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Perspectives on the Pluralistic Society

Unitarian Universalist Christian Table of Contents

The James Luther Adams Papers

The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 48, nos. 3-4, Fall/Winter 1993

Part 5: Perspectives on the Pluralistic Society

In the annals of heresy, the certified heretics are generally presented as having been heretical in their theological doctrines, in their deviation from official dogma. In actuality, however, the heretics have been equally significant by reason of their social-institutional views, and specifically by reason of their promotion of voluntary associations. A study of the word heresy in the sixteenth century reveals that its fundamental meaning at that time is not to be discerned in the specific theological doctrines they promoted but rather in the root meaning of the word in Greek — free choice. The heretics were heretical because they adopted the voluntary principle.

Martin Luther is credited with having said that you must do your own believing and your own dying, but Luther did not believe that the intention of doing one’s own believing could in the slightest degree justify the forming of a religious association organization independent of the Establishment. For Luther the religious association within which one was to do personal believing was the association sponsored by the Elector. Religion turned out to be a territorial matter. To be even more specific, historian Jakob Burckhardt asserted that the religion that prevailed in any territory in the sixteenth century was the one that possessed the strongest battalions.

The presupposition of the Corpus Christianum was that uniformity of faith is a moral-spiritual prerequisite for maintaining the fabric and integrity of the society at large. Heresy in the sense of the voluntary principle was, therefore, held to be subversive of the stability of society. In that historical context, therefore, heretical groups or sects of the late Middle Ages and of the Reformation period were voluntary organizations. Accordingly Max Weber has asserted that the sect represents the prototype of the modern voluntary organization. To be sure, some of the sects denied authenticity to any other sect or church, but other groups, especially the left-wing mystical groups, rejected this exclusiveness. On the Continent in the sixteenth century, sects were almost entirely liquidated.

Ernst Troeltsch has classified these sects as withdrawing and aggressive, the withdrawing sects removing themselves into isolation from the sinful world, and the aggressive sects attempting to bring about social change within the society. One must wait until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England and North America to encounter a relatively successful assertion of the voluntary principle. Thus we can say that the heretical sects of the Middle Ages and English and American Puritan Nonconformity, in principle, constitute the origin of modern pluralistic society.

We should note here some characteristic features of the left-wing Puritans: voluntary membership in the covenanted or “gathered” community; separation of church and state; the principle of the progressive interpretation of truth (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit); tolerance and the protection of minorities within the covenanted community or in the society at large; the rights of the laity (the principle of the priesthood of all believers or the principle of the consent of the governed), in short, governance by discussion. The collection plate in the service of worship in a gathered congregation may be taken as a symbol of the voluntary congregational independence of the state and of the belief that unbelievers should not be required to lend support. These ideas came into history not without dust and heat. According to a view held widely today among historians, the modern democratic state was born out of an analogy between the doctrine of the voluntary church in the 17th-century conventicles. In important respects John Locke gave secular expression to the ideas of the left-wing Puritans. He defined the church as a voluntary organization.

Ideas such as these emerged not only from religious groups. In the seventeenth century, demands for voluntarism were breaking out all over, in attack upon the political and the economic as well as upon the ecclesiastical Establishment. From similar principles there emerged also a new ethos for secular voluntary associations. It is extremely difficult to sort out the ingredient ideas and strategies. It would be highly instructive if we were to identify the personnel, for we would find that the people who were promoting the voluntary principle in congregational circles were also promoting this principle in political and economic groups. The Levellers may be taken as an example here and the left-wing Whigs of the eighteenth century. Within a fairly short time we see emerging political parties and also the principle of loyal opposition. By the end of the first quarter of the eighteenth century, the Quakers had worked out the principle features and strategies of the modern pressure group in face of the state and of the economic order. In general, we observe here a dispersion of power and responsibility in groups that bring about innovation or resistance to it.

