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A better way to talk about faith

Student groups find innovative ways to bridge religious differences

By David Bornstein

The New York Times

Published: Friday, June 29 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

An Interfaith Leadership Institute event in Washington, D.C., in 2011.

Adrienne Baker, Adrienne Baker

Editor's note: Used by permission

Is there a way to overcome religious intolerance?

Given global demographic changes, it's a vital question. "The most certain prediction that we can make about almost any modern society is that it will be more diverse a generation from now than it is today," the political scientist Robert D. Putnam has written. "This is true from Sweden to the United States and from New Zealand to Ireland."

In the United States, the question holds special significance for the simple reason that American society is highly religious and highly diverse and — on matters concerning faith — considerably more politically polarized than a quarter-century ago.

The United States prides itself on welcoming people of different faiths. The Bill of Rights begins with a guarantee of freedom of worship. In 1790, George Washington sent a letter to a Jewish congregation in which he expressed his wish that they "continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants," and declared that the government "gives to bigotry no sanction." In 2010, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's impassioned and courageous defense of the Cordoba House — the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" — became an important addition to a long and noble tradition of inclusion. (It's a speech worth reading.)

But while there have been widespread efforts over the past generation to promote and celebrate ethnic and racial diversity — everything from "Sesame Street" to multicultural studies to workforce sensitivity training — the one topic that has often been kept off the table is faith. Americans have grown more comfortable talking about race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, but not faith. It's too personal, too divisive, too explosive. How do you conduct a productive conversation among people whose cherished beliefs — exclusive God-given truths — cannot be reconciled?

That's a process that a Chicago-based organization called the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) has refined into something between an art and a science, demonstrating how to bring college students together across faith and belief lines so that they develop greater respect, comfort and appreciation for one another and their traditions.

Along the way, IFYC has systematized a process for cultivating interfaith leaders and a blueprint for organizing Better Together campaigns, campus-based interfaith engagements that produce reliably positive outcomes, according to students and faculty. Last year, the organization trained students who ran campaigns on 106 campuses. Over the next five years, IFYC plans to spread its message and work to 1,500 colleges.

"We can shape environments and programs to produce more of these leaders. We don't have to wait for God to drop a Martin Luther King Jr. on us," says IFYC's founder Eboo Patel, who is a member of President Barack Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and author of the forthcoming book, "Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America."

It comes as no surprise that many Americans harbor unfavorable attitudes toward those who hold different beliefs, notably Muslims and Mormons, but also evangelical Christians, Catholics, Jews and, the most disdained group of all, atheists. Large majorities of Americans believe that Islam and Mormonism, for example, have little in common with their own faiths. However, most Americans say that they know little or nothing about Islam or Mormonism. Would their thinking change if they knew, for example, that the most important value in Islam is mercy and that Muslims hold a reverence for Jesus, or that, for Mormons, the most important value is "working to help the poor"?