Moving America Forward

To Build It Back Better, Embrace Interfaith Diversity

September 25, 2020
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To Build It Back Better, Embrace Interfaith Diversity

For #BuildItBackBetter, NationSwell asked some of our nation’s most celebrated purpose-driven leaders how they’d build a society that is more equitable and resilient than the one we had before COVID-19. We have compiled and lightly edited their answers.

This article is part of the #BuildItBackBetter track “The Relational Era: Building a Culture of Connection, Bridging and Belonging” — presented in partnership with Einhorn Collaborative.

Imagine if you woke up tomorrow morning and every institution founded by a religious community in your city or town had disappeared. Consider what would be lost: The most obvious answer would be churches, synagogues and mosques. Sad for those who regularly attend congressional worship, surely, but what does it have to do with the rest of America? 

A lot, actually. The synagogue is a local site for food distribution to the hungry. The mosque organizes regular visits to the senior center. The church basement is where AA meetings are held every Wednesday night. Each of the faith groups hosts an after-school program that children of all identities attend — and those programs are lifesavers for working parents in your neighborhood. 

The faith groups consider these programs part of their commitment to God to help other human beings — and they’re just the beginning. Consider for a moment who started the hospitals in your city. In Chicago, where I live, some of the best include Northwestern, founded by Methodists; Loyola, founded by Jesuits; and Rush, founded by Presbyterians. All those hospitals are connected to world-class institutions of higher education. 

In his book “Bowling Alone,” Harvard University social scientist Robert Putnam estimates that more than 50% of American civic life — from our philanthropy and social services to health and education institutions — is somehow connected to religious communities. 

But the religious contributions to the nation go far beyond concrete efforts like health care and education. For centuries, our ideals for American democracy have been expressed in religious language. We have thought of ourselves as a city on a hill, a beloved community, a cathedral of humanity, a new Jerusalem, an almost chosen people. Each of these phrases is drawn from religion, generally what has come to be called the Judeo-Christian tradition.

But America is no longer a nation of Christians and Jews. There are approximately twice as many Muslims in the United States as there are Episcopalians, and nearly as many Muslims as Jews. We are all well aware that the United States is soon going to be a majority-minority nation. We should be equally aware that we are the most religiously diverse nation in human history. We should be asking ourselves the question: how do we welcome the contributions of the emerging religious minority communities in our midst? A diverse nation needs bridges between its different communities, and a bridge to a collective future where everybody can thrive.

Unfortunately, too little attention is paid to the religious dimensions of American diversity. In a recent study of higher education co-sponsored by my organization, Interfaith Youth Core, in partnership with research teams at The Ohio State University and North Carolina State University, we found that 70% of students reported that they felt it was important to bridge religious divides. And yet these same students also highlighted that, while they spent substantial time focused on race, nationality and sexuality, their colleges spent little time teaching them about issues of religious diversity.  

If the United States is to thrive as a religiously diverse democracy, we are going to need all Americans to increase our interfaith knowledge base and grow our interfaith skill sets. Higher education is an excellent place to start. IFYC has programs that help campuses create courses in Interfaith Studies and integrate interfaith leadership training into their student affairs programming. Religious communities can play their part by organizing interfaith congregational partnerships, and cities can host events like Days of Interfaith Service. In the COVID-19 era, a range of educational and civic organizations can make use of interfaith campaigns like We Are Each Other’s.

The United States is long past being a Judeo-Christian country. It is time for a group of interfaith and interfaith-fluent leaders to help usher us into a new chapter.

Eboo Patel is an author, speaker and interfaith leader. He is the founder of Interfaith Youth Core.

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