Monday, August 23, 2010

A Culture of Pluralism in Southern California

Pluralism is not just an abstract idea in Southern California, but has become the defining characteristic of the culture itself. Why Southern California? Why is it that this region out of all of the many possible locations in the entire country had already become by the mid-19th century such a powerful epicenter (or “theological equator”) for religious pluralism? Professor Wade Clark Roof’s (of UC Santa Barbara) main thesis in his article “Pluralism as a Culture” is that the reasons are three-fold, but interrelated:

1) The region’s history is one of constant encounters with global religious and cultural alternatives to Anglo-Protestant-White America. In addition to wide religious diversity, this includes a large population of non-religious groups, which are now in the majority at +40%. Religious communities were always essentially minorities because there was so much diversity from the start, and thus there has never really been a painful transition to secular society, or religious disestablishment. Transplanted religions always undergo a change in consciousness, status, and influence, and this fact has helped the growth of real pluralism in Southern California.
2) The region has never had a dominant/dominating religious establishment, such as the Baptists and Methodists in the south, or Lutherans and Catholics in the upper mid-west. While Roman Catholics have had a strong presence (still claming a third of the population), and make up a third of the population still, their influence has not matched their numbers. Religious traditions in Southern California have always been voluntary associations. Additionally, California has always been a more truly democratic society than the vast majority of the country. The secular principles of democracy, divorced from any “core spirituality or religion”, are important to maintain, as it is only through democracy that religious groups can maintain their own differing beliefs in such a diverse society. Religious pluralism is an obvious expression of American democracy. Rather than calling this simply individualism or secular indifference, California pluralism is a vibrant expression of American optimism.
3) The people in the region have always maintained a fluid sense of identity. California’s statehood began after modernity had already begun, so urbanization was a reality from the beginning. This brought diverse groups of people together into shared spaces, and forced them to learn to work together in a rapidly modernizing world. Multiple citizenships are quite common today in Southern California, as are mixed racial and ethnic marriages. As many waves of immigrants came into California during modernity, there was never really time for the population to develop prejudice against them before yet another group of immigrants showed up. Southern California has always been fast-paced, and thus modernity and pluralism reinforced each other, thus bringing about a deep pluralism quicker than any other area of the country. Even the Mediterranean climate and natural beauty of Southern California has had the effect of encouraging harmony and attunement in religious attitudes, and encouraged optimistic views of human beings in general (as opposed to Puritan Calvinism). New metaphysical, new age religions were born, no doubt influenced by the regions environment. Another element that has developed fluid identities is the lack of pressure for total assimilation. Assimilation is now viewed as a two-way process where both immigrants and the existing population and culture are transformed by each other. Immigrant religious congregations are important locations for the development of multicultural identities. Church growth theorists now believe that multiethnic communities are the way to grow communities of faith – a change in perspective from homogenous views on church growth only a few decades ago. With increased ethnic diversity in Southern California, religious labels become the primary markers for individual and group identity. This has heightened the sense of religious differences in the region, and thus effective religious leaders who appreciate diversity and tolerance are essential to be religious interpreters for the media and public at large. They must be able to accurately interpret theological ideas and teachings in order to promote diversity through understanding. Special purpose groups can do similar things, such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council in LA. But in a global world, what happens overseas is often just as important for religious interpreters to deal with as what happens locally.

Other important themes that are touched on include the difference between multiculturalism and pluralism. While multiculturalism would encourage public religious freedom, it also asks religious adherents to keep their religious practices confined to their own private spaces, in a rather separatist manner. In contrast, pluralism encourages religious adherents to hold an even greater view of religious freedom through validating openness and acceptance of other faiths as viable alternatives to their own. Religious pluralism encourages mutual religious respect in open public spaces, thereby bringing religious expression to occur side-by-side, rather than only in each religious tradition’s private spaces. The difference is crucial, for while multiculturalism holds to an abstract idea of religious tolerance and respect, there is no real opportunity to interact and therefore take good abstract ideas and put them into practice. Pluralism, on the other hand, encourages a practical engagement with other religious traditions. In a rapidly globalizing world, this is an essential expression of our 21st century reality. We can no longer merely say that we believe in democratic and egalitarian ideals when we have Muslims, Buddhists, and Atheists all joining the local neighborhoods and public schools – we must act as if we truly believe in those ideals by encouraging an open and accepting pluralism. This is called the “performance of pluralism”, and it takes us beyond our particular religious beliefs to embracing an additional set of values. We must go beyond mere tolerance and towards legitimizing the alternative religious traditions.

Because there is important common ground amongst the world’s major religions on issues of morality and ethics, a truly religiously pluralistic society is possible without dissolving all faiths into one global religion. A culture of pluralism tends to pull religious communities toward the prevailing ideals of acceptance and openness. This beautiful optimism and inherent diversity of Southern California encourages respect and openness to other faiths, tolerance of differing views, and cooperation in every area possible. Fundamentalism and sectarianism cannot be tolerated though, for the stability of society depends on a real pluralism that publicly performs what it claims to hold true. Religious communities have an important job to perform that is nothing less than sustaining a culture of diversity: by teaching respect for “the Other”, condemning radical sectarian groups in their own traditions, and intelligently interpreting their faith for the uninitiated public. Religious groups must embrace the paradox of pluralism: sensitivity to group-particularities, but a strong commitment to a social unity-in-diversity.

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