Redefining America's Religious Tradition

December 13th, 2010 | Posted by:

Today’s guest blog, the latest in our ongoing series of guest contributors, comes from Stephen Goeman and Bruce Wang, members of Tufts Freethought Society. It is a reflection on pluralism and its ramifications for several contemporary social issues, written from the perspective of two up-and-coming nonreligious student leaders. Initially produced for the Tufts Roundtable, it is a thorough and compelling call for pluralism — please check it out:

ingodwetrustA fundamental challenge is confronting America’s modern religiosity: a nation once considered primarily Christian, or at least Judeo-Christian, is getting a taste of secular values. The National Day of Prayer, first started in 1952, has been challenged by a federal judge, LGBT teen suicides have many reconsidering their stance on homosexuality, and Muslims are fighting to build Islamic centers wherever they please—regardless of their proximity to Ground Zero. These examples characterize a push against the fundamentalist stances of religious America—the push of pluralism—or the idea that peace in a modern society depends on allowing all lifestances to thrive. While fundamentalism threatens to divide members of various communities, enforcers of pluralism seek to unite these beliefs in order to maintain the progression of civilized debate and inclusive cooperation.

Traditionally, there are few limitations on what or who is considered American: all individuals, regardless of their point of origin, creed, or identity have an equal position as American citizens. This is a tradition worth preserving. However, this basic right is under fire on America’s religious spectrum by exclusivists, who counter America’s growing religious diversity by denying outsiders the right to participate in America’s religious culture. This view has a consecrated history in everyday language through the exclusivist phrase “Christian nation.”  Exclusivism creates a unity at the expense of America’s minority opinions—opinions that need protecting.

The progressive preservation of equality comes from pluralism. Eboo Patel, President and Founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, explains that “pluralism is neither mere coexistence nor forced consensus… Instead, religious pluralism is ‘energetic engagement’ that affirms the unique identity of each particular religious tradition and community, while recognizing that the well-being of each depends on the health of the whole.”

Pluralism is advanced through interfaith cooperation, the goal of which is to make knowledge of individual beliefs readily accessible through positive and productive interaction. Interestingly, nonbelievers are taking a leading role in this movement. Chris Stedman, Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, claims that “it is precisely because I am an atheist, and not in spite of it, that I am motivated to do interfaith work.” It is clear that the stereotype of atheists as desirous of conflict with religion is monstrously untrue (even the aggressive Christopher Hitchens is on record as saying that, given the chance, he would not end international religious belief).

As Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain for Harvard University, notes, “Would some atheists reject the concept of pluralism? Of course. But plenty of Christians reject it as well, and you’d hardly think of holding an interfaith meeting without Christians because of it.” Epstein believes that interfaith events which exclude the nonreligious are arbitrarily divisive and not truly pluralistic. Stedman agrees, and further argues that the religious should be willing to come to the defense of nonbelievers when individuals belittle nonreligious values. Progress is already being made in these areas; the Universal Society of Hinduism publicly defended atheists from Pope Benedict XVI’s comparison of atheists and Nazis, and even the conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly has recently admitted that atheists are not immoral. If we desire the end of prejudice in America, pluralism must be advocated.

Recent legislation has called exclusivist values into question. For almost 60 years, Americans have gathered once a year to celebrate faith through the medium of unified prayer with government sponsorship. However, the legality of this event has been questioned by federal judge Barbara Crabb. Does this event actually encourage equal participation between all Americans, or does it lend itself to an unconstitutional favor of religion? Crabb asserts that the event characterizes the latter, stating that, “In this instance, the government has taken sides on an issue that must be left to individual conscience.” It is also clear that the event is not a celebration of all American religions, but instead caters exclusively to Christians. An Indiana celebration in 2003 split into two disjointed events: one for conservative Christians, and one for everyone else. In 2005, invitations to participate in the Day of Prayer in Plano, Texas were restricted to Christians. That same year, the National Day of Prayer Task Force objected to an American Hindu woman leading a prayer.