Here we must give critical attention to Max Weber’s conception of the Protestant ethic. Weber, like R. H. Tawney later, has shown that in practice the Protestant ethic became one of the supports for the spirit of capitalism. This kind of Protestant piety issued in an individualism that effectively segregated piety from broad social responsibility, especially in the sphere of economics. However as a consequence of centering attention upon economic behavior, Weber overlooked an extremely important feature of the new pluralism emanating from left-wing Puritanism. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Protestant groups and secular fellow-travelers spawned or participated in voluntary associations that offered sharp criticism of what Weber calls “the Protestant ethic,” and they initiated a wide variety of social reforms. Voluntary associations criticized the state and the church and economic developments. Weber’s conception of the Protestant ethic is egregiously lopsided. In his defense, one must say that he repeatedly asserted that in his study, he was concentrating attention upon economic, and not political, behavior. Nevertheless, the average student and scholar has succumbed to misleading clichés about a Protestant ethic devoted to thrift and “the gospel of wealth.”

By means of our seven-league-boot tour of modern Western society, we have observed major ingredients of a pluralistic society. Pluralism may be defined in two ways: first, descriptively; and second, normatively. The term is used to describe a social system in which authority is distributed among a number of autonomous, yet interrelated and interdependent, groups, some of them voluntary and others nonvoluntary. As a normative concept, pluralism holds that a system of autonomous groups is morally desirable and is to be preferred to the concentration of authority in any one set of institutions. These groups are classified as nonvoluntary and voluntary, the state and the family being in important respects nonvoluntary. The state, then, is one association among many associations; it is created by the community and given delegated powers by it. In terms of federalist theory, the state as a nonvoluntary association is itself pluralist in the correlation and tension between federal, state, and municipal configurations, and also in the separation of powers between the executive, legislative, judicial, and administrative branches.

Voluntary associations also are often classified as instrumental and expressive, the former aiming in the main to effect public opinion and policy. These associations stand between the state and the family, between the state and the economic order, between the state and the individual; and in a special way, they are intermediary associations. Therefore, the pluralistic society involves an ecology of associations which presupposes a separation of powers not only within the several branches of public government but also between public and private governments. All of this in both theory and practice may be said to have issued from the initial heresy of men and women’s decision to extend their choices in the face of a centralized Establishment. Much of this is summarized or presupposed in James Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 10.

If we left our account as it stands, we would have an attractive portrait of the pluralistic society. John Bunyan in the seventeenth century composed a charming parable of pluralist ecology. “Christians,” he said, “are like the several flowers in the garden that have upon each of them the dew of heaven which, being shaken with the wind, they let fall their dew at each other’s roots, whereby they are jointly nourished of each other.”

This view of the projected human situation presupposed the providential working of an automatic harmony. The early Protestants assumed that by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit the untethered interpretation of Scripture would issue in divine truth. The Independents of the seventeenth century assumed that an automatic providential harmony would ensue if the Holy Spirit were not prevented from blowing where it listeth. Adam Smith, for his part, apparently believed that we could rely upon a providential Invisible Hand to bring about ecological harmony in a world of free trade and free enterprise.

Several things got in the way of this pattern of equilibrated harmony, bringing it into imbalance. One of these things has been the development of the industrial, commercial corporation, an association that is generally not considered to be a voluntary association because its purpose is the direct economic emolument of the participant. The modern corporation touches every aspect of our lives, and in many ways it is an institutionalized expression of our way of life since we live in a corporate society. Adam Smith could have agreed with this statement, but he did not envisage the appearance of giant corporations or the so-called corporate community.

Various chronologies or morphologies of economic corporate growth have been contrived to graph the emergence of the corporate community, tracing the corporation from the medieval borough or guild to the liberal stage when, through government favor and protection, it became a self-determinative, unaccountable association supported at crucial points by subsidy, to the contemporary corporation issuing from the managerial revolution. This acquisition of crescent perpetuity confirms Chief Justice Marshall’s comparison of the corporation to an “immortal being.” Like Adam Smith, however, John Marshall did not envisage the arrival of the giant corporation or the transnational corporation. However, Henry Demarest Lloyd in the 1890s asserted that the abbreviation U.S.A. should be read to mean the United Syndicalists of America. The World Council of Churches recognizes the new situation for Christian ethics in the fact that the corporate community is more powerful than the state. Indeed, the American Congress has been described as the clearinghouse of the special interest pressure groups.

