The Kingdom Of Whatever

Andrew Sullivan —  Sep 16 2012 @ 1:17pm

Paula Findlen reviews Brad Gregory's The Unintended ReformationThe book traces the origins of what Gregory calls the "Kingdom of Whatever" – "a society indelibly shaped by religious pluralism and scientific naturalism" – to the fervor of the Protestant Reformation:

In imitation of Luther, William Tyndale boldly translated the New Testament into English in 1525; James I required no fewer than forty-seven experts arguing over every line to create the King James Bible in 1611. Behind these modern Bibles lay a world of uncertainty about biblical texts in ancient languages. In 1707, the Anglican theologian John Mill identified more than 30,000 variations in different versions of the New Testament—in Greek and Latin. No wonder Jefferson read a library of Bibles with scissors in hand! Yet could such rational exercises really shore up belief and dispel doubt? In the absence of a strongly Catholic tradition, with its accumulation of centuries of learned doctrine, authority and institutions offering the path to good answers to life’s questions, faith for many Protestants became increasingly grounded in a personal experience of God.

Thus, Gregory argues, the immediate unintended consequence of the Reformation was a religious smorgasbord, a seemingly endless feast of faiths, leading to the creation of modern nations that eventually accommodated every possible permutation of belief that didn’t violate their civil laws. As J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur observed in his Letters From an American Farmer (1782), his adopted homeland was “a strange religious medley,” and he concluded that all this co-habitation and intermarriage would breed “religious indifference.” Crèvecoeur was correct in thinking that Americans would grow accustomed to living with people of other faiths, and that familiarity would dull the nature of these distinctions for many, but he was wrong to conclude that tolerance would necessarily lead to complacency or a complete melding of beliefs. Many Americans are as likely to change religion as to buy a new car, let alone move to a new house, but the vast majority still believe. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 92 percent of Americans—6 percent less than in a 1967 poll—reported a belief in God.