This string of events characterizes the clash of exclusivism and pluralism; Americans who seek equal representation for all citizens, regardless of their religious stance, have to contend with an exclusivist tradition. Crabb is right to contest the National Day of Prayer’s government sponsorship. America is characterized by a distinct cohesiveness which unifies greatly varying beliefs, and this is absolutely something to celebrate. However, the National Day of Prayer does not foster these pluralistic values. Our nation can do better.

The conflict between Christianity and homosexuality could also desperately use an injection of pluralist values. The issues of gay marriage and LGBT teen suicides in the last few years have been a painfully divisive wedge between fundamentalist Christian values and those advocating for progressive equality. At every gay rights rally, there are those who vehemently oppose legal equality for all LGBT-identified people on religious or moral grounds, and there are the Christian progressives reminding us that everyone falls under God’s love. If the focus is adjusted to today’s main-stream Evangelicals, the new progressives are those who fully accept homosexuality and the fundamentalists that now advocate a stance similar to the “love the sinner, not the sin” approach. While secular culture overwhelmingly continues to favor gay rights, outspoken fundamentalists have ramped up their rhetoric in order to balance against what they perceive to be antagonism towards their religious values, resulting in their radicalization.

Consider the recent controversy over censorship of high school senior Sean Simonson’s article asking students to reach out in support of LGBT youth. Administrators of Benilde- St. Margaret’s School banned the publication of Simonson’s article, offering this explanation; “this particular discussion is not appropriate because the level of intensity has created an unsafe environment for students.” While the general response to LGBT youth suicide by the majority of Christians is that of compassion, this is merely one example of many of the widening gap  of opinion on the issue of homosexuality. Both sides want to prevent mistreatment and suicides of LGBT youth, yet one accepts their identity as morally valid while the other continues to condemn their nature as intrinsically immoral.

The questions Christians must ask themselves, regarding this issue, are: do we really want to help stop teen suicide, and does this condemnation of homosexuality further that commitment? To answer these questions definitively is vital to the reconciliation between traditional fundamentalists and a growing liberal movement, but first a plurality of opinions and stances must be accepted in order to foster civilized debate between the traditionalist and progressive communities. If the issue of homosexuality is to cease existing as a wedge, they must abandon their combative and hostile attitude regarding fundamentalist tradition and embrace a movement to bridge their differences.

Islamphobia is another form of exclusivity which has gained widespread media attention through controversy stirred by the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”. Ironically, when news of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York (actual name) was first publicized, few took notice, much less opposed the project. When Daisy Khan, wife of Feisal Abdul Rauf, project leader of the Islamic Cultural Center, was interviewed by Laura Ingraham on The O’Reily Factor, no indication of controversy was found. Ingraham, who has spoken out against radicalized Islam frequently on her radio show said, “I can’t find many people who really have a problem with it” and “I like what you’re trying to do”.

However, when anti-Muslim blogger and Executive Director of Stop Islamization of America Pamela Geller framed the issue as an offense to the victims of 9/11 and a ploy to spread extremism in America, exclusivists began to take notice. She pushed her position to the mainstream media through the New York Post almost half a year later, drawing the fear and prejudice of an impassioned constituent. By later distorting Feisal Abdul Rauf’s intentions, Geller was able to promulgate this needlessly divisive issue in order to advance the self-explanatory goals of Stop Islamization of America.

The damage of religious exclusivity and marginalization has been dealt: hostility, insensitivity, and mischaracterization of the Muslim minority in America has only fed the flames of extremism abroad. Feisal Abdul Rauf began the Islamic Cultural Center as an effort to promote moderate Islam and to combat violent extremism from creeping into American society, but the effort by mostly right-wing Evangelicals to suppress a religious minority in order to preserve and extol one’s own religious identity over another has undermined a genuine effort towards advancing international peace. It is an affront to our principles of equality when Muslims so willingly meet America halfway, only to be cut off by exclusivist thinking.

