This is a true American story - an intriguing tale in several parts that offers historical drama, geographical sweep, engaging characters caught in the throes of unsettling change, and an invitation to help shape the story's conclusion.
Yet it's not a tale with which many Americans are familiar. The majority probably know and are proud of the fact that the country was built early on by immigrants who were seeking religious freedom. Today, we eagerly press countries around the globe to accept religious liberty as a universal value.
But at home, we are still very much sorting out the full implications of this freedom, which has contributed to a proliferation of faiths and sects and, over the past 35 years, an amazing redrawing of the religious landscape.
"A New Religious America: How a 'Christian Country' Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation" will surprise and perhaps even startle many who have failed to notice in their midst the quiet sprouting of Hindu temples, Islamic mosques, Sikh gurdwaras, and Buddhist meditation centers. These are the fruits of a wave of immigration - now about a million people a year - that followed the revision of US laws in the 1960s.
With this tour de force, Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion at Harvard University, serves as a sympathetic and knowledgeable guide who not only illumines the hidden corners of our own faith history, but nudges us to venture into these unfamiliar worlds to meet our new neighbors.
Raised in a Methodist home in Montana, Eck first experienced the shock of religious difference in India, amid a confounding multiplicity of Hindu deities. She understands how human nature reacts to "difference" and what it takes to come to terms with and embrace it. This she recognizes as a task now facing us all.
Despite America's founding principles, ambivalence and even open antipathy have often greeted those newcomers whose beliefs differ from the prevailing Protestant culture. Eck takes us through our checkered history and demonstrates why pluralism is not a "dirty word," whatever some, bewildered by the growing diversity, may feel.
While racial divisions have persisted as our preeminent social problem, she believes that the new American dilemma for the 21st century is whether we will pursue a genuine religious pluralism, essential to ensuring a peaceful future. Pluralism is not just tolerance, Eck says, but active engagement with the intent to understand one another.
This book is a remarkable first step in that direction, encouraging us to live up to our ideals and offering examples of how we might do so. A highly readable saga, it also demands something of the reader: engaging with the details of the past and the legal and social challenges of the present.
While "Americans have a high level of religious identification, they have a low level of religious literacy," she says. She proves her point with telling examples of ignorance, persistent stereotyping, and hate crimes that have complicated or seriously harmed the lives of immigrants - such as the "Dot Busters" gang formed to attack Hindus in New Jersey and the vandalism and burnings of mosques and temples in several US cities and small towns.
But there are also the heartening success stories, including the years-long struggle of Buddhists to be accepted in a residential neighborhood in Garden Grove, Calif., and the United Methodist Church and Islamic Center that together planned and built on adjoining lots in Fremont, Calif.
Most fascinating are Eck's in-depth explorations of the development of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam in the US (including such surprises as the deep appreciation Emerson and Thoreau had for the Hindu scriptures), and particularly the vivid visits to places of worship and the introductions to first- and second-generation Americans and their community struggles to find a place and fulfill their American dreams.
From the piles of Reeboks and Nikes stacked outside the doors of mosques, to the mixing of the Ganges and Mississippi River waters to consecrate a new Hindu temple, these symbols of the melding of cultures movingly portray a story that has gone on now for four centuries.
Eck also gives insight into the faiths themselves, such as an explanation of the many Hindu deities as depicting various aspects of the One Reality and the many paths through which to reach it. She shows that other faiths hold values in common with Judeo-Christian values, and have contributions to make toward creating a just society.
Americans have always felt they had a special calling, serving as a beacon for religious liberty in the world. Eck agrees that the US experiment has worldwide relevance. As a result of the ongoing massive movements of millions, she writes, "the dynamic global image of our times is not the so-called clash of civilizations but the marbling of civilizations and peoples." Can we really learn how to live together?
While our public debates may still include hymns sung by some to America as "a Christian nation," she suggests that the metaphor most appropriate for the interfaith exchange we need to have in our neighborhoods is jazz - recreating the American story afresh by listening carefully to each other's offerings and responding with our own inspired contributions.
The coins in our pockets and purses say "e pluribus unum" - "from many, one." At a time of increasing and perhaps unsettling awareness of our diversity, this book points toward a healthy way of redefining that one, "We the people...."
Jane Lampman writes about religion and ethics for the Monitor.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor