IT IS A SAD truth that presidential election seasons widen our divisions. The candidates seem to view veering toward the extremes as a mark of “patriotism.” That ethic gets reflected in our broader political discourse.
This is dangerous stuff in a diverse democracy. The heart of the American idea is that different groups can advance divergent interests and still collectively see themselves as one people. Princeton philosopher Jeffrey Stout puts it this way: “[Democracy] takes for granted that reasonable people will differ in their conceptions of piety, in their grounds for hope, in their ultimate concerns, and in their speculations about salvation. Yet it holds that people who differ on such matters can still exchange reasons with one another intelligibly, cooperate in crafting political arrangements that promote justice and decency in their relations with one another, and do both of these things without compromising their integrity.”
He calls this process of relating across differences building a “civic nation.” In the pursuit of that high value, here is a personal story of building relationships across deep religious differences.
MY WIFE’S PARENTS are moderately observant Muslims. For many years, they lived in a Chicago suburb next to an evangelical Christian family who homeschooled their three girls. At first, the two families were pleasant to each other but had little contact. Things changed when, one year when my wife and I were visiting for Eid prayers, the girls next door poked their heads over the wooden fence and invited our boys to come over and play. Our boys whooped happily and went.
This of course meant all of us adults trooped across the driveway and properly introduced ourselves to the neighbors. We collectively overheard a fascinating interfaith conversation in the backyard, our oldest son Zayd explaining that he got out of school today to celebrate Eid, a holiday that Muslims believe in because we believe in the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran. The neighbor’s oldest daughter responded that they go to school at home so they can follow a Christian curriculum because they believe in Jesus and the Bible. We adults shifted uncomfortably as we listened, knowing full well the doctrinal issues at stake. “Looks like someone learned something in religion class this week,” somebody commented, allowing nervous laughter to break out.