As religion grows in America, exclusivist doctrine must be repudiated in favor of impartial pluralism. Members of all faiths—and no faith—should work together through the interfaith movement on an equal playing field, and we should not be surprised that nonbelievers are being included.

Americans should rush to fight prejudice, even when they are not members of the group being marginalized. Through pluralism we can defend universal equality which is simply not attainable through exclusivism. The pluralist movement, secular in principle, should be encouraged to continue as the catalyst of individual and communal growth in America. By these means, we can live up to our most progressive motto, E Pluribus Unum (from many, one), and leave the exclusionist motto, One Nation Under God, behind.

editededited2Bruce Wang is a sophomore majoring in International Relations with a minor in Film Studies. Currently he is also the Public Relations Chair of the Tufts Freethought Society. Stephen Goeman is a sophomore majoring in cognitive and brain science and philosophy. He is the community outreach representative of the Tufts Freethought Society.

"State of Belief" Radio Interview

November 22nd, 2010 | Posted by:

state of beliefI recently had the honor of appearing on State of Belief, a weekly radio program hosted by the great Rev. Welton Gaddy. Having read my last Huffington Post article, he asked be about the Interfaith Youth Core‘s D.C. institutes and the role of the non-religious in interfaith work. Check it out here!

The Gay Divide

November 8th, 2010 | Posted by:

Today’s guest post in our ongoing series of guest contributors comes once more from Nicholas Lang, who previously submitted guest pieces considering Park51 and the state of American dialogue and reflecting on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Today’s piece is a personal triumph; searing, sobering, and terribly relevant. There’s really nothing more that I can say about it, besides the fact that you must read it. Seriously. Read it:

gay-divideWhen I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I looked into the face of a stranger. I didn’t know his middle name or what he was really like, but when I heard that he had leapt off of a bridge to take his own life, I cried. When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I saw that many commentators and bloggers were confused by this sudden suicide, said that they couldn’t fathom the incredible loneliness that leads to such a drastic action.

When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I cried because I did understand. I cried because America is full of Tyler Clementis. I cried because I was Tyler Clementi.

When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I thought about the first time I pondered committing suicide.

It was 7th grade; I was in gym class, wearing shorts ten sizes too big for me and a thick gold chain with a cross at the end. Thinking about suicide was surprisingly easy.  I knew exactly which pills I would take.  I knew what my body would look like when my grandmother discovered it in the morning. I knew the words I would write to my family, knew I would take the longing looks I sent to a certain male classmate with me to my grave. I couldn’t name my feelings, but I knew I wasn’t like everyone else. I knew I wanted to be the same, to cover up the Agatha Christie books I read in secret, to feign interest in the bland rap songs the other students were blaring.

And if I couldn’t minimize my difference, I would execute it.

Throughout high school, I would devise a number of ways to kill myself, some melodramatic, others rather macabre; my preferred method involved a simple revolver to the head in my stepfather’s dilapidated pick-up truck. I even made it into a favorite pastime, finding myself surprisingly adept at doodling my Rube Goldergesque strategies in my notebooks. For me, suicide was the only way to sublimate the secrets I couldn’t share, to minimize the hurt of having my backpack thrown in a garbage can, to deafen the “gay jokes” of a father who had to know what he was doing to his oldest son.

When I came out in my Very Southern Baptist church at sixteen, a few of my fellow churchgoers were wildly supportive: one boasted that he had been fired from his job at a car wash because of the HRC Equality Symbol that rested proudly on his windshield. However, I was largely met with indifference or scorn, and the week after my sexuality’s unveiling, the subject of Sunday’s sermon was something akin to “San Francisco: How the 21st Century Sodom and Gomorrah is Destroying Your Family.” Although all sinners were in the hands of an angry God, the head pastor sat me down that day to explain to me that God reserved his most special brimstone for us “flamers.” In particular, God was waiting for me specifically, waiting to “cut me down” like a Johnny Cash song.  God may have been loving and forgiving for normal folks, but He doomed gays to a life of ostracizion and depression.

