Diane L. Moore, Farah Pandith, and Chris Seiple, with Linda K. Wertheimer moderating, discuss religious literacy in global affairs, as part of the 2018 CFR Religion and Foreign Policy Workshop.
WERTHEIMER: Good morning, everyone. I’m Linda Wertheimer. And hopefully you all know this, but I am not the one of NPR. My voice is a little different.
So I want to talk a little bit about my experiences and then quickly take it over to the panelists. And we’ll allow quite a bit of time to get you guys engaged in the conversation as well.
I saw signs of hope and, frankly, also of despair in terms of Americans’ knowledge of religions when I traveled around the country reporting for my book, Faith Ed. Many teachers were working hard to teach in an informed way about the world’s religions to their students. And their work, to a great extent, was reducing both religious ignorance and intolerance.
But at the same time, I met people vehemently against such education, people who feared innocent schoolchildren would somehow be indoctrinated into Islam just by learning about it. Much of the opposition was fueled by religious ignorance, ignorance that many of you can help change in your own communities and beyond.
The speakers here today, Chris Seiple, Farah Pandith, and Diane Moore, bring a variety of perspectives on religious literacy and how we can improve it, not just for the next generation, but for adults, too.
So let’s start by having each of you talk about how you understand the phrase “religious literacy.”
Diane, why don’t you go first.
MOORE: Great. Thank you, Linda.
And thank you for the invitation to be here. It’s a real privilege.
So both my own scholarship and what we—how we define religious literacy at the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard is really distinctive from many of the other ways that religious literacy is addressed. And the distinctive feature is that we are looking at how to understand the profound power of religion in human experience, so it’s a framework for how to understand religion that includes what is very—but the kind of beliefs and tenets of religious traditions is only a very small fraction of our understanding of religious literacy.
So I just want to give a basic overview of what that framework entails. And we can talk more about that as we move into our conversation.
There are four dimensions. First, there’s a distinction between devotional assertions of religious belief from faith practitioners and leaders and then the study or engagement of diverse devotional expressions. And that distinction is really key, because otherwise, when we conflate them, we end up in a challenge about which is true, which is right or which is true.
From a religious studies perspective, we’re looking at the diversity, which is the second point. That religions are internally diverse and that that’s a key component to understand how we understand the power of religion in human experiences, that it’s not a singular assertion of what Christians believe, what Muslims believe, or what even all religious people believe, is that in fact there’s a deep diversity of religions expressed in all religious traditions and experiences and expressions.
And then the third is that religions evolve and change. Religious expressions are culturally and historically embedded so that they’re living traditions, so that the interpretation of what it means to be a religious person in a given cultural or historical moment is shifting and changing and that that’s the living dimension and the living tradition of religions.
And then the fourth and probably the most relevant to this conversation is that religions are embedded in all dimensions of human experience and can’t be—can’t be distinctive or removed from political, economic, social, and cultural life. Too often, we speak about religion as though it’s somehow over here. And in international relations, of course, there is a long history of having religion be the third rail, so we don’t want to touch religion because it’s either too volatile or too problematic.
So this framework represents religions as internal, as embedded in all dimensions and looking at the power of religion in human experience that also challenges the notion that religions are either positive or negative forces, which tends to be the way we talk about religion. We have these debates about religion as a positive or a negative force.
And just as a final comment, I asked the question this morning about the diversity of religions here in the U.S. context related to the question of immigration, for example. I think, for me, it’s quite a dangerous thing to make assumptions that all people of faith hold particular views of anything, let alone particular views within particular religious traditions.
And in fact, it’s the diversity of those representations that I think we need to pay attention to and actually focus on, not necessarily to challenge the legitimacy of one or the other, but to actually look at the power of religion, that that internal diversity really does shape policy and the discourses about religion that I think especially relevant for people of faith to tackle that internal diversity explicitly as opposed to the continual assertion that somehow all religious people share certain assumptions.
WERTHEIMER: Thank you, Diane.
PANDITH: That was beautifully said.
I would like to piggyback on what you said because I agree with the way in which you defined it and the framework you put forward. But I’m going to add a different element since I’m on the stage with sort of the experience having been in government. So I’m going to take that strand of it, even though I agree with everything you just said.
When I think about the question that you ask, I think about it in a way that people, that the human experience is not weighted, that we aren’t giving power to particular religions and experiences and histories and cultures, but that we—your ability to see the globe as equal, as people of faith and those around whatever faith might mean, as equally weighted is very important to the way in which I look at that question.
