrating.  Particularly if we add one candle to grow on!

                   John H. Thomas

                   November 5, 2015      

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