Colleges Should Be Nurturing Interfaith Leaders

June 13, 2016

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

I recently met a graduate of an elite liberal-arts college who was working as the activities coordinator in a facility for senior citizens. The most interesting part of her job, she said, had to do with the diverse religious identities of her clients. She was constantly organizing event spaces for various religious holidays, working with the kitchen to make sure food was prepared in a manner that met different religious specifications, and arranging for funeral services according to the rites of diverse faith traditions. Occasionally she had to help calm an argument over doctrinal disagreements or contradictory religious practices.

"I had to learn most of this on the fly," she told me. "The one part of identity we never talked about in college was faith."

I was reminded of this story as I read through the recent Chronicle special report on diversity. As usual, the articles were sharp and provocative. And as usual, religious identity was totally ignored.

Any college that promises to prepare global citizens has to take religious diversity seriously enough to educate their students to be interfaith leaders.
This is not so much a critique of The Chronicle as it is an observation about higher-education discourse more generally. Colleges are generally quick to respond to one set of important identity issues (racialized policing, transgender accommodations, sexist pay disparities) with academic and co-curricular programs meant to prepare leaders who can engage such challenges. Unfortunately, other dimensions of diversity, namely religion, get short shrift.

But even a casual perusal of The New York Times on any given day illustrates that religious diversity issues — from diplomacy across religious divides to tailoring public-health campaigns to particular religious communities — are just as challenging as other identity issues. And the experience of the recent graduate I mentioned earlier who was working through religious issues at a senior citizens’ center could as easily have taken place at a school, a company, a hospital, a YMCA, or, indeed, a college campus — in other words, the spaces where much of American life takes place, and where college graduates get jobs.

Given this reality, I’d like to make a small proposal: Any college that promises to prepare global citizens has to take religious diversity seriously enough to educate their students to be interfaith leaders.

An interfaith leader is someone with the vision, knowledge base, and skill set to create the spaces, organize the social processes, and craft the conversations such that people of different religions can share a common life together.

To begin with, interfaith leaders need a vision for a healthy religiously diverse democracy. They know that religion is about fundamental things; that diversity is not just about the differences you like but also the differences you don’t like; that democracy is not just about the opportunity to vote but the ability to make your personal convictions public. In such a society, conflicts are to be expected. A healthy religiously diverse democracy is a place where people who disagree on some fundamental things do so without violence and in a manner that allows them to work together on other fundamental things.

To build such societies, interfaith leaders require particular knowledge. To start, they need an appreciative knowledge of various religious, ethical, and philosophical communities. Appreciative knowledge goes beyond what is normally considered religious literacy (Which religion is the Bhagavad Gita associated with? What is the most populous Muslim-majority country?). It is a type of knowledge that attunes people to the contributions that various religious communities have made to the common good. It roughly parallels the approach that Black History Month or Women’s History Month takes — correcting for knowledge gaps by telling stories about exemplary figures like George Washington Carver and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. An appreciative knowledge about Muslims, for example, would highlight figures from Rumi to Muhammad Ali to Malala Yousafzai and illustrate how they embody core values in Islam.

Interfaith leaders also need to know something of the history of interfaith cooperation. They should know the story of George Washington’s "Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island"; of Jane Addams welcoming the immigrant Catholics and Jews who came to Hull House as equal citizens of a diverse democracy; of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marching with the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel for civil rights in Selma; of how evangelicals and Catholics went from being sworn enemies to political allies. Like appreciative knowledge, highlighting the history of interfaith cooperation serves as a corrective in a time when violent religious conflict is so broadly emphasized as to acquire the aura of inevitability.

In addition to a vision and a knowledge base, interfaith leaders need a specialized skill set. One essential skill is developing a radar screen for religious diversity. Over the past several decades, higher education has helped millions of students recognize troubling patterns when it comes to race, gender, and sexuality, such as the difficulties racial minorities face in Hollywood and the challenges women face in politics.

The same must be done for the implications of religious diversity. The absence of such a radar screen has led to some high-profile failures in significant domains. Madeleine Albright, for example, confesses in her book The Mighty and the Almighty that her State Department paid too little attention to the religious energies at the heart of the major conflicts of the 1990s, from the Balkans to South Asia to the Middle East. While she had legions of economic experts on her diplomatic staff, she had exactly one religion expert in the entire State Department. Had there been more, she concludes, wars might have ended sooner and lives could have been saved.

A second crucial interfaith leadership skill has to do with effective public narrative. As the psychologist Howard Gardner writes in Leading Minds, leaders relate compelling stories in the world and embody those stories in their lives. At a time when so many stories about religious diversity emphasize ugliness, a huge part of interfaith leadership has to be about launching appreciative religious knowledge and the possibility of cooperation into the public sphere in a way that inspires hope.

Colleges have the unique privilege of connecting unparalleled intellectual resources with idealistic young people so that they might find meaningful vocations. Generations of young people have arrived on campus carrying ugly biases or large blind spots related to race, gender, and sexuality. The ideas and people they encountered during their time there set them on leadership paths that changed our society for the better.

In an era of frightening prejudice and violence related to religious diversity, colleges must do the same when it comes to nurturing interfaith leaders.

Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core and author of the forthcoming book Interfaith Leadership: A Primer (Beacon Press, August 2016).