The writer, of Omaha, is communications director for the Tri-Faith Initiative.
For a nation in interfaith crisis, Interfaith Awareness Week, Aug. 11-17, has been a necessary time to look both inward and outward.
I say interfaith crisis and not faith crisis: The breakdown we are seeing in America today has more to do with the way people of different faiths interact with each other, and less to do with how they behave within their own faiths. I work for Tri-Faith Initiative, which is a unique and ambitious project in the field of interfaith relations in design, scale and scope. It brings together into permanent residency a synagogue, church, mosque and interfaith center on one 38-acre campus in the middle of America’s heartland. The Tri-Faith Center is currently under construction and is set to open its doors in early 2020. As far as we know, there is no other entity like it anywhere in the world.
The work is not without its challenges. Almost daily we define and redefine what terms such as pluralism, interfaith, diversity and religious freedom mean.
Interfaith isn’t just the idea that faiths should co-exist. Religious pluralism isn’t about mere tolerance. Both of these ideas are bigger than just the notion that people of differing faiths should put up with one another. We must move beyond tolerance and acceptance toward celebrating our differences. Pluralism is the idea that we, as humans, aren’t valuable despite our differences, but rather that we are valuable because of our differences. It is our differences working together in harmony which creates something to be celebrated.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center asked Americans 32 fact-based, multiple choice questions designed to determine what they know about religions. Most Americans surveyed could only answer about half of the survey questions correctly, and of those, the correct answers tended to be about Christianity. When asked about Judaism, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism, most Americans could not answer even the least difficult questions correctly. Americans have high religious literacy for Christianity, but not for the religious other.
What we also know about religious literacy is that there is a direct relationship between religious knowledge and empathy toward the religious other. This means that for most people, the more they know about Judaism, the more empathy they are able to feel toward Jews.
Why is empathy toward the religious other so important? The FBI’s 2017 Report on Hate Crimes shows a marked increase for the third year in a row, particularly for religiously motivated hate crimes. According to the Pew Research Center, Jews make up about 2% of the U.S. population, and Muslims make up about 1%. Despite the fact that together they account for only 3% of the population, according the FBI’s latest report, hate crimes against Jews and Muslims account for 79% of religiously motivated hate crimes.
Unfortunately, I don’t need to read the statistics to know in my heart that hate is on the rise. Month after month, mosques are vandalized, black churches are set on fire and Jews are targeted with Nazi symbols of hate. We are a nation in interfaith crisis. If we are to move toward harmony, we must get to know one another. We must let our children play together, we must eat meals together and we must demand that our faith leaders hold space for a pluralistic society, one that acknowledges that there are many paths to spirituality and faith.
By its very model, Tri-Faith Initiative challenges people of faith and goodwill to be conscious and proactive about the assets of faith in civil life in a religiously pluralistic society. Just as we have intentionally co-located our buildings on one Commons, we ask that our community members intentionally co-locate their relationships, their behaviors and their values. We urge Americans to love one another, and, together, to fight the plague of bigotry.