By 2050, the Pew Research Center predicts, the United States will have more Muslims than Jews; the number of Muslims around the world will nearly equal the number of Christians; and four out of every 10 Christians will live in sub-Saharan Africa. Fueled in part by immigration, religious diversity is a reality, particularly in the U.S. – with the implications of that increasingly being felt on the public stage.
What are some the recent signs of that diversity being played out in public?
- Last fall, Husain Abdullah, a safety for the Kansas City Chiefs, intercepted a pass from New England’s quarterback Tom Brady, scored a touchdown, then slid on his knees and bowed his head to the ground in prayer. Abdullah, a Muslim, was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct – a penalty the NFL later said should not have been imposed, as Christian players routinely give expressions of thanks to God after they score.
- In December, the New York City Police Department had to reconfigure its protocol to determine the proper way to honor the first Chinese-American office from the force killed in the line of duty. That officer, Wenjian Liu, was honored first in a small, mostly private Chinese service for his family, where Buddhist monks prayed quietly, then in a large departmental ceremony led by police chaplains, with a eulogy delivered by the mayor. “We have to understand these customs and norms,” Tony Giorgio, commanding officer of the Police Department’s Ceremonial Unit, told the New York Times. “We can’t just say, ‘I’m Roman Catholic; this is the only way I know how to do this.’ ”
Eboo Patel, author, Rhodes Scholar and founder of Interfaith Youth Core – a Chicago-based nonprofit group which trains young interfaith leaders – cited these and other examples in a recent address. If one is a health care professional, a police officer, a coach or referee at any level – the list could go on – then “religious diversity is probably going to make its presence felt, and you need to have some fluency in it,” he said.
Patel, a 39-year-old Muslim, spoke to students, faculty and people from the community at Louisville Presbyterian Theological on May 4, in the closing session of a five-part “Doors to Dialogue” program presented in partnership with the Kentucky Council of Churches. In 2010, Patel won the Grawemeyer Award in Religion for his autobiography “Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.”
Patel contends that religious diversity is a fact – inherently neither positive nor negative, as reflected in both religious conflict and interfaith initiatives – but that communities and individuals can respond to that diversity by creating barriers or intentionally building bridges.
Immigrants come to the U.S. “from the four corners of the earth,” Patel said, providing a tapestry of religious beliefs that is laid upon the nation’s rich indigenous religious traditions. The U.S. is both the most religiously diverse nation in history and the most religiously devout nation in the western hemisphere, even with increasing numbers claiming no religious affiliation, he said.
That diversity means that, especially in a time of international religious tension and conflict, “religion matters,” Patel said.
How that religious diversity will play itself out in community and public life involves choices, Patel said – with people deciding whether to use their knowledge of other religious traditions to build:
- Bunkers of isolation (“I want nothing to do with you”);
- Barriers of division (walling themselves off to denounce those on the other side of the wall);
- Bludgeons of domination (“people who will take their faith identity and use it to smash those who are different); or
- Bridges of cooperation.
Not surprisingly for one who’s built a career on interfaith leadership, Patel favors bridges of cooperation. Such bridges invite all in a society to contribute – reducing prejudice and helping the community to thrive, he says. They build social cohesion, positive relationships and social capital – such as when people of different faith traditions work together in disaster relief, on a blood drive, to collect clothing and food for those in need.
Patel also contends that building bridges of interfaith cooperation can strengthen communities of particular religious identity – as those involved in interfaith conversations learn to better articulate their own beliefs. The research of sociologist Christian Smith regarding the faith lives of young people have found that many teenagers who grow up in church are “theologically inarticulate” – they “do not have a language that is relevant to their theologically diverse lives,” Patel said.
He encourages people of faith to hold up examples from their own traditions of people who have been involved in interfaith peace and justice work – for example, Martin Luther King Jr., a black Baptist, visited India in 1959 to learn about the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, or how Nelson Mandela has described the struggle for apartheid in South Africa as interfaith work, involving Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Jews.
People from particular faith traditions need to become familiar with both the history of interfaith work in their own traditions and the theology undergirding that, Patel said. The theological piece is the notion “that positively engaging with religious diversity is sacred, it’s holy, it comes from the text, it comes from the tradition.”
For Christians, the New Testament is full of stories of Jesus and his disciples engaging with those of other backgrounds – including the Good Samaritan and the woman at the well, Patel said.
He encouraged people to learn those stories from their own traditions and from others. If all a Christian knows of Muslims is what comes from the first two minutes of the evening news, then they see “a parade of ugliness and violence,” even though the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims condemn that violence as well, Patel said.
During a question and answer session, a campus minister said some young adults from her college resist being involved with something labeled “interfaith dialogue,” telling her privately, for example, that “I can’t come to represent all Jews because I don’t know enough about Judaism to be an expert.” So she’s changed the language.
“We started with stories and food,” she said. “Intellectual conversations are wonderful, but sometimes you have to start with experience.”
Following his remarks, Patel presented three questions for discussion in small groups – questions that could be used to spark discussions in other settings as well:
- Talk about a person from a different religious tradition who had a big and positive impact on your life;
- Talk bout an ethic, a prayer or a practice from a different tradition that inspires you;
- Talk about a moment when you have cooperated with someone from a different tradition.