Both college and religion are in the news as I write. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum called Barack Obama’s faith “phony theology” and spoke of campuses as “indoctrination mills.”
Our main partners in interfaith cooperation at Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) are college campuses, and as founder and president I’ve set foot on dozens and worked indirectly with hundreds more. My experience offers a very different perspective than Santorum’s. With the right leadership, curriculum, and activities, campuses are places where people can deepen their faith identities and learn the very American art of interfaith bridge-building. In fact, campuses are environments that can model this interfaith bridge-building for the rest of society, a place where students can learn the knowledge base and skill set of interfaith leadership.
Take the University of Illinois, for instance, where interfaith cooperation has been a priority for the better part of a decade. The student leaders of Interfaith in Action include evangelicals, Jews, humanists, Muslims, and Hindus. Together, they mobilized thousands of volunteers from different traditions to package more than 1 million meals for Haiti in the aftermath of the tragic 2010 earthquake. The group is now coordinating a spring conference that will empower student leaders from around the country to engage people of different faiths and act together on pressing issues such as hunger and homelessness. One of the leaders of the effort, Greg Damhorst, told me he does interfaith organizing because gathering people from different faiths to serve others is one way of living out the command of Jesus to offer comfort to the afflicted.
Students elsewhere are taking the lead in building relationships across faith lines on campus. Mason Sklut, a Jewish student at Elon University in North Carolina, faced anti-Semitic harassment so harsh as an eighth grader that he transferred to a new school. Now, as an organizer of Elon’s Better Together interfaith action campaign, he is breaking down the same bigotry he confronted as a child. Mason is welcomed when he shares what it means to be Jewish with students of other backgrounds. “Through Better Together at Elon,” Mason says, “I have been able to forge relationships with Muslims, Jews, Christians, and students of all faiths and traditions in an accepting and ever-growing multicultural environment.” He is living out his Jewish values, battling anti-Semitism, and building America, all because of the resources offered on his campus.
Then there are students like Rachel Hyden, who come to college without knowing much about religion. Raised in a household where religion was never discussed, she came to Ohio University with little knowledge of the many faith traditions that were so important to her fellow students. Through her commitment to building bridges and to growing her own interfaith literacy, Rachel has become more comfortable with a personal faith identity that does not have a label or title. That identity inspired her to coordinate a 9/11 Peace Walk that built trust and understanding across faith lines.
These communities and leaders show us that when presidential candidates are dismissive toward college campuses and derogatory to the faith identity of other candidates, they do a disservice to the core value of pluralism in America. It is college campuses that have the opportunity to hold up that core value by positively engaging religious diversity. I hope, as we continue in this campaign season, that our presidential candidates lift up students like Mason and Rachel as examples of the unique opportunity we have on college campuses to nurture interfaith leaders and build interfaith cooperation.
Eboo Patel is founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core and author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation .