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Joseph Walker, Deseret News
Laurie Goodstein, national religion correspondent for the New York Times, listens to a question from the audience during presentation on "Religious Diversity: America's Strength and Challenge" at UVU Wednesday.
Polls show us that as a nation we are deeply divided along political, class, race and economic lines, but within our religious diversity we’re somehow making it work. —Laurie Goodstein

OREM — In a country that is remarkable for both its religious diversity and devotion — a situation rife with potential volatility — one of America’s leading faith journalists is impressed that America seems to be making it work.

Laurie Goodstein, national religion correspondent for the New York Times, told a near capacity crowd in Utah Valley University’s Ragan Theater Wednesday that America’s unique and remarkable religious diversity “is not a threat, but actually can be an asset to our country.”

“Diversity and devotion could be a combustible combination, but we’ve become remarkably tolerant as a culture,” said the award-winning journalist. “Polls show us that as a nation we are deeply divided along political, class, race and economic lines, but within our religious diversity we’re somehow making it work.”

As an example she cited the recent presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She pointed out the persecution to which Mormons were subjected in the 1800s, including Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs’ infamous “extermination order” in 1838, noting that in today’s terms such an order would be “unthinkable.”

But when elements of anti-Mormonism again surfaced during the Romney campaign, such as when Pastor Robert Jeffress expressed his opinion that Christians should not vote for Romney because he’s a Mormon and Mormonism is a cult, “prominent people stood up against ignorance and bigotry against Mormons,” Goodstein said.

Romney became the Republican candidate for president of the United States despite his church’s historical standing among people of faith. “He had the support of more evangelical Christians than John McCain had four years earlier,” Goodstein said. “And when he lost, most pundits agree that his faith was not a determining factor.”

Another example Goodstein cited was the reaction of many people of faith to the anti-Muslim sentiment that existed in America in the days following the Sept. 11 tragedy.

“In the aftermath of 9/11,” she said, “I saw people of all faiths reaching out to the Muslim community. They understood that the Muslims living among them were not to blame. As a result of this outreach, I’ve witnessed a blossoming of interfaith relationships all over the country.”

Goodstein sees two main reasons Americans are getting better at handling religious diversity. First, she said, is the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which guarantees the free exercise of religion along with free speech, freedom of the press and the right to peaceable assembly. This freedom, she said, “has produced a vibrant marketplace” of religious thought.

The second reason has to do with what she called “incredible fluidity in American religious identity.”

“Americans convert,” she said. “They marry someone from a different religious background. They try out different churches. People from different churches get to know each other. One-third of our married couples are married to someone of a different religion. … When you live next door to someone from another faith, or you sit at Thanksgiving dinner with people from another faith, or you are married to someone from another faith, barriers and walls are broken down.”

Of course, Goodstein observed, “we’ve not rid the country of religiously based violence, insanity and hatred.”

“I don’t know that we’re ever going to come to the point where we all agree on everything,” she continued. “But I think religious leaders are working to see if we can work together and find common cause across religious lines.”

One of the areas where that is happening is the area of religious liberty. From Goodstein’s perspective, recent concerns about threats to religious liberty started with concerns from the Catholic Church about Affordable Health Care Act provisions requiring insurance coverage of birth control.

“The Catholic Church says this is a threat to religious liberty,” Goodstein said. “Then evangelicals joined in, then Mormon leaders started showing up at conference talking about this subject and now you have Greek Orthodox representatives, Jewish rabbis and all kinds of folks concerned about religious liberty. These are people who, 10 years ago, would not have worked together in such a public way. But now they are coming together, and I think there is some overlap, some positive residue when people work together on something like this.”

Goodstein’s appearance at UVU was co-sponsored by several university organizations, including the Student Association, Academic Affairs, the Religious Studies and Honors programs and the centers for Global and Intercultural Engagement and the Study of Ethics.

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