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"?

Most likely — particularly if they got to know people who embodied those values. In their book, "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us," Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell draw on social science to show how strongly our relationships shape our attitudes about other groups. "We can show in a quite rigorous way that when you become friends with someone of a different faith, it not only makes you more open-minded to people of that faith, it makes you more open-minded about people of all other faiths. It makes you more tolerant generally," says Putnam. "That's the fundamental premise of the Interfaith Youth Core's work."

IFYC's Better Together campaigns are based on these insights: the most reliable way to improve attitudes about religious groups is to intentionally foster meaningful relationships across lines and gain "appreciative knowledge" about other faith traditions. The worst thing society can do is to continue what it's doing today: allowing attitudes to be shaped by the shrillest voices, the voices of intolerance, political expedience and xenophobia. "If we don't talk openly about faith and bring people from different traditions together, we forfeit the conversation to people who are happy to build barriers," notes Patel. Quoting the philosopher Michael Sandel, he added, "Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread."

What is the secret to facilitating exchanges that lead to meaningful relationships? "You need to begin by focusing on a value that is commonly shared — like mercy, compassion for the poor, care for the environment or service — something that invites people to bring the best of who they are and the best of what their tradition is about," explains April Mendez, IFYC's vice president for leadership. "You walk away from a conversation like that inspired and appreciative about the diversity around you."

Next, leaders reach out across the campus to bring students together to act on a widely shared value through service. In 2010, for example, students at the University of Illinois engaged thousands of volunteers and sent a million meals to Haitians after the earthquake. This year, students from Ohio University cleaned up a local waterway. At Augustana College, in Rock Island, Ill., they held a Thanksgiving fast-a-thon and raised money for a local homeless shelter. At Dominican University, in River Forest, Ill., they organized a "Speed Faithing" exchange. Elsewhere, students organized blood drives, interfaith dinners, campaigns against sexual violence and assistance for homeless youth — in each instance, reflecting on how their commitment to help others is informed by their beliefs or world views.

This is different from the way interfaith dialogues are typically structured. Here, the conversations are led by students, not religious scholars; they intentionally include agnostics and atheists; and they are not focused on religious teachings per se but rather students' relationship to their faith or their philosophical beliefs.

All this is critical, explained Vatina McLaurin, an incoming junior at Augustana, who helped lead the fast-a-thon campaign and who was raised as a Christian but identifies as an agnostic or "seeker." "When you're asking students to engage in conversation about faith," she said, "it's important to remind them that they don't have to speak for their whole religion. They're just there to talk about their faith or beliefs in a personal way."

Nor is the goal of an interfaith conversation to arrive at agreement. "Interfaith work isn't about watering down our religion and coming to some consensus about things," explains Aamir Hussain, a Muslim student at Georgetown University who helped students from Georgetown and Syracuse University, historic basketball rivals, mobilize a food drive. "It's about building relationships so we can together serve others."

Greg Damhorst, an evangelical Christian currently pursuing a combined medical degree and Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, recalled the campaign he worked on to assist Haitians with food. "We had people from every political and religious tradition," he explained. "Many have been at odds with one another. If you put them in a room with certain topics you could create the most abrasive argument. But we brought them together to help people in need and, through that process, people were inspired by one another — and they learned new things." Damhorst learned about the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, and the importance of service in Islam and Jainism.

It's not without conflict. Damhorst has gotten pushback from evangelical friends. "Some say that even collaborating with people from other faiths is a disservice — because it affirms the validity of their beliefs," he said. "Others fear that if they come to the table for an interfaith dialogue, they're going to be asked to hang up some aspect of their tradition — or maybe even start to question their faith."

That's not his experience. He says that his own faith has been strengthened by this work. "When faith is just a series of ideas in your head, one does find it offensive to have it disagreed with," he says. "But when faith is lived out in action, it's more impermeable than if it's just a concept."

Americans celebrate diversity. But one of the mistaken beliefs about diversity is that it leads to greater tolerance. Putnam's research indicates that, unless people make a concerted effort to build bridges, diversity leads to greater social fragmentation — with lower rates of trust, altruism and cooperation. "What ethnic diversity does is cause everybody to hunker down and avoid connection," he explained. "It's not just the presence of diversity in your neighborhood. You've got to actually be doing things with other people in which you have a personal attachment. Diversity is hard, not easy."

The question that obsesses the IFYC founder Eboo Patel today is how to make interfaith cooperation as much of a social norm as multiculturalism has become. As part of that process, IFYC is providing guidance to a select group of colleges to demonstrate what a college-wide model interfaith program could become.

One of them is Dominican University, which is changing its curriculum, redesigning student outcomes, engaging students and faculty, and aligning its academic calendar — all with interfaith cooperation in mind. Donna Carroll, the school's president, envisions a day when any student who walks across the stage to receive a diploma from Dominican University will have gained a solid understanding of interfaith cooperation. "Because we are educating the next generation of arguably global leaders, it's part of our responsibility to ensure that this is a component of the educational environment," Carroll explained. "All you have to do is turn on the news and you can recognize that."

Indeed, if you take a stroll along the Internet, cable TV, or talk radio, you'll find no shortage of dire warnings from people who dread a clash of civilizations and often deride interfaith cooperation as na?e. In this vision, safety means maintaining a fortress mentality and keeping a firm divide between us and them. Another path to follow is the one espoused by George Washington, that all Americans "enjoy the good will" of others. To make that hope real, says Patel, people who care about tolerance need to cultivate specific leadership skills today: "We need more people to show how our religious differences fit within the overarching framework of pluralism that is part of the American tradition — this magnificent and glorious idea that people will stand up and fight for."

David Bornstein is the author of "How to Change the World" and founder of dowser.org, a media site that reports on social innovation.

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