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Religious pluralism: civil society's hope in a diverse country.

What is the American dream? Is it a source for literary classics such as Death of a Salesman? A lyrical paradox presented in Miss Saigon? Or is it the waning expectation of home ownership in a tumultuous market? At its best, the American dream is a vision projected by the founders of the United States of America that must be advanced by every individual standing on its shores. Imperfect in its implementation, the great experiment of America is a country bound together not by a common ethnicity or culture, but by a common ideal. With many celebrated freedoms, including our founders' explicit commitment to freedom of religion, we are a democratic republic ruled by the people for the people. The United States is the first nation of its kind, and if we get the experiment right we can be a model to future generations and to global hotspots encountering often uninvited experiments of their own.

In 1630, John Winthrop preached in a sermon on the "Model of Christian Charity" that America was to be a city on a hill. Winthrop's hillside prominently displayed a modest Protestant church; that same hillside today hosts a Muslim mosque, Buddhist temple, Jewish synagogue, Sikh gurdwara, and Hindu temple, not to mention a megachurch, cathedral, and coffee shop for the Emerging Church. As the most religiously devout nation in the West, the United States is also the most religiously diverse country in the world. There are several million Buddhists in America, nearly a million Hindus, more Muslims than Episcopalians, and depending on whose count you believe perhaps as many Muslims as Jews.

One of the most serious implications of this diversity is the question of how America's Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and others, as they live, study, and work in increasingly close quarters, are going to interact with one another. Will their relations be characterized by ignorance, suspicion, hatred, and violence? Is the interaction going to dilute all of our religious identities, either into some universal spiritual mush or into an a-religious secularism? Or are we going to maintain our particular religious identities, attempt to understand one another, and work together for some common end? Does today's American dream operate out of a mindset of abundance, with a seat reserved for the stranger, or out of deficiency, forgetting that each of us was once a stranger in this land?

Religious Diversity: A Local and Global Perspective

Harvard scholar Diana Eck calls America the most religiously diverse society on earth. The Immigration Act of 1965 brought Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and followers of other Asian religions to America in unprecedented numbers. Christianity in America is taking on new forms, influenced by immigration and ideas from Asia, Africa, the Latin world, and the Middle East (A New Religious America; Eck, 2001). The nature of these interactions will have serious implications for the identity of religious communities, the strength of our civil societies, and the stability of national and international politics.

People from differing religious backgrounds are killing one another all over the world--from Northern Ireland to South Asia, from the Middle East to Central Africa. A disturbing number of the people fighting, killing, and dying in those conflicts are in their teens and early twenties. Communal conflicts across the world have shown the possibilities of religious diversity that tend toward conflict and religious pluralism that strengthens civil society. Political economist Ashutosh Varshney found that the critical factor in preventing violence between Hindus and Muslims in India has been the existence of civic associations involving both groups. He writes: "What accounts for the difference between communal peace and violence? ... The pre-existing local networks of civic engagement between the two communities stand out as the single most important proximate cause. Where such networks of engagement exist, tensions and conflicts were regulated and managed; where they are missing, communal identities led to endemic and ghastly violence" (p. 9).

Without a way to know one another, our interactions are defined by assumptions created through the public messaging of individuals with goals of their own. A chasm of ignorance between religious communities can too easily be filled by bigotry, often turning into violence. In The Clash of Civilizations?, Samuel Huntington states that the dominant characteristic of the postcold-war global order is violence between ethnic and religious groups. Diasporas from warring regions around the world reside in the United States, often in close quarters. When tragic violence breaks out around the world, religious leaders and lay people in the United States must reach out across their sidewalks and school districts to build coalitions with people who are different from them. The United States can give the lie to Huntington's thesis and maintain a strong civil life, but it will not happen without some work.

According to Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, in the presence of diversity "all of us become a little bit like turtles; we pull into our shell in the presence of this new diversity."

In "E Pluribus Unum," he explains further that people in more diverse communities tend to "distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television" (pp. 150-151).

