AAC&U News, June/July 2018

From Interfaith Youth Core: Campuses as Laboratories for Building a Healthy, Religiously Diverse Democracy

By Carolyn Roncolato and Eboo Patel, both of Interfaith Youth Core

At this moment in American life, the challenges of living in a profoundly diverse society are acute. It increasingly feels—and polling data confirms—that we are a nation bitterly divided along lines of politics, class, race, geography, and religion.[1] Fortunately, we can choose how to respond to both the diversity itself and the polarization that has emerged in its wake. Do we allow our public discourse to focus on intolerance and promote division, or do we welcome a range of identities and create narratives and environments that encourage diversity and promote cooperation? As citizens, we have a choice about how to proceed in this moment, and the health of our democracy hinges upon what we choose to do.

Our organization, Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), is working toward a vision of America where people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions bridge differences and find common values to build a shared life together. This vision feels under particular threat at the moment, prompting us to reflect more deeply on what it takes for the American experiment of a religiously diverse democracy to thrive in the twenty-first century.

Of course, the history of the United States is rife with discrimination, conflict, and dehumanization. However, freedom of religion and the resulting religious diversity of the United States is one thread in a narrative that has been central to American identity and can be celebrated, drawn upon, and upheld as we imagine and practice our way into a broader diversity conversation. Of the various forms of diversity that Americans regularly discuss (race, gender, sexuality, class, etc.), religious diversity may be the one the Founders of the United States came closest to getting “right.” Many of their words and deeds still resonate powerfully today. Take, for example, George Washington’s response to Moses Seixas, a Jewish leader who was inquiring about the fate of Jews in this new nation: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. . . . For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”[2] James Madison believed that allowing religious diversity to flourish was essential to establishing social peace.[3] Benjamin Franklin financially supported every house of worship in Philadelphia and raised money for an additional one “expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something.”[4] Though they had glaring limits to their vision of tolerance and inclusion, in welcoming religious diversity, the Founders of the United States sewed into the fabric of our democracy an inspiring thread that can be picked up today.

In establishing religious freedom as core to the country’s identity, the Founders launched the nation into a perennially challenging project of creating and sustaining a religiously diverse democracy. In the United States, diverse religious and nonreligious beliefs have not only been welcomed, but accommodated and made public. This means that Americans bring their “ultimate concerns,” which are sometimes in direct contradiction to each other, to bear on shared public life.[5] This inevitably has brought challenges. However, as Robert Putnam and David Campbell point out, despite the high rates of both religious diversity and religious devotion in the United States, we have not devolved into severe religious conflict, which is anomalous on the historical world stage.[6]

The reason lies in the civic life of our nation. Americans of diverse religious and nonreligious backgrounds have had to find ways to live, work, and play together; to, in Danielle Allen’s words, “create a community of communities.”[7] Through civic engagement, Americans build relationships with those who are different from them and, in the process, gain greater appreciation for each other’s lives and commitments. The role of civic life is key to answering the question that Michael Walzer proposes as our core challenge: “How are we in the United States to embrace the differences and maintain a common life?”[8]

When we intentionally engage each other in civic life in a way that honors our differences and leverages our diversity for the common good, we move from what Diana Eck calls the state of diversity toward achieving the goal of pluralism.[9] At IFYC, we are working toward a vision of civic pluralism that is defined by three elements: respect for different identities, relationships between diverse communities, and commitment to the common good.[10] As we like to say, “Pluralism isn’t rocket science; it’s harder,” which is why we need a new generation of leaders who can build bridges across hard lines of difference to create a strong society that promotes the good of all. IFYC works with colleges and universities because they are uniquely situated for this work. Campuses are mini civil societies, laboratories of a diverse democracy, and launching pads for the new bridge builders our nation desperately needs.

It is in the service of this mission that we are excited to partner with AAC&U to host the inaugural Institute for Teaching and Learning for Campus-wide Interfaith Excellence this summer alongside the Institute on Integrative Learning and Signature Work. Faculty, staff, and administrators from campuses across the country will come together to develop concrete plans for campus-wide engagement of religious diversity and interfaith cooperation. This institute is the output of a shared commitment to facilitating the diversity conversations that make our society stronger and better for all. We believe that diversity is our greatest asset if we embrace the hard work of building bridges and rise to the task of expanding the American narrative to include the abundance of this nation.


[1] Kim Parker et al., “What Unites and Divides Urban, Suburban and Rural Communities,” Pew Research Center: Social and Demographic Trends, May 22, 2018, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/05/22/what-unites-and-divides-urban-suburban-and-rural-communities/.

[2] George Washington, The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series 6, July–November 1790 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996), 284–86.

[4] Benjamin Franklin, quoted in Walter Isaacson, “Citizen Ben’s 7 Great Virtues,” Time Magazine, July 17, 2003, http://content.time.com/time /magazine/article/0,9171,1005149-12,00.html.

[5] Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014).

[6] Robert Putnam and David Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012).

[7]Danielle Allen, “Toward a Connected Society,” in Our Compelling Interests: The Value of Diversity for Democracy and a Prosperous Society, ed. Earl Lewis and Nancy Cantor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 90.

[8] Michael Walzer, What It Means to Be an American (Venice, Italy: Marsilio, 1992), 15.

[9] Diana L. Eck, “What is Pluralism?” The Pluralism Project, Harvard University, 2006, http://pluralism.org/what-is-pluralism/.

[10] Eboo Patel, Interfaith Leadership: A Primer (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016).

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


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