Corporation advertising is used to effect postponement of legislation on environmental protection or on application of safety devices or anti-pollution devices on automobiles. Moreover, advertising for the sale of goods is practically coercive at the consumer end of television and radio. The Federal Communications Commission has never seriously considered adopting the requirement that advertising on TV and radio be confined to the first or last ten minutes of the hour, as is the practice in certain European countries. Finally, moreover, both advertising and lobbying are deductible as “ordinary and necessary business expenses.”

Ralph Nader has made us aware of the fact that a basic flaw in the present system of corporation power is the dominance of producer over consumer interests. Competition among producers no longer provides sufficient restraints to protect consumers, not to mention the influence of producers on administrative agencies in the government. In short, the principle of the consent of the governed among consumers is largely ineffective in face of corporation power. Indeed, the consent of the governed in the political as well as in the economic sphere is partly an engineered consent. So much has corporate power corrupted the pluralist ecology that certain political scientists have developed an elitist theory of democracy to describe the new situation. Much of this literature is briefly and ably analyzed in Anne Freedman and Constance Smith’s book on Voluntary Associations.

In any event, I must recognize that the charges I have made regarding corporate power are subject to dispute and to a variety of interpretations. Much can be said for a theory of countervailing powers; also for the notion that enormous corporate power is indispensable in a technological society; and also for the notion that many of the abuses attach to bureaucratization, whether in a capitalist society or a welfare state or in a socialist economy.

No dispute is supportable, however, if we say that our pluralistic society in the twentieth century has not substantially changed the proportion of the population which lives in poverty without proper education or health care. Moreover, our pluralist society has retained large residues of racism; slums and ghettoes are a part of the orders of the day. In face of this situation, we would indulge only in hollow homiletic rhetoric if we should say that as in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we need a new Reformation.

So far as policy oriented voluntary associations are concerned, we must recognize that they are largely a middle class phenomenon. Even then, they represent a small minority movement. Mass political apathy prevails. Devotion to one’s own family takes precedence over larger public responsibilities. The situation is analogous to that obtaining in the corporations: the growth of the corporation takes precedence over concern for the public weal.

What shall we say of the churches as voluntary organizations? Apart from the fact that they largely promote privatization of piety, the very principle of voluntarism has issued in fragmentation. James Madison once said that it would be a great danger to democracy if the nation were to have only one church; it would dominate the halls of government. The spirit of congregational polity, regardless of the actual polity, serves to keep people apart, all the more by reason of the ethnic and class character of the churches. Indeed, denominationalism in its turn compounds the isolation of each from the other. Denominationalism in American life has served, in some measure, to keep the prophetic forces from working with each other. The time is ripe for prophetic forces to enter into new coalition not only across denominational boundaries but also in collaboration with secular, nonchurch forces. Even within the churches we may perhaps see some promise in cooperation between liberal Protestants and the left-wing of the evangelicals. Certain forms and degrees of coalition have been promoted by the interdenominational council, but we should consider the possibility and also the symbolic attraction of assisting to bring about cooperation, for example, between the elderly and the youth. It is precisely in segments of society where alienation is acutely felt that urgent demand for emancipation is to be found. Moreover, particularly in smaller cities, policy oriented secular organizations are feeble, if not nonexistent. Would it not be possible for prophetically minded people in the churches to collaborate with and to enhance the strength of these secular organizations? Perhaps concentration of effort on particular policies, instead of on a wide range of issues, is the appropriate strategy, especially with respect to particular policies pertinent for the local community. The point is that we have at present something less than a pluralist society, and from the past we surely have learned that automatic harmony is not available. The God of all history expects all of us who belong to the hidden covenant of justice and peace to find new ways of expressing and eliciting responsibility not only for individual behavior but also for the character of our institutions. Strong beliefs win strong people and make them stronger. It was strong beliefs that initially called forth the heretics who asserted: We venture to choose.


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