In conclusion, my pastor sent me away with a simple homework assignment: change. He asked me to read those Bible passages about my “abomination” and gave me some helpful anti-pornography literature. With a little help from Jesus’ friends in the publishing industry, I was to turn from a sinner into a winner.

After that day, I never went back.

In my case, and in many other cases, religion was used as a tool to divide us, a way to mark “others.” For extremist Salafi Muslims, labeling fellow Muslims as “kafirs,” which translates to apostates or non-believers, allows these radicals to wage violent jihad against their own people.  In my case, labeling me a sinner allowed my co-religionists to wage spiritual violence against me, to rhetorically put me to death. I once went to a service where the pastor told us that God loved all of His weeds, but I wondered why I was labeled a “weed.” Why was my difference so pejorative, so ugly? Why was my difference always in need of heavenly forgiveness?  Everyone else seemed to agree that weeds like me needed to exterminated, that AIDS was God’s lawnmower. They were so busy telling me to die that I never got around to wondering about how to live.

Years of Pat Robertson condemning me to Hell, Jerry Falwell condemning me to Hell, my grandmother condemning me to Hell only served to further support their argument. When I read about Anita Bryant telling good, God-fearing Americans that they had to “Save the Nation” from people like me, I understand that it’s our culture that teaches LGBT kids to hate themselves. How can we truly speak of change in our society when Focus on the Family ads still proclaim to be saving Americans from us, when Bush’s outspoken opposition to gay marriage largely got him elected in 2004? We uphold the loneliness of LGBT kids when we tell them that their love doesn’t belong in this church, their love can’t go to this prom, their love isn’t legal in this state.

In his seminal book, “Acts of Faith,” Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel speaks of a “Faith Divide” that permeates today’s society, a religious intolerance that leads people of separate faiths to blow each other up. To borrow from Mr. Patel, what I see in the midst of the LGBT suicide epidemic is a Gay Divide:  One which arms good Christians, good Jews, good Muslims to destroy people they don’t know. In a letter published in the Salt LakeTribune, William Germain writes that recent events show a growing “divide in the way we treat each other, whether with religion, race, sex or politics. We have become a people of hate…It’s almost like we’re fighting a bunch of civil wars, and for no reason.”

In an article for the Washington Post, columnist Mitchell Gold likewise finds that these divides can “have deadly consequences. Gay youth who are rejected or ostracized by their families are at high risk of depression, substance abuse, HIV infection, and dropping out of school. They are also at least four times more likely than other youth to commit suicide. For gay youth who are sent to a therapist who tries to change their sexual orientation, that risk is even higher. Let me emphasize, it is not their being gay that puts them at risk but rather how they are treated by their parents and clergy.” Gold’s column was in response to recent remarks by media demagogue Tony Perkins, who has used the “bullying” controversy to publicly insist that it’s not society’s intolerance that leads to the suicide of kids like Tyler. Perkins affirms that what drives them to suicide is an understanding of their own immorality.

Although people like Tony Perkins, and the many others like him, many be on the front lines of this conflict, Gold seems to insist that an entire system of religious teaching and preaching is implicit in perpetuating the Gay Divide. Gold writes, During my visits with people of faith in all parts of the country, I have spoken with Evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants and Jews who have been taught that homosexuality is immoral and wrong. Almost invariably, they are surprised and concerned when they hear about the harms caused by those teachings. Many have told me they had not fully considered the impact on a gay young person of being told that he is sinful and abnormal, or that he will be cut off from God’s love unless he can do the impossible and change who he is.”

