Diversity and Democracy

The Civic Power of Interfaith Cooperation

Students and faculty at Saint Mary’s College of California discuss an IFYC workshop presented in 2009 as part of a year-long interfaith initiative. (Photo by Linda Gorby.)
Students and faculty at Saint Mary’s College of California discuss an IFYC workshop presented in 2009 as part of a year-long interfaith initiative. (Photo by Linda Gorby.)

Americans are living in a civic recession. We need look no further than our national political discourse to know that civility in this country is at a dangerous low. Rage in American politics—well catalogued by the national media—is just one marker of this trend. But an increasingly troubling lack of civility is occurring in another area as well: in the national discourse about religious difference.

Across the political spectrum, conversations about religion are increasingly malicious and misinformed. "New atheists" like Christopher Hitchens draw from a selective history to claim that religion "poisons everything" (Wolf 2006). More moderately, American political scientist Samuel Huntington argues that a "clash of the civilizations" between those of different religious backgrounds is inevitable (1996). Extremists like Pam Geller have advanced the theme of the "dangerous Muslim" (Barnard and Feuer 2010), a narrative that aligns Islam with terrorism. We can see the very real ramifications of this divisive rhetoric in the furor around a proposed Islamic center in New York City and in acts of arson and vandalism on mosques around the country, to name only a few examples (Mackey 2010). However, unlike instances of political incivility, religious incivility goes largely unchecked and unquestioned. It is precisely because we lack an awareness of religious incivility that it is so threatening to our nation's social fabric.

Legacy and Promise

Our religious diversity does not have to be a source of division. In fact, throughout our nation's history, religious and ethical values have served as forces of unity. Many of America's founders expressed dedication to religious diversity. Benjamin Franklin helped build a public hall expressly so that "any preacher of any religious persuasion…would find a pulpit at his service" (n.d., 49). George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, "May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants, while every one [sic] shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid" (1991). Drawing from these early democratic commitments, we at the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) define interfaith expansively to include "people from diverse traditions, such as Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Secular Humanism, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Baha'i, atheist, agnostic, and all other religious, non-religious, and philosophical traditions" (www.ifyc.org).

Americans have enacted the virtues of interfaith collaboration by coming together to serve the common good. During the Civil Rights Movement, diverse religious and nonreligious leaders collaborated to promote racial equality. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote of his experience walking with Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, "even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying" (Heschel 2005). Although religious bigotry has arisen periodically throughout America's history, forces of inclusion have consistently prevailed. Despite the anti-Catholic Nativist movement in the late nineteenth century and the strong anti-Semitism of the early twentieth century, Jews and Catholics now enjoy some of the highest favorability ratings of all American religious groups (Putnam and Campbell 2010). This significant change in such a short time demonstrates the power of religious inclusivity.

History and experience indicate that religion can play a distinctive uniting role within American society. Sociologist Robert Putnam's research demonstrates that religious communities are unique repositories of "social capital"—a concept describing the inherent value of social networks and relationships (2010). Religion provides inspiration for volunteerism and social action, and faith communities have shown themselves to be effective organizers of work that serves others and strengthens our social fabric. However, Putnam's research includes an even more interesting finding: that bridging social capital—social capital that brings people together across identity lines—has even greater power (Putnam 2001). By working together across identity lines, communities can multiply social capital, strengthen social cohesion, and combine resources to effect change. This is the power of interfaith cooperation.

The Role of Colleges and Universities

Interfaith cooperation does not happen automatically. Putnam's research suggests that communities must cultivate critical skills and knowledge to successfully build capacity for interfaith cooperation (Putnam and Campbell 2010). Building this capacity requires

  • Developing interfaith literacy (the appreciative knowledge of diverse religious backgrounds);
  • Fostering interfaith encounters (direct interactions with those of diverse religious backgrounds); and
  • Providing interfaith leadership opportunities for the next generation of young people so they learn to work positively across identity lines.

While both interfaith literacy and interfaith encounters are crucial, the most powerful tool higher education has is to provide interfaith leadership opportunities for young people. These opportunities ultimately foster sustainable interfaith cooperation, ensuring that more people will be exposed to the necessary opportunities to develop interfaith literacy and participate in interfaith engagement.

College and university campuses are ideal locations to build these important levers of social change. Many institutions already host strong civic engagement, service-learning, or diversity programs, providing a unique set of assets to build sustainable interfaith cooperation. But to capitalize on these assets, colleges and universities need a shared vision and institutional leaders who advance this important goal. Interfaith Youth Core partners with college and university campuses to help institutions strategize and build capacity to cultivate interfaith cooperation on campus. IFYC provides a number of venues to support institutions in building interfaith cooperation—online resources, capacity-building workshops and trainings, and short and long-term institutional partnerships. Through these resources, IFYC seeks to equip institutions of higher education to be models of interfaith cooperation for the broader society.

It is clear that interfaith cooperation has the innate potential to achieve some of higher education's greatest goals, including producing civically engaged global leaders. But higher education must proactively advance the methods that we know succeed—developing interfaith literacy, fostering interfaith encounters, and providing interfaith leadership opportunities—to drive the change we know is possible. Interfaith cooperation has the potential to be a powerful tool in the fight against America's civic recession. How we utilize that tool is up to us.


Barnard, Anne, and Alan Feuer. 2010. "Outraged, and Outrageous." New York Times, October 8. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/nyregion/10geller.html.

Franklin, Benjamin. n.d. (1793). The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.Philadelphia, PA: Independence Hall Association.http://www.ushistory.org/franklin/

Heschel, Susannah. 2005. "Following in My Father's Footsteps: Selma 40 Years Later." Vox of Dartmouth, April 4. http://www.dartmouth.edu/~vox/0405/0404/heschel.html

Huntington, Samuel P. 1996. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Mackey, Robert. 2010. "Fire and Gunshots at Tennessee Mosque Site Called 'Terrorism'." New York Times, August 30. http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/30/

Putnam, Robert D. 2001. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Putnam, Robert D., and David E. Campbell. 2010. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Washington, George. 1790 (1991). "George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island." In From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, edited by Abraham J. Karp. Washington, DC: Library of Congress.http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/

Wolf, Gary. 2006. "The Church of the Non-Believers." Wired Magazine, November.http://www.wired.com/wired/

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