Obama's Interfaith Vision and the Restlessness of Our Wretched Refuse

From The Huffington Post:

by Rev. Donald Heckman

Many people are very discouraged by the current climate of anti-Muslim and anti-"other" rhetoric that so fills the airwaves. However, the larger reality is that we are progressing as a nation towards a more positive appropriation of our rich religious diversity. It comes with fits and starts, albeit. But don't be fooled to think otherwise. It is the way human social progress works.

Peter Manseau disconcertingly surmised in his January 12 Washington Post Acts of Faith opinion piece that: "the nation as a whole does not agree with Obama's broadminded understanding of faith," calling Obama's effort to unite a religiously divided nation a failure.

Manseau, author of One Nation, Many Gods, is one of the foremost experts on the early and ever-present religious diversity in the United States. He knows better than most the arduous path we have taken in at first rejecting one religious and ethnic group after another in order to only later incorporate them into an ever expanding narrative of our American diversity. Eventually though, I argue that we have honored our highest ideals (and our better selves) to become what Harvard scholar Diana Eck famously dubbed the "world's most religiously diverse nation."

Obama never actually said that he could or would unite a religiously divided nation. Rather he held it up as a value to which we all should aspire. Because we are all responsible. Though he is indebted much to Clinton, Bush, and others before him to set the platform, Obama has done more than any other President to advance a positive view of our religious diversity as a unique American strength. Further, he has done this despite a steady and strong headwind of geopolitical change and pockets of exclusivist resistance uneasy with perceived threats to their eroding hegemony.

Obama is a practical optimist and change does not come easily. He knows there is a sharp gulf of difference between generations and amongst traditions in their appropriation and appreciation of religious diversity. His actions have been but pavers in a hoped for road towards a more integrated future. Because we are better together.

Let's remember some of his actions. Obama included a religiously diverse vision in the language of several key speeches, invited diverse religious groups to convene in the White House to encourage their access to government, and made one of his first acts a daring outreach to the Muslim world in a famous Cairo speech. He insisted on weaving an interreligious understanding into the DNA of diplomacy at the State Department, which came to a head in the new Office of Religion and Global Affairs. He also expanded the work and aegis of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, accomplishing a range of objectives outlined by the President's Advisory Council.

Just one of its dozens of actions is the annual convening of a President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, which has drawn in more than 600 colleges and universities and tens of thousands of college students into interfaith community service in just five years. That is our future.

What is particularly refreshing to me is how much faster and better the voices appreciating our religious diversity tend to respond when the hiccups happen. The forces for interfaith cooperation are mobilized and forceful today. Just witness the current counter moves by those cleverly combatting anti-Muslim sentiment. Ongoing analysis by the Center for American Progress showed them how very small and vulnerable the manufacturers of Islamophobia are. When Colin Powell and Michael Bloomberg came to the defense of American Muslims it seemed unusual and was news. Today, prominent Americans of all stripes are joining ranks and calling anti-religious bigotry of whatever stripe exactly what it is, un-American. We completely dishonor what it says at the foot of our Statue of Liberty if we think otherwise.

During the past decade, interfaith cooperation as an enterprise has grown many fold. It has been recognized formally by higher education (e.g., bold actions by theAmerican Academy of Religion and Association of Theological Schools) and is strongly growing as a respected discipline. It has been taken on as a methodological discipline by dozens of governments around the world, so that policymakers are understanding that multireligious cooperation needs to be and is an antidote to religious conflict and violent extremism. Their emerging strategies often evidence a sharp learning curve, sure, but they are trying. Finally, we enjoy several fold the number of interfaith organizations working in our communities as we did before. Interfaith cooperation is growing and becoming institutionalized and more savvy, however imperfectly.

Yes, of course, everyone is concerned about ISIS and similar groups, and we seem to read daily about an act of discrimination, exclusion, conflict or even violence tied to religion on our own soil. Conflict and controversy are what sell. Cooperation and caring gestures do not. The bigger picture, however, is much more positive. For every problem which makes the news, there are a hundred positive stories of cooperation and bridges built which do not.

Read the full article from The Huffington Post.