I came of age in the multicultural movement of the 1990s. We read Cornel West essays and watched Spike Lee films; admired organizations like City Year and Teach for America that brought diversity together around service; cheered Bill Clinton when he spoke of forming a cabinet that looked like America.
But there was a missing dimension in our discussion: religion. I can count maybe five times in the thousands of diversity discussions I had in college that the term even came up. What a failure to pay attention.
Looking back, the headlines of the 1990s read like a narrative of rising religious violence. Every time you turned on the news, it seemed like there was someone shooting a gun or setting off a bomb to the soundtrack of prayer. Here’s a brief, incomplete list:
The first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, which signaled the rise of Al-Qaeda as a global force.
The assassination of Yitzak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, in 1995 by a Jewish extremist and
The bombing of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 by a Christian extremist.
The Balkans wars, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan (called, respectively, “the Hindu bomb” and “the Muslim bomb”).
Important academics emphasized the importance of this rising tide of religious extremism. In The Clash of Civilizations, the late Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington prophesied that conflicts between different religions would be the central theme of the post-Cold War era.
Still, many people failed to pay attention, believing that religion was spent as a social force. I remember telling an old high school friend in the late 1990s that I was starting an organization that brought people from different faiths together to build understanding and cooperation. He asked me why I had run off and joined the “flat earth society”.
September 11 was a horrific wake up call. Faith could kill in mass quantities, on live TV, in the center of the world’s most powerful city. Suddenly, no one was saying religion was done for. My friends who once laughed at the seeming irrelevance of the Interfaith Youth Core were suddenly asking me how I planned to grow the organization.
No doubt the last eight years has brought the social relevance of religion back to the center. But it’s not always a useful conversation.
I think public discourse about religion increasingly falls into three categories:
1) Religion can only be destructive. This is the discourse advanced by the so-called new atheists — people like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.
2) Religious communities are fated to fight. This is the simple version of the clash of civilizations theory.
3) Muslims are evil. If you look at the best selling books about Islam on Amazon.com, a scary number have titles or subtitles like: “Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom”.
Even more dangerous than ignoring the role of faith in the contemporary world is viewing it simply as an agent of violence, more fuel for conflict, or easy cover for racism. The truth is religion enriches the lives of the majority of the world’s population, and has been a central motivator in social justice movements ranging from the liberation of India to the civil rights movement in America to the struggle in South Africa. How come those dimensions of faith are not more prominently displayed in our public conversation?
The reason is sad and simple and all too common: the majority of us, whether faith is a part of our lives or simply something we respect in our family and friends, have forfeited the terrain to a minority of shrill, sharp, often hateful, occasionally dangerous, voices.
That religion is a powerful force is a fact.
That it can be a positive force is a belief — one that can only be made real by the voices and actions of people of good will, an ethos that can either be rooted in religious faith or a belief in human possibility.