Journalist Michael Jonas excellently sums it up in an article of his: "Birds of different feathers may sometimes flock together, but they are also less likely to look out for one another." As communities continue to diversify, this trend must change. Cities that were once industrial hubs are being forced to shift their economic structure amid demographic change. Nearly one in every ten of the nation's counties has a population that is more than 50 percent minority. Within thirty-three years, white people of European descent will no longer make up a majority of the U.S. population. Aside from the moral call of community, it is dangerous for America to acknowledge its diversity without seeking opportunities to engage it. Though heightened tension within the community is likely, violence and mistrust are not necessary consequences in the midst of diversity.

Religious Pluralism and Why It Takes Work

Religious pluralism is the achievement that is built from the mere fact of diversity. According to Eck, pluralism is when people from different backgrounds seek mutual understanding and positive cooperation with one another.

At the 2003 American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting in Atlanta, the sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow was asked how he thought faith communities were adapting to the reality of religious diversity in close quarters. He used the metaphor of an elevator: Christians, Muslims, Jews, and the rest of America's religious diversity are all riding in it together; we are increasingly aware of the other people around us, but we are doing just about everything we can to avoid real interaction.

One of the reasons for this situation is the division between "inter" and "faith" in American life. There are an increasing number of spaces where people from diverse religious communities gather: public schools, shopping malls, universities, YMCAs, corporations, and more. These can be understood as spaces of "inter." There are many places in our society where people from particular religious communities come together to talk about religion: synagogues, churches, mosques, temples, and so on. These are spaces of "faith." But there are precious few spaces where people from diverse religions come together and are intentional about matters of religion.

Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a product of the American experiment, was built from the recognition that diversity is a fact in America, but that diversity alone will not achieve the American dream. IFYC is a Chicago-based global-reaching nonprofit that envisions a world in which religiously diverse young people interact peacefully and cooperate to serve communities, thereby strengthening civil society and stabilizing global politics. Founded in 1998, IFYC is a hybrid of the service learning movement, the diversity movement, and the faith-based social justice movement. At IFYC we believe there will be no peace without religious pluralism, and no religious pluralism without the leadership of young people. We are training and networking the newest generation of interfaith leaders who are equipped to navigate a religiously diverse world.

What does religious pluralism look like in our religiously diverse world? After September 11, 2001, there were people who operated in the clash-of-civilizations framework, who believed that we were at war with a particular region of the world or a particular religion. But there were others who operated under an ideal of pluralism. As in other cities, after September 11 a Chicago mosque received threats of violence against anyone entering the building. This mosque had existed for years within its community. But the story that people saw on television and the fear that was generated by and after the terrorist attacks convinced individuals that all mosques were breeding grounds for seemingly peaceful Muslims to become suicide bombers at any moment. There were other faith groups in the community who had built relationships with the Muslims attending this particular mosque. There were Jews and Christians who recognized that an attack on any one group is an attack on everyone. They understood that silencing the voice and limiting the freedoms of one population turns us all into prisoners. So they acted. They stood vigil around the mosque during services. They stood in solidarity with their community members inside. These individuals were a courageous sign to potential attackers that they would not forgo the fundamentals of American pluralism for fearmongering and false stories.

Consider a case in Syracuse, New York, a small city welcoming the world's diversity and engaging it in a way that builds pluralism. A major refugee resettlement center, Syracuse possesses remarkable religious diversity for a city of its size. In addition to the collection of Christian and Jewish denominations one might expect, Syracuse is also home to thriving Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim communities. More important, though, these communities are in relationship with one another through an assortment of interfaith and other civic organizations. Started in the wake of September 11, Women Transcending Boundaries is a "community of women from many religious and cultural traditions" that "seek to nurture mutual respect and understanding by sharing information about our diverse beliefs, customs, and practices and by working together to address our common concerns" ( The Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse (ACTS) brings together Syracuse's diverse communities to work for better education, economic development, and health care (

InterFaith Works of Central New York "holds community dialogues on issues of race and religion, working to build sustained relationships throughout Syracuse" (

Not surprisingly, Syracuse University also plays a strong role in cultivating social capital and transforming mere diversity into pluralism. The university's Hendricks Chapel hosts a dozen chaplaincies, both institutional support and physical space for their communities to thrive on campus ( A range of student religious groups come to know each other through the auspices of the chapel and serve together through the chapel's Office of Community Engagement and Integrative Learning. Last year, a dozen religiously diverse students went to Turkey together on an interfaith trip.

