Religious liberty in America requires acceptance of diversity

Sunday, November 28, 1999

Much has been made of the changing face of America — the rapidly growing racial and cultural diversity now found in every region of our nation. As year 2000 approaches, there is considerable hand-wringing among commentators about the potential for ethnic and racial strife in 21st-century America.

The situation is even more challenging than they think. Less visible, but perhaps more volatile is the exploding religious diversity in the United States. Of all our differences, religion may be the deepest and most difficult to negotiate. If you doubt that, take a look at India, Bosnia, Northern Ireland or Sri Lanka.

Religious diversity got some much-needed attention last week when educators and religious leaders convened at Harvard University to focus on the task of building a civil society in a multi-religious America. For several days, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and others spoke about their life in this country, telling what it is like to be both an American citizen and a member of a “minority” faith.

While nearly everyone expressed gratitude for the high degree of religious freedom in the United States, many also spoke about the pain of being “different.” A Hindu leader related the sad saga of a New Jersey community that fought to keep Hindus from holding a religious festival there. Sikhs talked about their court battles to retain the right to wear the kirpan (ceremonial dagger), as required by their faith.

Particularly disturbing was the fact that a Muslim speaker felt constrained to open her remarks by saying, “We are not terrorists.” Stereotypes are difficult to overcome, especially if your appearance is “different.” From the workplace to the zoning commission, Muslim citizens frequently have a hard time being accepted as “American.”

We rarely hear these stories. Many of us know little or nothing about who is actually in our nation and in our neighborhoods. The sponsor of the Harvard conference, The Pluralism Project, is trying to change that by studying and mapping the variety of religious life in communities throughout the country.

It turns out that our religious diversity is abundant and widespread. Hindu temples dot the landscape in states like North Carolina and Georgia. Hundreds of Islamic centers are found in every region of the country, from Orange County, Calif., to Huntsville, Ala. In the counties surrounding Chicago alone, there are more than 40 Buddhist centers.

With such variety of religious expression (and with all that we know about the history of religious conflict), how can we ensure that religious diversity is a source of strength for America in the 21st century, not a point of weakness?

First, we must reaffirm our shared commitment to religious liberty under the First Amendment. That means upholding the right of all citizens to practice and proclaim their faith, without using the engine of government to coerce anyone.

Second, we must learn more about one another. Ignorance breeds suspicion and distrust. Only through mutual understanding can we engage each other with respect and civility.

Not that understanding others requires us to accept their religion. We are all free to call others to the truth as we know it. But we do need to know something about who our neighbors are if we're going to debate them without going for the jugular.

Third, members of minority faiths must speak up more in the public square. That's beginning to happen with the formation of Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and other advocacy groups. We can't address underlying tensions and potential sources of conflict in schools or in the workplace until we hear from the voices that have been silent.

Thanks largely to the First Amendment, Americans have managed thus far to negotiate deep religious differences without holy wars. But if our experiment in religious liberty is going to survive in the next century, we have much work to do.

America is not Bosnia, India or Northern Ireland. Let's keep it that way.