Certainly, the members of my church never stopped to consider what the effect that their condemnation would have on me, the years of psychological damage that thinking God didn’t, couldn’t possibly, love you would cause. I spent years hating God because of the bigotry of one man, and I was lucky that such sentiments didn’t have the same ultimate effect on me that it had on Tyler. Although I am no longer at the point where I call myself a believer, I know what my travails made me believe in: the power of communities to heal. In high school, I didn’t have God, but I had friends to lift me up, friends who understood what being an outcast was like.  I had the guidance of a history teacher, who was deterred from taking his own life by the kindness of a complete stranger. These allies were living proof of Dan Savage’s assertation that “It Gets Better.”

And I’m here to tell you: it does get better. I don’t believe in a God, but as a member of theVincent and Louise House, which is DePaul’s Catholic intentional living community, I have nine faithful housemates that I do believe in. As a queer man, I believe in the power of allies like these to help heal the hurt we that we share, to build bridges across social divides. At a recent DePaul vigil to honor the number of LGBT youths who have taken their lives in recent months, a mother from PFLAG came to talk about her unfailing support for her gay son, and another speaker related that their mother’s support in a time of crisis saved their life. But the incredible diversity of attendees showed that this mantle has been taken up by more than just our mothers. In the crowd, I saw teachers, students, friends and lovers standing together, people committed to a better world, committed to making America a safer place for our “weeds” to grow in.

Just as importantly, I stand in solidarity with people of faith committed to speaking about intolerance and calling for change.  Following these controversies, religious leaders like Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach preached understanding and tolerance, wrote that our congregations have a place for all people, regardless of sexuality.  But what really inspires me are the people who have come together to take action towards building a culture where people of faith and LGBT people are not seen as diametrically opposed. An ideological cousin to the “It Gets Better” project, the “Faith Gets Better” campaign, an initiative by Faith in Public Life, argues that hatred and bigotry divide us, not religion. These courageous religious folks — some queer, some allies — show us that religion can be a force for good in this conflict.

The “queer people of faith” involved in LGBT Change’s The Faith Project likewise testify to the fact that religion does have the power to affirm people of all backgrounds and sexualities. But at the initiative’s launch on Oct. 20, the evening’s speakers preached a far more important message: faith cannot get better all on its own. If we want a world where religion unites rather than divides, where LGBT kids are safe in their own communities, we have to build it.

As an intern for Interfaith Youth Core, we recently launched the Better Together campaign, where we are asking people a similar question: “What If?” What world could we build if “we took action together?” I already know what this world could look like. I see it every day when people come together to dialogue around difference, when people decide that we are better than inherited hatreds.  I see it in the faces of my ever-loving brothers, who never had to work to “accept me” for who I am, whose support and solidarity was as easy as an embrace. I look in their eyes and know that this better world is there, waiting for us to fight for it.

We all have a role in building a society where we love past difference: where we teach our children not to hate each other, where we teach adults not to hate each other, where we are not alone. To be Better Together, all it takes is to be an ally to someone. So, all of you reading this — people of faith, people of no faith — tell someone today that you love them for exactly who they are. Tell them that they don’t need to die for you to stand in solidarity with them. Rather than waiting until it’s too late to honor a loved one, hold up a candle for them today. Taking action now might save a life.

It saved mine.

This post originally appeared on DePaul Interfaith and was refeatured on NonProphet Status at the author’s request.

NickNicholas Lang is the Communications Intern for Interfaith Youth Core and a Senior in International Studies at DePaul University. Nick just started up DePaul’s first film club, the DePaul A.V. Club, and represents the lone agnostic among 2010-2011′s Vincent and Louise House residents, who represent DePaul’s Catholic intentional living and social justice community. He is also the co-founder of the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance, an initiative between Chicago’s LGBT campus groups; a writer for the DePaulia newspaper; and head of Campus Outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. Occassionally, Nick sleeps.

better togetherMy new Huffington Post Religion article on my recent trip to D.C. was just published, and is currently being featured at the top of the Religion page. This one is extra special to me because it is heavily comprised of other people’s words; those of the amazing students and staff I met at the recent IFYC / Georgetown / White House institute I helped with and spoke at. Their perspectives are truly awesome. Check out the first part below; it can be read in full at The Huffington Post:

Atheists are leading the charge for interfaith cooperation. If that sounds contradictory, allow me to confirm: I just saw it with my own eyes.