As a lead-up to the university's "Big Event" one spring--a universitywide service day--student members of many of these groups (organized by an Interfaith Youth Core Fellow named Nicole) chalked the campus with expressions of their personal call to service, drawing public attention to both the diversity of religious expression at the university as well as the shared value of service. In the fall, students had the opportunity to enroll in a new field course, Religious Communities in Syracuse, cotaught by a senior committed to introducing her classmates to not just the diversity but the pluralism of religious life in Syracuse.

Those are initiatives that turn diversity into pluralism.

Why We Can't Just Leave it Alone

If the only people willing to speak publicly about faith are the ones who call other religions evil and their founders terrorists, or the ones who make hideous jokes about the holocaust, then we should not be surprised when their discourse defines our relationships.

Creating and expanding the spaces where religiously diverse people gather to work on matters of religious diversity, and thus develop a public language of faith, is the task of interfaith organizations. The goal of interfaith work is intimated by the term itself: "inter" means our relationships with other people, especially those from differing traditions; "faith" means, in the W. C. Smith sense, the relationship individuals have with their cumulative historical religious tradition. There is plenty of "inter" in our society, and a good bit of faith, but not enough interfaith. Interfaith is when our experience of the diversity of modern life and our connections to our religious traditions cohere in such a way that we develop faith identities that encourage us to interact with others intentionally and appreciatively. It is the goal of being rooted in our own traditions and in relationship with others. It is accomplished through development and use of a public language of faith that connects us to our parochial community while allowing us to be citizens of a diverse society. It draws on particular legacies with ever-expanding room for new communities.

The stakes are high not only because of the dangers that religious diversity presents but because of the opportunities. A public language of faith allows us to take advantage of these opportunities because it helps us bridge and multiply the social capital that exists in diverse faith communities, social capital that would otherwise be isolated. For example, more than 50 percent of youth volunteers in the United States say they received their start in doing service through their religious community. A public language of faith would allow us to connect youth volunteers across religious communities in massive service projects, and also bring their parents, active parishioners, and religious leaders into positive relationship with one another.

Interfaith Youth Core's Mission and Vision

At Interfaith Youth, we have done just that. There are many forces in our world encouraging this interaction in the direction of bias, hatred, and violence. The Interfaith Youth Core is nurturing this interaction in the direction of strengthening religious identity, encouraging understanding between religious communities, and facilitating cooperative service for the common good. We have developed a public language of faith by using an interfaith shared-values, service-learning model. We bring religiously diverse fourteen- to twenty-five-year-olds together, mostly through their congregation- or campus-based youth groups, to discuss how their traditions "speak to" shared values such as hospitality, service, pluralism, and peace, and participate in service projects putting those values in action.

The simple genius of the shared-values approach is that it highlights things we share universally while creating the space for each community to articulate its unique rift on the value. In a discussion on the shared value of hospitality, Muslims might cite what they do for iftar and the Hadith of the Prophet, Jews might talk about their shabbat practice and scripture from Exodus, and Christians might discuss their church's tradition on Christmas and the example of Jesus in Matthew 25.

By speaking from their own traditions, participants find their faith deepened. This directly addresses the most pressing fear that parents and religious leaders have regarding interfaith youth work: the "you better not turn my Muslim into a Buddhist" problem. It also avoids the pitfall of immediately getting into competing claims (the "it was Isaac, no it was Ishmael" problem). They also find that shared values is a language of faith that is relevant to the world of "inter." Jews, Muslims, and Christians can all cite how their scriptures and holidays command them to offer hospitality. They discover that their stories can live side by side, even mutually enriching one another, and motivate them toward cooperative service together. This approach is an opportunity for all faiths, and for individuals of no faith, who draw on rich philosophic and moral traditions.

