From Diversity to Pluralism

THE TERM “DIVERSITY” in professional and educational circles in the United States is frequently mentioned as positive on its face, needing no justification. “Diversity is our strength” or “diversity enriches us” are common statements.

But Harvard professor of comparative religion Diana Eck points out that diversity is simply a demographic fact—a situation in which people with different identities live in close quarters. The term says nothing about how those people get along with one another. Frankly, if all we knew about religious diversity in particular were the stories carried on the international news, it would be hard to conclude anything except that the close gathering of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and others is nothing but a recipe for conflict.

Religious conflict is especially deadly because the participants believe they are fighting for cosmic reasons—where death may be welcomed as martyrdom—and religious communities are the largest repositories of social capital in many civil societies, providing endless amounts of energy, people, and resources to mobilize.

But what if the social capital among religious communities could be bridged and people who orient around religion differently could be convinced to cooperate with one another? What if the cosmic narratives of religious traditions viewed people of other faiths as partners in the quest for the kingdom on earth? This is the hope of the interfaith movement, and building this movement is the job of interfaith leaders.

Just as there is no environmental movement without environmentalists and no human rights movement without human rights activists, there is no interfaith movement without interfaith leaders. Put simply, an effective interfaith leader is one who can work with diversity to build pluralism. I’m defining diversity with Diana Eck—as simply the fact of people and groups with different identities living in close quarters within cities, nations, and regions. Pluralism is an achievement characterized by three elements: respect for different identities, positive relationships between diverse communities, and a commitment to the common good. Diverse societies that achieve pluralism have a strong civic fabric—one that can withstand the provocations of extremists and haters—and are bridging their social capital in ways that can take on some of the toughest social problems of that society. But bridges don’t fall from the sky or rise from the ground; people build them. And the people on the vanguard of such work we call leaders.

When I mention the importance of interfaith leaders, people often ask, “Outside of the State Department, where would they get jobs?” Lots of places, I think. Staff of international development organizations attempting to spread polio vaccines in South Asia or anti-malarial bed nets in sub-Saharan Africa had better be aware of the religious energies in those places. YMCA executive directors and school principals in inner-city Minneapolis would do well to know something about the faith practices of the Somali Muslims, Hmong shamanists, and practitioners of Native American religions of the area. City officials in rapidly diversifying cities such as Atlanta, Houston, and Birmingham should have some knowledge of the Hindu customs of their growing Indian populations. And it would be a double tragedy if the first time that journalists from Milwaukee news outlets visited the local Sikh temple was in the immediate aftermath of a white supremacist shooting six people there.

In an era in which we are worried about both being good citizens and finding jobs, interfaith leadership is one of those areas that is good for both.

Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, writes about social justice from his perspective as a Muslim American of Indian heritage.

Image: Color pencils, Len44ik /

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