Last weekend, more than 200 college students and 100 faculty and staff from across the United States converged in Washington, D.C. for five days of interfaith training. Students and campus staff participated in two consecutive Interfaith Leadership Institutes, planned and run by the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), where they received intensive training that prepared them to take the lead in a national movement for interfaith cooperation and social action.

The Interfaith Leadership Institutes, co-hosted by the Georgetown University Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, consisted of a series of trainings, speeches and events intended to equip hundreds of student leaders and campus allies with the vision, knowledge and skills necessary to lead interfaith and community service initiatives on their campuses. The White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships hosted a session for each institute, and then participants spent two days at Georgetown being trained and equipped.

I was honored to join these students and their staff and faculty allies as a speaker and volunteer IFYC Alumni Coach for the institutes. I was amazed by the enthusiasm and compassion modeled by everyone I met, but as a secular humanist and interfaith activist, the number of nonreligious participants present is perhaps what excited me the most. Continue reading at The Huffington Post.

tikkundailyPlease check out my new post over at Tikkun Daily on the new initiative I’m heading up for the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue (JIRD), in partnership with the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. The project, called State of Formation, will be a forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders to engage the pressing issues of our time. The deadline for nominations is October 15th, so if you are or know an emerging ethical or religious leader, please don’t hesitate to fill out the nomination form here.

Below is an excerpt of the piece (which was also republished by JIRD’s InterViews here and My Out Spirit here); it can be read in full at Tikkun Daily:

“What qualifies you to do this?” I asked myself as I rode the train home one day to write my first contribution to the Washington Post’s On Faith last year. I listened to the wheels rumble beneath me, looked at those sitting around me, and knew I was headed in a new direction.

I was 22-years-old, an atheist, and a seminary student. Though I don’t believe in God, I decided to go to seminary because I wanted to find a way to bridge the divide between religious and secular communities. The summer after my first year at seminary I began interning at the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that aims to mobilize a movement of young people positively engaging religious pluralism. The organization’s founder, Eboo Patel, maintained a blog for On Faith and invited me to submit a guest post for it.

At the time, I was beginning to recognize that the organized atheist movement often talked about religion in ways that created more division instead of less. As an atheist, I was frustrated by what I saw as a total lack of interest from my fellow atheists in respectfully engaging religious identities. So I sat down and wrote about it.

As I was working on my essay, I began to browse the rest of the site. On Faith features a panel of contributors that are among the most respected and knowledgeable experts in the fields of religion and ethics. But I didn’t see many blogs on their site by people who weren’t already established as authorities. I wondered if I was actually qualified to write for the website.

After my submission was posted, I started getting some unexpected feedback. “This is exactly what I think, but I didn’t know anyone else agreed with me,” wrote one reader. “Thank you for saying something our community really needs to hear,” wrote another. These readers happened to be young people.

bullhornI hadn’t thought that there were others who felt the same way I did, let alone other young people. I talked to a friend who maintained a blog of his own, and he suggested I create a blog to continue sorting through this issue.

I started NonProphet Status, and suddenly became a part of a larger conversation on the issue of religion and atheism. The blog quickly began to get traction in interfaith and atheist circles, and soon I was being asked to speak at conferences, received invitations to write in other venues, and watched my blog views grow from week to week. I, a young seminary student with a small but growing vision for respectful engagement across lines of secular and religious identity, suddenly had a platform.

Emerging leaders in formation, especially young ones, deserve to have a voice. In a time defined by deep political and religious divisions, we need to hear from those who will shape our ethical future. The current American discourse on religion and ethics is primarily defined by established leaders – ministers, rabbis, academics and journalists. While their perspectives are invaluable, this leaves an entire population of important stakeholders without a platform: the up-and-comers. Continue reading at Tikkun Daily.