The Interfaith Youth Core is thinking big. We have built an organization that puts an idea in the culture: if you are young and religious, part of what you should be about is coming together with people who are like you and who are different from you to strengthen your own religious identity, to build understanding between religious communities, and to cooperate to serve others. America's civic fabric will be greatly strengthened if people from diverse backgrounds come together to build understanding with one another and cooperate to serve the broader society.

We have built an organization that, amidst real theological differences and political problems, keeps alive the possibility that the world's diverse religious communities can choose to relate on their shared values rather than their myriad differences.

We have built an organization that encourages every hometown in America with religious diversity to engage this diversity in a way that builds pluralism. We think that developing young civic leaders and hosting interfaith service projects are the best ways to do so. Last year, IFYC worked with 150 youth-focused institutions and trained twenty-three thousand young people and their allies. Our message has reached hundreds of thousands of people through appearances on "Good Morning America," NPR, CNN, and CBS. In addition to writing policy briefs and hosting convenings, IFYC regularly consults with think tanks, government agencies, and policy organizations to ensure that religious pluralism through youth leadership is an essential part of achieving civic health and national security.

Clearly, our dream is ambitious and our vision for America is ambitious. We do not know how long it will take us to get there, but we do know that the world is not getting any less religiously diverse. Those who are encouraging bias, bigotry, and violence between religious communities think big and make their ideas reality. But God created humanity diverse so that we could live righteously and harmoniously with one another.

So dreaming a vision worthy of this reality is required.

Political philosopher Michael Walzer writes that the challenge of a diverse society is to embrace its diversity while maintaining a common life. This suggests the need for all communities within a diverse society to take responsibility for embracing a common life while maintaining their uniqueness. It is this dynamic that leads to the ideal of the pluralist society as a "community of communities" envisioned by scholars such as Martin Marty, John Rawls, and Robert Bellah. There is something about this experiment of America that allows a new way of understanding community and inspires great minds to dream big. Let us not take for granted the fact of our diversity and forgo the necessary work of civic participation. Let us not build barriers between people of faith when we need bridges between neighbors. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of America's most prophetic dreamers, acknowledged the lessons of history and gave us a roadmap for the future when he warned that "we must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools."


Eck, D. A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

Huntington, S. "The Clash of Civilizations?" Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993. Retrieved Jan. 6, 2009, from http:// civilizations.html.

Jonas, M. "The Downside of Diversity." Boston Globe, Aug. 5, 2007. Retrieved Jan. 6, 2009, from com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2007/08/04/the_downside_of_ diversity/.

King, Jr., M. L. "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution." Sermon delivered at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., on Mar. 31, 1968. Congressional Record, Apr. 9, 1968. Retrieved Jan. 6, 2008, from http://mlk-kpp01. through_a great_revolution/.

Putnam, R. D. "E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century." Scandinavian Political Studies, 2007, 30(2), 137-174.

"Robert Putnam on Immigration and Social Cohesion." Harvard Kennedy School Insight, Mar. 20, 2008. Retrieved Jan. 6, 2009, from publications/insight/democratic/robert-putnam.

Smith, W. C. The Faith of Other Men. New York: New American Library, 1962.

Varshney, A. Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.

Walzer, M. What It Means to Be an American. New York: Marsilio, 1996.

Winthrop, J. "A Model of Christian Charity." [1630]. Retrieved Jan. 6, 2009, from http://www.winthropsociety. com/doc_charity.php.

Eboo Patel is founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core.

Becca Hartman is the research associate in public affairs at the Interfaith Youth Core.
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Author:Patel, Eboo; Hartman, Becca
Publication:National Civic Review
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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