Religion in a Divided America
Inauguration prayers and women’s marches. Threatened Muslim bans and revived sanctuary movements. In our current divided America, religion often finds itself at the heart of the conversation. That has frequently been the case throughout our history, and that is a good thing.
Yet, as a civic issue, religion can never simply be an ideology or a political football. Scholars and practitioners both continue to demonstrate the centrality of religious institutions (churches, synagogues, and mosques, as well as countless faith-based nonprofits) in building our civil society and providing the necessary social capital in order to bridge diverse communities.
Beyond institutions, faith also continues to be a key motivator for the majority of individual Americans in their giving, volunteering, and advocacy.
I believe strongly that the success of the American political experiment is built upon a foundational commitment to pluralism. Such a commitment does not compel people to embrace a particular worldview but rather compels people of all faiths as well as no faith to work together, live alongside one another, and engage each other in the public square precisely out of our deeply held beliefs and practice. While it is neither perfect nor simple, this type of civic engagement is vital. It takes time and attention.
There are multiple layers to this interfaith work. Let me briefly point out four that come to mind:
1) Support of a robust religious philanthropy – As already mentioned above, faith is central to giving, serving, and volunteering. While different faiths may address giving in various ways, at their core, there is most often a shared sense of the necessity of giving, to care for one another and in particular the poor, the refugee, and the marginalized. If we are to maintain a vibrant civil society, as well as necessary social services, then our society must recognize the centrality of faith-inspired individuals and institutions in doing this work, while also seeking a greater sense of collaboration.
2) Civility – It should go without saying, but disagreement does not necessitate disrespect. Interfaith work cannot be done in silos. It requires engaging across lines of difference: religious, racial, and cultural, to name just a few. We may disagree on significant issues and approaches, but we must do this with civility–rigorously debating ideas but avoiding denigrating character. While this has not always been the case, interfaith conversations could become models of such civil conversations in our polarized world.
3) Dialogue – Beyond civility, dialogue goes further with the intent to learn from another. Dialogue partners are open to one another, listening for opportunities to unlearn false perceptions, put oneself in another’s place to better understand their perspective, and even be open to change. True dialogue is built on mutuality and trust. The goal is not to score points for one and attack the other, but rather seek understanding. I have found the “Dialogue Decalogue,” originally developed by Leonard Swidler, to be an extremely helpful guide in responsibly shaping these conversations.
4) Interfaith cooperation – Beyond even dialogue, however, is the work of interfaith cooperation. Interfaith engagement goes beyond an academic panel or civic event. Although necessary, dialogue sometimes can appear too clinical, institutional, or even instrumental. Interfaith work often happens where most people actually engage with diversity–in schools, the office, local neighborhoods, or little league soccer teams. It’s often in mutual exchange–telling and listening to stories, sharing a meal, or mutual work together building a Habitat house, or lobbying city council–where understanding is deepened to include shared life.
Because of the possibilities interfaith cooperation brings to our shared civic life, and the centrality of such work in our current context, I am delighted that Lake Institute is hosting Dr. Eboo Patel as our 14th annual Thomas H. Lake lecturer on March 30 at 4:30 p.m. at the Indiana Historical Society here in Indianapolis.
Dr. Patel is the Founder & President of Interfaith Youth Core and served on President Obama’s Inaugural Faith Council. He is perhaps the leading voice highlighting the need and developing the practical steps for inter-faith cooperation in our time.
In his most recent book, Interfaith Leadership, Patel reminds us that interfaith leadership is rooted in the knowledge of religious traditions but goes far beyond accumulated knowledge. Rather it is an active and intentional process. Three main themes jump out for me in Patel’s approach in cultivating interfaith leaders.
1) We must examine ourselves, our stories, and even prejudices. We must be reminded that many of us and our families embody multiple identities simultaneously. There is rarely if ever the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim position on a single issue.
2) Alongside respect for our own identities, we must strive to build relationships across difference. Along with emotional or social intelligences, Patel is describing something almost akin to a faith intelligence, whereby a skilled interfaith leader attends carefully to their language, practice, and hospitality in order to be a bridge overcoming common barriers.
3) Finally, Patel is clear that interfaith leaders are intentionally focused on the common good. While mutual understanding is a worthy goal in its own right, Patel asks us to strive for more, and seek to engage the hard work of interfaith engagement in order to make a difference in the world. For those focused on faith and philanthropy, that seems essential.
In our time, we need more interfaith leaders–those deeply committed to their own faith, but also to the necessity of engaging others across divides for the mutual work of changing the world. It is a challenge we should all be willing to undertake.