Driving north on I-75 through the flat state of Ohio, I'm usually scanning the horizon for those ticket-giving folks who, I'm told, like out-of-state cars. As I near Toledo, though, I begin looking for a mosque whose splendor and size impress even the casual observer. It is a clear reminder that no longer are world religions only on the other side of the world; they are thriving in our very own neighborhoods.
Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion at Harvard University, eloquently details this in A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation. Drawing on her research with the Pluralism Project, an organization she founded that tracks religious diversity in the United States, Eck focuses on the growth of Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu communities in America. In short, this book proves that the notion of American religion as being simply Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish is as outdated as the typewriter in our world of computers. Too bad if the media and campaigning politicians haven't yet noticed.
Eck finds that many Americans are simply unaware that they have neighbors of different religions. Others are overtly hostile. In chapters on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, Eck traces the history and challenges of each faith in America. In the chapter "Afraid of Ourselves," Eck claims that "American xenophobia has given rise to a thousand stories of insult and insinuation, assault and hatred." She cites a July 4 editorial she wrote for the Los Angeles Times in which she described the many places the American flag was flying"on the grand staircase of the His Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights, California, for example, or next to the blackboard in the fourth-grade classroom of an Islamic school in Orange County." A Tampa man wrote in response: "If this is indeed the case...then I wonder how all these people got here.... Now it is time to close the doors. I suggest they go back where they came from."
The United States is in the midst of an unprecedented cultural shift. "It is massive," she writes, "and it has religious dimensions. This change is here to stay, and it can't be dismissed by saying simply that there are more Southern Baptists than Hindus. It is not a matter of numbers, but of a basic transformation of our religious society."
In the most cogent and poignant sections of the book, Eck predicts that religious diversity will be the most important struggle in the American public square in the next few decades. It took the issue of faith-based communities receiving government funding for Protestants, Catholics, and Jews to realize that America included worshipers other than Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, according to Eck. "When it became clear that Hindus and Muslims might receive funding for faith-based initiatives, there was a certain alarm."
Eck's prescription to ongoing religious pluralism is not simply tolerance or "a blending in a religious melting pot," but active engagement in understanding and full participation of each faith in American life. Recognizing that difference will always be among us, Eck seeks a "civic oneness of commitment to the common covenants of our citizenship out of the manyness of religious ways and worlds."
She doesn't propose any new and profound solutions to further religious pluralism, but she points to several examples occurring in communities across the country. The suggestion can be inferred that America will continue to progress in its plurality, as evidenced by her use of anecdotes, as generations continue to become more diverse. Now that minority religions have become increasingly visible, new communities will be formed of relationship and interdependence. The "opportunity to create a positive multi-religious society out of the fabric of a democracy, without the chauvinism and religious triumphalism that have marred human history, is now ours."
Eck knows that there are many of a mind similar to her Tampa letter writer. Nonetheless, she insists that America's increasing religious diversity can be a blessing, not a bane. Thanks be to God.
Nathan Wilson is the director of public policy and manager of the Campaign to Overcome Poverty for Call to Renewal.