There's no question — our country is divided. Tension hangs in the air over every conversation about the budget, gay marriage, immigration, and gun control. Of course, difference of opinion is nothing new in the U.S. This is a democracy after all. With the celebrated First Amendment as the cornerstone to our rights as Americans, we can freely shout our differing views from the rooftops — though in this day in age, shouting exists rarely on rooftops, but on the 24-hour news cycle, Facebook, Youtube, blogs, and Twitter. It seems to me that this pervasive exposure to differing opinions, partnered with increasingly more polarized party politics, has created a culture of division in our country.
Many Americans, particularly the younger generations, are disturbed by this culture of division and desire a more united, less polarized, America. The question becomes: how do we deconstruct our culture of division and build a culture of unity? Jim Wallis, in his piece, "On God's Side: For the Common Good," claims that much of the division felt in this country is because so many people audaciously claim that they are on God's side with their politics, actions, and words, and that those who don't think, act, and vote like them, are disobeying divine order. In an effort to move the country forward to unity, Rev. Wallis suggests that instead of making claims about being on God's side, we should start asking "are we on God's side?"
What would it mean to be on God's side? Rev. Wallis's answer is to focus on the common good:
"not just in politics, but in all the decisions we make in our personal, family, vocational, financial, communal, and public lives. That old but always new ethic simply says we must care for more than ourselves or our own group. We must care for our neighbor as well, and for the health of the life we share with one another. It echoes a very basic tenet of Christianity and other faiths - love your neighbor as yourself - still the most transformational ethic in history."
I agree with Rev. Wallis — focusing on the common good is a good step toward answering the question of how to be on God's side, and solving many of our nation's greatest points of division. In a country as diverse as ours, however, it can be challenging to know what the common good actually is. As individual participants in society, we all come to the table with different ideological structures for framing our understanding of what is commonly good. Those structures are often built around religion, philosophy, and our beliefs and understandings about existence, mortality, and the cosmos. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that we live in, arguably, the most religiously diverse nation of all time.
Yes, Jesus has called me to love my neighbor as myself, but what does that really mean when my neighbor is Mormon, Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, secular humanist, or Hindu?
Religion is often blamed for the world's greatest conflicts, and rightfully so. One doesn't have to look far to see conflict or violence that is linked to religious motivations or sentiments in some way (think the tragedy at the Boston Marathon or the Sikh man that was murdered shortly after 9/11 because he was wearing a turban). In a country that becomes more religiously diverse every day, it is easy to allow conflict to arise between different religious and non-religious groups. It is true, difference in religious and philosophical ideology can be a cause of great division. But what if I told you it doesn't have to be that way?
I believe that amidst all of our nation's diversity, we must be able to find, or create, common ground among us in order to focus on the common good. This is exactly what the American interfaith movement aims to do. According to the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a non-profit organization whose mission is to make interfaith cooperation a social norm, the interfaith movement seeks to build religious pluralism in the U.S. IFYC understands religious pluralism to be respect for others' religious and non-religious identities, mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds, and common action for the common good.
Religious pluralism, in its most ideal form, not only paves the way to common ground but also creates action for the common good through personal relationships. Pluralism is necessarily relational: it only manifests itself in the give and take of relationships between people of different religious and non-religious identities.
Interfaith cooperation is the path to religious pluralism and a path toward ending the hostile ideological environment in which our country finds itself. It can be scary or intimidating for people of different religions to meet each other half way and to have a conversation. IFYC suggests creating interfaith service projects where Atheists, Christians, and Muslims can work alongside each other in the context of a service project that benefits their mutual communities (a soup kitchen, for example). The service becomes the common ground on which personal relationships across difference are built. In the safety of their common ground, they can then begin to have dialogue and discover each other's true selves; thus paving the way to developing mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds and respect for others' religious and non-religious identities, backgrounds, and beliefs.
Don't be fooled. You don't have to leave your own unique religious (or non-religious) identity at the door to engage in interfaith cooperation. In fact, it requires you to be authentically yourself, religious identity and all. You can fully and genuinely respect another's identity while simultaneously holding your own differing religious identity. I, an evangelical Christian, can appreciate, and even be inspired, by the dedication of my Muslim neighbor to pray five times a day, while at the same time wanting them to know Jesus. What interfaith cooperation does require is to listen openly, check presumption at the door, and suspend pointing fingers and placing blame on your interfaith cohorts for the ills of the world.
Interfaith cooperation is evolving all the time. With the daily growth of religious diversity in the country, and the growing awareness around the interfaith movement, new voices are being added every day to the conversation about religious pluralism, interfaith cooperation, and their roles in creating common action for the common good. In light of this evolution, what remains consistent and clear is that having personal relationships across religious difference creates religious literacy and interpersonal understanding; such understanding fosters compassion while cultivating a more peaceful and united society. These relationships become our common ground.
I challenge you to help create common ground by building relationships across religious and ideological difference, and to help lay the foundation on which we can build our understanding of the common good and begin to build a stronger more united America.
"This blog post is part of The Huffington Post's 'Common Good' series and Sojourners' Common Good Forum, inspired by Jim Wallis' latest book, "On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned about Serving the Common Good." Click here to read the rest of the blog posts in the series.
Rachael McNeal is a recent graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary where she received her Master of Divinity. Rachael is also a graduate of Flagler College where she studied Religion/Philosophy and Youth Ministry. Rachael is an alum of the Interfaith Youth Core after completing a seminary course on Youth and Interfaith Leadership with Eboo Patel, Cassie Meyer, and Dr. Kenda Dean. She has written for the Interfaith Youth Core's blog and is on IFYC's alumni speakers bureau.
Image: Interfaith religious symbols, Sana Design / Shutterstock.com