America’s Bill of Rights promises freedom of religion in that the government shall make no law restricting the exercise of religion. The American people, by contrast, have often struggled to accept their fellow citizens’ freedom to practice their faith. We are one of the most religiously diverse societies in the world. By helping to fulfill America’s promise of freedom of religion, inter-faith understanding may be one of the most important gifts that America can give the world.
Why should inter-faith understanding be so difficult to achieve? One reason is rooted in our national history; another reason is contemporary and personal. Virtually every culture in history has had a dominant faith. Our culture for most of its history was no different. Most Protestant groups took for granted that their norms would be recognized in public life as our civil religion. To make room for Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and others, religion in America moved off-stage. In Richard John Neuhaus’ words, we created a naked public square. American civil religion recognizes a deity, but little else. As a result, many Americans see their beliefs only as a personal affair. Inter-faith conversations meet resistance because they challenge this century-long development in America. Talking about religion publicly, it is feared, could re-ignite divisiveness or risk once again marginalizing religious minorities. Yet without knowledge of how and why religion is so important for many of our fellow citizens, we are ill equipped to mediate rival claims or seek paths of cooperation in place of conflict. The naked public square allows us to avoid difficult topics, but also impoverishes us.
A second reason why inter-faith understanding can be difficult to achieve is that people, but especially the young, have come to hold their beliefs only by asserting them in a relativist way that belies their own dedication. Students in class discussions about abortion, evolution, or same sex relationships, for example, will frequently refuse to base their positions on anything other than their personal preferences: “I just believe that because I do, but anybody else can believe what they want.” Yet these same young people will admit that their religious and moral beliefs shape relationships, voting, careers, college choices, and much else. This privacy about religion also means that secular people, especially those who are well-educated, are often ignorant about the importance of religion around them.
If we as a nation are to deal more honestly and humanely with the deep religious questions that motivate and divide us, inter-faith understanding is a vital task, one in which America’s colleges and universities can take the lead. Inter-faith studies builds on the foundational assumption that understanding the contrasts between religious groups is an essential part of understanding society and the human condition. Inter-faith understanding means that people of different faiths—Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and people of no espoused faith—share their beliefs in respectful ways that educate without seeking to evangelize. The goal is neither to downplay distinctive beliefs nor to create an ecumenical coalition. Rather, the goal is to foster an appreciation of each group’s beliefs, a respect for the role that faith, practices, and traditions play in others’ lives, and a common proclamation that understanding religion is crucial to understanding our world. As Eboo Patel, President of Interfaith Youth Core, has argued, just as multiculturalism in the 1990s urged us to gain a deeper understanding of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, so the quest for appreciating diversity must be extended to public recognition of religion.
Inspired by this vision, Elizabethtown College now offers a major in inter-faith studies, the first in the nation. We believe that inter-faith understanding confronts major issues in American life and global culture. It draws, not just on religious studies, but history, political science, philosophy, sociology, and other disciplines, in order to help us understand our world. While drawing on comparative religion, theology, and religious anthropology, inter-faith studies focuses on understanding the divisions and connections among religious groups and between those who are religious and those of no faith.
Inter-faith scholars and activists help people of deeply held faiths to learn how to share their beliefs in mutually respectful ways. Common ground meetings between Christians and Muslims, for example, can lead to the realization that they share certain goals, and that the deep differences between them can be discussed without fear. Engaging in a service project together often leads people to lessen their wariness, share their beliefs, and learn mutual respect.
All of us operate, whether we admit it or not, on deeply held assumptions. These are stronger and healthier for being examined and reflected upon. Inter-faith understanding can be liberating. In an arena where respect has been guaranteed, one’s deeply held beliefs can be recognized, shared, and upheld—even as others’ differing beliefs are acknowledged. Inter-faith studies as a discipline equips students, activists, and scholars to deal respectfully with religious knowledge and practices, educate believers and “none’s” alike about religion’s importance, and puts cooperation in place of conflict between religious groups wherever possible. Attorneys, civil servants, teachers, human resources staff, social workers, architects, health practitioners—all of these professionals would be better equipped to meet our society’s challenges if they possessed inter-faith expertise.
Probably no other society in world history has been like contemporary America: religiously diverse, devout, and officially tolerant of different religions. We honor our nation’s pioneering role in freedom of religion best not by ignoring religion, but by recognizing our religious diversity and demonstrating that genuine pluralism can flourish amidst that diversity. To put respect, knowledge, and understanding in place of mere tolerance would make us a model for the world. Few models are as desperately needed by a globe often torn by strife. Creating a society where religious diversity is embraced, the widest possible range of faiths is respected, and where religion is understood and its importance recognized—this is an ideal worth the commitment of a generation.