Religious Diversity Strengthens National Unity
Posted Jan 13, 2006

By Alaa Bayoumi

All too often, we see religious differences turn into a source of divisions within a society. But that need not be the case. Religious diversity, when properly understood and promoted, can in fact help strengthen a society’s identity and unity.

A forward-looking attitude on religious diversity is important because religion is important to most people and most societies. When a nation’s religious landscape changes, its national identity cannot remain static.

In America, we have a strong sense of our religious heritage. We also take a lot of pride in being a pluralistic nation.

In the last third of the 20th century, 22 million immigrants entered America. Many of these immigrants were Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, or members of other faiths. Unfortunately, the spread of these “new” religions tends to raise concerns among a minority of Americans who believe in a zero-sum version of inclusion.

A recent study by Robert Wuthnow, Director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton, makes it clear that America is viewed by many as a Christian nation that should be concerned about the growth of minority faiths.

In “America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity,” Wuthnow writes: “We have formulated understandings of who we are individually and as a nation. These understandings have characteristically assumed that American culture and identity, including its distinct purpose in the world and the moral fiber of its people, are explicitly or implicitly related to Christian values.”

To validate his findings, Wuthnow conducted interviews with religious leaders and surveyed 2910 adults to determine what Americans think about religious diversity.

Survey results showed that half of the adult population believes that this nation was founded on Christian principles and that America has been strong because of its faith in God. That figure jumps to 68 percent for Christian “exclusivists.”

The survey also showed that 50 percent of Americans believe that religious diversity has been good for America and that our nation owes a great deal to its immigrant population.

On the flip side, the survey revealed that 24 percent of Americans believe immigrants have to give up their ways and learn to be like Americans and that about one-third would not welcome a more prominent presence for Hindus or Buddhists in America. More than 40 percent of respondents had negative perceptions of the growth of Islam in America.

For example, the survey showed that 38 percent of the American public would support the idea of “making it harder for Muslims to settle in America.” Twenty-three percent of respondents would like to make it “illegal for Muslim groups to meet in America” and 41 percent would feel “bothered” if Muslims wanted to build a large mosque in their community.

In response, Wuthnow urges Americans from all faiths to deal with religious diversity and its challenges from a more “reflective” pluralistic perspective. He says we should admit that religious diversity is a challenge, that religions are different and that we all need to deal more seriously with these differences in order to overcome them.

To accomplish that societal goal, we should all learn more about each other, build personal relationships with people of other faiths, emphasize respect in all circumstances, view compromise and non-violence as the only acceptable ways to deal with our differences, and build strong institutions that can protect and spread a pluralistic vision of religious diversity.

Fortunately, our constitution and political culture are on the side of pluralism. Our laws protect all religions and our culture teaches us to look to ourselves as a religiously-diverse nation that should set an example for the rest of the world.

It is up to us to stand firm and united in the face of any intolerant forces that may seek to divide our nation. Failure to do so will jeopardize our role as a model for tolerance and human rights.

America’s Muslim community stands ready to do its part in strengthening our nation through creating opportunities for interfaith respect and mutual understanding.

[Alaa Bayoumi is a researcher for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil liberties group. He may be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) ]