Tocqueville Program event discusses religious pluralism and Notre Dame


The 2014-2015 Professors for Lunch series debuted this past Friday, September 19 with “Beyond Liberalism and Culture Wars: A More Inclusive Pluralism,” a conversation about religious pluralism and the modern American university.

The panel discussion featured George Marsden, Professor of History Emeritus at Notre Dame and the author of “The Twilight of the American Enlightenment,” which examines the changing role of religion in American society since the 1950s.

Mark Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History, and John O’Callaghan, Associate Professor of Philosophy, offered responses to Marsden, and Patrick Deneen, Associate Professor of Political Science and Acting Director of the Constitutional Studies minor, moderated the conversation.

Marsden opened his remarks with a news story about the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical student group with chapters on campuses nationwide.  Both Vanderbilt University and the University of California recently refused to allow funding for the group because it requires student leaders of the club to have certain faith commitments, which could constitute discrimination against agnostic or LGBTQ students.

Marsden cited this rejection of InterVarsity, along with other recent events, including Notre Dame’s fight against the HHS mandate, as evidence that society’s attitude toward religious exercise has changed significantly since the 1950s.  Moreover, he claimed, popular intellectual trends at that time contributed to this change.

The understanding of pluralism at that time, according to Marsden, emphasized personal autonomy and a “nonconformist” attitude.  Before the 1950s, Protestantism had held primacy in American life.  After the 1950s, academics argued that a variety of viewpoints were essential to a healthy culture.  They especially advocated a focus on “the consensus of scientifically-based rationality.”

As a result, the 1960s and 1970s saw “a rapid diminishment of the role of Protestantism in public life and culture.”  Most Protestant-affiliated universities accepted “secularization,” limiting an expression of distinct identity in faculty hiring or otherwise, in the hope of retaining some sway in a society that increasingly valued diversity.

While secularization resulted in “no strong representation of religion in American public life,” Marsden continued, this trend did prompt the reaction of the Religious Right in the late 1970s.   This social movement advocated simplistic principles about returning to the Christian origins of America and sparked the “culture wars” of the 1980s.

Both liberal Protestantism and the Religious Right failed to achieve their goals, Marsden concluded, because “neither side had built a theory of how to deal with religious difference.”  The Protestant consensus largely excluded Catholics both before and after the secularization of the 1970s.

How, then, should Notre Dame respond?  As Marsden answered, “Religious pluralism must become a principle.”  He cited Abraham Kuyper, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands in the early 1900s, as an important theorist of such a “principled pluralism.”  The state should cultivate and honor religious difference, allowing religious subcommunities to maintain their own institutions, such as universities, without fear of “ideologically-based interference.”

As Marsden noted, this is consistent with the Catholic ideal of subsidiarity.  He concluded states must recognize that religious diversity improves American society just as other kinds of diversity do.

Noll responded that Marsden was correct both in his historical analysis of the problem and his prescription for its solution.  He identified three barriers that would be problematic to encouraging such a pluralistic consensus.

Electoral exclusion, which is related to the American two-party system, forces citizens to think about all issues in black-and-white terms.  Pluralism can only be achieved through proportional representation.  Educational exclusion, another barrier, is related to the hegemonic framework of American public schools that, according to Noll, constitutes “the most visible legacy of Protestant primacy.”

Lastly, subsidiarity has largely been subverted by federal government action.  As Noll sees it, the Civil Rights movement, which involved a massive expansion of federal power, has become the “model for public ethics.”  Modern courts now respond “instinctually” to complaints of discrimination with more centralization of federal power, disregarding the true complexity of these complaints.

O’Callaghan, as the only Catholic on the panel, expanded on the other speakers’ comments to recommend the specific response of a Catholic university to the problem of secularization.  He noted the consensus culture, supported by both liberal Protestants and secularists, features two principles—individual autonomy and progressive scientific ideals—both of which the Catholic Church rejects.

He advocated a universal return to a pre-modern respect for tradition, concluding that all people, even scientists, rely on authorities.  Marsden responded that while he is a Protestant, he agreed with O’Callaghan’s analysis.

Brendan Bell, a senior political science major and a member of the Tocqueville Fellows program, explained to the Rover that this event “featured Protestants drawn to the mission of the university,” which is crucial even for a university with a Catholic identity.  “Notre Dame is a great place for religious dialogue in general,” he concluded.

Deneen told the Rover that the Professors for Lunch events “provide a valuable opportunity for students to interact with faculty outside the classroom” in a setting devoted to intellectual inquiry rather than grades.  He also noted that “professors are rarely invited to present on their own campus,” so the Professors for Lunch series allows them a unique opportunity to interact with students and comment on salient issues.


Katelyn Doering is a senior studying political science. She’s happy to be back on campus for her senior year and especially loves being able to visit the Grotto again. Contact her at