A few weeks back, I was on a campus visit to the University of California at Los Angeles, where I first heard the story of Rachel Beyda. A pre-law sophomore, she applied for a seat on UCLA’s student Judicial Board and found her various identities an area of focus in the interview process.
Being a woman was viewed approvingly; the student-government representatives conducting the interview argued that the Judicial Board needed more strong women. But her Jewish faith was regarded with suspicion. Beyda had to respond to questions like, "Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?" (To their credit, UCLA faculty members and administrators called this line of questioning inappropriate.)
I had to wonder about the contradictory treatment accorded to the different dimensions of Beyda’s identity. By early March, many more were wondering with me. The story had become the most recent example of a campus religious controversy attracting national attention.
If I were a betting man, I would wager that if Beyda were black, gay, or Mexican, the student-government representative would have approached those identities more as they did her gender than as they did her religion. The histories, symbols, and solidarities (in other words, the biases) accompanying those identities would have been welcomed and understood as assets rather than liabilities. So why was being Jewish different?
While this specific instance seems more than a little tinged with anti-Semitism, I think the broader issue it reveals is the awkward relationship that higher education has with religion more generally. While higher education has stepped forward to do the hard — even heroic — work of engaging diversity issues related to race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality, religious identity has too frequently been dismissed or treated with derision.
But religion is not going away. The 1960s-era academics who advanced secularization theory confessed their errors long ago. As the sociologist Peter Berger told The Economist in 2007, "We made a category mistake. We thought the relationship was between modernization and secularization. In fact it was between modernization and pluralism."
Given the obvious religious pluralization that has taken place on American campuses in recent years, one might think that the leaders of campus-diversity movements, which championed robust engagement with race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, would have included religion on the priority list. But they, too, have largely ignored faith or treated it mainly as an agent of oppression. Cornel West the black activist is celebrated; Cornel West the black Baptist is ignored.
I recently spoke with a group of progressive student-affairs professionals, the kind of people who lead with their chin when it comes to diversity issues. When I asked how many of them had organized campus programs or protests related to the role of racism in the killing of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., there was vigorous applause. When I asked about programs or protests about the role that Islamophobia might have played in the execution-style murders of three young Muslim college students in North Carolina? Virtual silence.
Just as the murder of Michael Brown had a chilling effect on black students, so the murders of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha terrified Muslim students. The campus-diversity leaders all cared deeply about identity, but something was missing when faith was the primary identifier: a radar screen, a language, a comfort level, a knowledge base?
Yet religion is at the heart of national debates and global politics. Peter Berger wrote in 1999 in The Desecularization of the World, "The world today is as furiously religious as it ever was." This is as true today as it was then.
In an era riven with interfaith tension and crying out for positive engagement with religious difference, higher education’s approach (or lack thereof) to religious diversity flies in the face of what should be its mission to nurture engaged and educated citizens for a pluralistic world. Celebrating diversity is not just about dealing with the differences you like. It is about dealing with the differences that are central to the lives of students, the nation, and the world.
There is, of course, good and important interfaith work being done. Many college chaplains have developed excellent interfaith models; about 400 colleges have run interfaith service-learning programs under the auspices of President Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, impressive research is being published and undertaken, and a growing number of colleges are starting degree programs in interfaith studies.
Other people in higher education have told me that they understand how important it is to promote religious diversity, but that it just strikes them as too hard. Yes, I tell them, and race is so easy? Gender and sexuality are so simple?
Higher education had the courage to engage supremely uncomfortable subjects precisely because they were tremendously important to students’ lives, campus life, and the lives of the nation and the world. Besides, who else was going to do it? What other institution brings together impressionable young leaders from a range of backgrounds, seeks to both celebrate diversity and build community, and has first-rate knowledge-production resources and the luxury to think long-term?
The rest of our society looks to higher education to model the behavior, shape the leaders, and advance the knowledge base that build the future. It is, to say the least, inconsistent to advance a powerful vision when it comes to race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality, but to willingly forfeit religious diversity to other forces. It is also dangerous.
The world is a far better place because the academy had the courage and the vision to confront many issues of cultural diversity, including race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality, with great seriousness. That required new courses in the curriculum, measurable objectives in the strategic plan, dedicated dollars for relevant research, additional faces in senior administrative roles, a commitment from student-affairs professionals, and student leaders willing to both teach and learn.
Engaging religious diversity will require the same sort of investment. And it will reap, for our campuses, the nation, and the world, the same kinds of positive rewards.
Eboo Patel is president of the Interfaith Youth Core, a nonprofit organization that partners with higher education on issues of religious diversity. He is the author, most recently, of Sacred Ground(Beacon Press, 2012).