Pluralism and prejudice: How conflicts over religious pluralism reveal America’s new ‘Sacred Ground’

The only Protestant running for president in 2012 is President Obama, an American of both a racially and a religiously … Continued

The only Protestant running for president in 2012 is President Obama, an American of both a racially and a religiously diverse family background. Both vice-presidential candidates are Catholics, and Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee for president, is Mormon.

Does it matter?

Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core thinks it does. In his new book, “Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America,” Patel sees our political process as a mirror of our increasing diversity, especially religious diversity. He writes, “America is among the most religiously diverse countries in human history and by far the most religiously devout nation in the West.”

The question Patel poses, however, is how are we, as a nation, managing these factors? Are we furthering the narrative of “American exceptionalism” in which religious freedom and tolerance are supposed to be one of the best ways we showcase our values to the world? Or are we losing “social capital” to religious fragmentation and even enmity?

In the United States, we are at a crossroads in regard to these choices, and how we act on religious pluralism in the next few decades will decide the question. We have to choose whether we will embody the wonderfully American idea of religious freedom and tolerance, or whether we will lose its reality and its promise.

Patel takes quite a risk in this book, starting with the manufactured Islamophobia around the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” and his own anger and disgust at this blatant manipulation of religious intolerance for political purposes.

And then, as Patel often does, he provides a teachable moment. At the height of what has been called the “summer of hate” in 2010, he writes that he gets a phone call from Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, one of the most respected Islamic scholars and public intellectuals in the United States. He tells Sheikh Hamza of his anger at this “ridiculous hatred” by a “handful of bigots.”

View Photo Gallery: Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney announced the selection of his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, in Norfolk on Aug. 11. Afterward, the two climbed aboard the campaign bus for a battleground-state tour.

Sheikh Hamza provides the clue Patel and all of us need to understand to frame the good and the bad of our rising religious pluralism today. Sheikh Hamza said to Patel, in effect, that it is a good thing when religious bigotry comes out from the shadows and into the light. “These are the moments that change agents yearn for, Eboo. Our country is molten and can be shaped.” Patel is stunned, nothing that the inltellectual “was telling me to believe in America and do my best work?”

The core message of “Sacred Ground” is exactly that. Now is the time for not only Patel and Interfaith Youth Core, but also for all of us who believe in the promise of America, to do our best work.

Sheikh Hamza’s words to Patel also reminded me of what we often say in the peace movement: a conflict that cannot be named cannot be mediated.

In other words, the more religiously pluralistic we become, the more visible our struggle becomes with these issues. It is only when we take the risk of actually looking at our religious stresses and strains that we can begin to act to know them, engage them, and hopefully move them in a more positive direction.

There are so many of these stresses and strains now visible within both the Democratic and Republican presidential tickets. These stresses are not only between different religions, but also among the same religion itself, as American religions are realigning not over doctrinal differences, but often over social and ethical issues like marriage equality and reproductive choice.


Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan.

The vice-presidential candidates, for example, mirror the conflicts within Catholicism today. We could call this the “nuns versus the Vatican” issue. Vice President Joe Biden represents the Catholic social teaching approach to faith and public life of Vatican II. This is a Catholicism also cherished by Network, the organizing group of American Catholic nuns currently under investigation by the Vatican.

Rep. Paul Ryan, Romney’s pick for his vice-presidential running mate, is a different kind of Catholic than Biden; Ryan is more in line with the current Vatican and Pope Benedict XVI. Indeed, his “Ryan budget,” with its proposed massive cuts to social programs, is a particular target of the nuns of Network, a point they made clear on their recent summer bus tour. On their tour, the nuns directed particular criticism at Ryan and his plan. Sister Simone Campbell, a leader in the group, “denounced the proposed cuts to food stamps, child care, and other programs for the needy. “That’s not Christian,” she said.

This is the stress and strain within American Catholicism today played out in our vice-presidential politics.

More astonishing and yet important stresses and strains are found in the faith of both candidates for president.

View Photo Gallery: Nuns on the Bus, a tour of Catholic congregations in nine states, made its final stop in D.C. on Monday, where the participating Catholic sisters held a rally for their cause, a fight agains the Republican budget plan put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. The nuns say the proposal will hurt families struggling to make ends meet in a difficult economy.

President Obama is a self-described, devout Protestant Christian who speaks movingly of his conversion to the Christian faith from a church pew where “I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me.”

Yet, because of a relentless political effort, not unlike the Islamophobia conflict manufactured around the proposed mosque in southern Manhattan, to paint the president as a Muslim, according to a recent Gallup poll, “Just 34 percent of Americans correctly say U.S. President Barack Obama is a Christian, while 44 percent say they don’t know Obama’s religion and 11 percent say he is a Muslim.”

This lack of basic knowledge about a president’s religious affiliation is the byproduct of a deliberate misinformation campaign. It is unique in American history and very important. It is the “othering” of the president as an African American Protestant Christian that mirrors the “othering of Muslim Americans,” that is, an effort to cast them as different, “not one of us,” and a threat.

Romney’s Mormonism was an issue in the GOP primaries more than it seems it has been since, but it is still an unresolved question and one where there is continued speculation. Christian Science Monitor tracks the shift in the evangelical demographic from being opposed to Catholics in office to supporting Catholic candidates, and asks if the Romney candidacy may signal a similar shift.

