Last week I was privileged to attend the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Conference in Washington, DC. A specific presentation caught my attention. Dr. David Campbell, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, spoke about his co-authored book titled American Grace, which examines a powerful, and somewhat surprising, source of unity in civil society — religion.
My recent move to the far more religiously diverse Salt Lake City from a relatively homogeneous Montana has had me thinking a lot about religion’s role in our civil society—where it unites and where it divides us. For example, chronic and acute conflicts around the world often flare in the name of religion or religious differences. Families can spar over how members practice or do not practice their faiths. Communities can sometimes segregate themselves and their activities by church affiliation.
Conversely, data are showing that faith-based communities— churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and others— account for the most common form of volunteerism. In the U.S. more people volunteer on faith-based projects than any other type of service. So, if our goal is to get more people, especially students, engaged with the issues in their communities we might take a lesson or two from the faith community. But, don’t Catholics just volunteer with Catholics? Isn’t it just Jews serving together with other Jews? Mormons volunteering with Mormons? Buddhists with Buddhists? Muslims with Muslims? Evangelical Christians with other Evangelical Christians? Is there a civic component to any of this in which we can show people coming together across faiths to serve and improve and advance their civic communities and not just their faith communities?
According to Campbell and his colleague, Robert Putnam, the answer is YES, but more could be done. While Americans hold intense beliefs and belong to many different faiths and denominations, data indicate that religion can work as a kind of “civic glue” that unites rather than divides the population. The next question is WHY might religion have this effect?
The U.S. Constitution of course protects religious freedoms. But Campbell and Putnam say the answer lies with your Aunt Susan. That is to say that most Americans seem to have someone in their family—an aunt, uncle, cousin, brother, etc… who in spite of the fact that he or she doesn’t practice the family’s traditional faith, still deserves a place in heaven. We feel Aunt Susan is a wonderful person even though she doesn’t believe, pray, practice, or worship, the way we do. Many of us also have dear friends who practice another faith or have no religious affiliation at all. The rise in loving and successful interfaith marriages also contributes to the Aunt Susan theory. All of the interfaith relationships that we have warm us to other faiths, beliefs, or non-beliefs, and solidify the potential for a civil society in a religiously diverse world.
I think this type of work is teeming with possibility for the Bennion Center. The conference highlighted interfaith community service and how it brings together different religious and non-religious backgrounds to tackle community challenges – for example, Protestants and Catholics, Hindus and Jews, and Muslims and non-believers -- building a Habitat for Humanity house together. It shed light on utilizing different faith traditions to thematically undergird projects (i.e., Golden Rule; My Brother’s Keeper; asking Big Questions). Certainly, interfaith service can impact specific community challenges that we have in Salt Lake City, from homelessness to illiteracy to refugee integration to environmental degradation, while creating social capital and civic prosperity. Please give some thought to how and where we might make this work in a welcoming, inviting, non-threatening, and non-proselytizing manner. Let’s begin the conversation.