Yet, the fact that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not at all well known to most Americans still gives rise to speculation about its hidden agendas and “lying for the Lord” as a part of Mormon practice as a minority faith, as writer Joanna Brooks, a Mormon, suggests is partially true.

The irony with this assessment of Mormonism is that as a faith feels under attack in American history, it may very well “circle the wagons” and dissemble to outside groups. This can become learned behavior, and it does not aid in furthering a healthy religious pluralism.

View Photo Gallery: The Republican presidential candidate’s decades as a bishop and stake president demonstrate an assurance with the church, a confidence in his authority and a deep spirituality.

The genius of Patel’s new book is that it helps us see and understand the consequences of the impulse for faiths to turn inward and “circle the wagons.”’ Patel asserts, citing research, retreating into one’s own religious circle creates “deep distrust between different communities” and increases the “danger of everything from being silos to suffering civil wars.”

The way forward, according to Patel, is to see the conflict and the struggle, and then move forward to make bridges where there have previously been walls. This requires both a science and an art of interfaith, where people are taught specific paths to interfaith encounters that build knowledge of the other’s faith, as well as a deepened knowledge of one’s own faith and an experience of a project to build up the social capital.

Interfaith Youth Core has adopted a systematic plan to work on college campuses to create a large cadre of young leaders, thus achieving a generational shift in how Americans see the religion of others. Full disclosure here, I have been a trustee of Interfaith Youth Core for four years now, and fully support this mission. But as a volunteer, I could volunteer for anything I choose. I choose to volunteer for this organization because of my work as a peacemaker. I believe making a generational shift toward interfaith cooperation is the only way forward for not only us as Americans, but for the world in an age of rising religious pluralism and the increasing risk of religiously-motivated conflict.

Can we look at this uniquely American group of presidential and vice-presidential candidates and not see the problems and the possibilities of the ‘faith line’ in our time?

I can see it. So can you. The trick is knowing what to do about it.

Interfaith Youth Core and Eboo Patel have a plan and now a decade of experience forging another way. Their way is the way we can secure “the blessings of pluralism on America’s sacred ground.” (p. 169)

Elections come and go, but it is clear that American religious pluralism is here to stay. Let’s work together to make religious pluralism in the United States a shining example of our belief and practice of religious freedom.

Former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

  • WmarkW

    The confusion about Obama’s religion is NOT the result of a deliberate misinformation campaign. It’s due to the relative unimportance Obama attaches to religion in his own life (that’s not a criticism) and the many years he spent in the pews of Jeremiah Wright (that IS a criticism.)

    Both presidential nominees have good reason to avoid discussing religion.
    I welcome the void.

  • Gigawood

    This goes far, far beyond the presidental candidates to the backlash against pretty much anything not considered Christian in this country.

    Some examples: The objections to the show “American Muslim,” where an official complaint (exposed in The Daily Show) was summarized by Jon Stewart as “We object because this is proving our stereotypes about Muslims wrong,” to the stonewalling by communities to refuse to put up mosques and Islamic community centers, to the violence against religious minorities (such as the Sikh temple shooting).

    THIS is why it’s such a big deal. The presidential campaigns are minor by comparison. It’s a blight to our country; but then, we’ve been down this road before, all the way back to the influx of Irish Catholics immigrating to the country 100+ years ago.

  • Paul Chaffee

    An excellent review of what sounds to be a landmark contribution to interfaith culture. Thank you!

  • VisionFromAfar

    What the what?
    “The only Protestant running for president in 2012 is President Obama,”
    Seriously? Paul hasn’t quit, and the convention isn’t over, so he’s technically still running. Johnson is a Protestant, and the media continues to ignore him, despite the groundswell of support he’s receiving.
    We have more than two parties, and the sooner the media realizes this and starts acknowledging them, the sooner we can start tearing down Tweedle Dem and Tweedle Rep, who are so busy pissing in each other’s coffee that they’ve blatently ignored the American people.

  • Secular1

    VisionFromAfar, you are indeed true to your pseudonym. You really think Ron Paul & Johnson are real contenders for anything?

  • Kingofkings1

    Another brilliant essay. However, I couldn’t help but notice that the islamophobia of today may follow several outcomes:
    1) The optimists’ outcome sees islamophobia addressed and overcome a la catholicism of 1960
    2) The skeptics’ outcome sees islamophobia mired in incessant conflicts with status quo for decades
    3) The pessimists’ outcome sees politicians taking advantage of the political scene and the capital to be gained by igniting the seeds of hatred for short term personal gain, regardless of the breathless atrocities a la Germany of 1930’s and Yugoslavia of the 1990’s

  • cs9243

    “America is among the most religiously diverse countries in human history and by far the most religiously devout nation in the West.”
    Religion is the problem. Religion and politics do not mix. A particular religion has no bearing whether that person will perform as a good president or not.
    Religious beliefs should not be the main reason we pick one candidate over another. The US has a constitutionalseparation of church and state. America should become more seecular like Europe. Religious freedom and pluralism are fine but should play a lesser role in politics.