And I—and I look at the way we as governments define religion, experience religion, and incorporate religion into the way in which we do policy in a way that is exactly the opposite of what I’ve just described.
So when I talk about literacy, for us as policymakers, I strive towards a place where we are giving dignity across religions, formal religions and nonformal religions.
And to piggyback on what you said about the diversity within those faiths, that we understand that fluidity, that things are not weighted in one moment in time, that they shift and they change and they evolve and they have evolved over time.
The ability to understand that human movement, the ability to understand that human experience is part of the literacy that I think we should bring to bear when we talk about that question of, are you religiously literate? It isn’t how well do you know the faith of Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism. Those are, in my view, at this level. I’d like us to go a little bit deeper and to understand the intersection of those faiths with the human experience.
And so for me, when I think about that question, that’s the way I define it.
WERTHEIMER: Thank you.
And, Chris, what’s your take?
SEIPLE: My take? Well, one, thanks for being here and being on this panel. I would say the following. First, literacy, what isn’t it, what is it not? It is not illiteracy, which means you have no clue about what’s going on, but it’s also not fluency. And I think that’s something to keep in mind.
It is very—you will never speak in a language and logic that speaks to somebody’s heart language in their cultural context. That’s essentially impossible unless you live there, et cetera, et cetera. So literacy then is a, in a word, is humility. Literacy is about the capacity to get the questions right in order to show respect, to move beyond tolerance and to move beyond diversity. That’s how I think about it.
And if you had a chance to look at the article that I wrote a couple of weeks ago for the World Economic Forum, I’m going to say the same things that were just said, in a different way, but it’s the same message.
I’ve been using a term—I teach—one of the hats that I’m wearing today is University of Washington, Jackson School of International Studies where I teach a course called cross-cultural religious literacy, even though I am a proud Fletcher grad as well. But I break down cross-cultural religious literacy according to these three components. One is scriptural literacy, you have to know your own faith or your own moral framework at its best in order to not tolerate, but respect the other. That’s the function of society, that’s the function of faith communities.
You have to have religious literacy in order to not tolerate, but respect your neighbor who does not pray or maybe vote like you do. And that, I think, is the purview of the state to teach these kinds of things in a thoughtful way that is obviously not proselytizing, but teaching about. And this is the distinction that I think Diane has made with devotional versus academic.
But the third piece—being a former jarhead, which is a former Marine infantry officer—is about getting things done in the cold light of day. How do I get from A to B? And the truth of the matter is, I can have scriptural and religious literacy, but it is going to vary enormously from culture to culture, within a city, and across countries.
And to put Diane’s point in another way, there’s no monoliths, but we love monoliths because we’re simple, shallow Americans. And we’ve got to get into the nuance of that. And so cross-cultural is the piece of, what does it look like in the local context? All religion like all politics is local. And then, what’s the leadership dimension of effecting positive change that is socially owned with sufficient consensus to implement that positive change.
WERTHEIMER: Chris, I’d like to follow up on some of what you all said.
Because when I did my work on my book, what I saw in schools was they were doing things at a really basic level, but there was a reason for this, is a lot of kids are coming in at a really basic level, a lot of adults are coming in at a really basic level. There are adults out there who don’t know that Catholics are Christians, too, you know, or they don’t understand that Islam has many different branches, let alone that there’s diversity within those branches.
And then there’s also the fact that 25 percent of Americans don’t affiliate with any faith at all. So we—so we have, you know, this huge country out there, people coming at this, some of them, with really no ground knowledge.
And so you were talking up here a little bit. How do we also get at the fact that people are at such a base level on religion? Even people who go to church regularly don’t necessarily understand a lot about their own religion, let alone others.
SEIPLE: So you’re throwing that at me first? OK. Yeah, I mean, that’s kind of the problem in a nutshell. You can think what you want about this administration, but that polarization that we are now experiencing is not the result of this administration, it’s the result of several decades.
In some ways, our current times are, forgive me, a crisis at the pulpit because we’re not living out our faith and we have not thought through what it means to love our neighbor or love our enemy. That’s a teaching of most faiths. So what is that golden rule and what does that look like? And then, how do you get along with your own faith, which interfaith is often much harder than multifaith?
I’ve taken the most fire and the most pain from fellow Christians, neve from the Muslims and my Jewish friends. That’s a whole other thing.
So I think to get to your question is, how does this get taught at a—at a local level? Hopefully, it would be because this is the best of your faith tradition, because it’s the right thing to do. But as a former Marine, I think about naked self-interest, that’s how I’m wired. And I think that’s the kind of case that we have to start making, which is, why is this good for you and your community?
Well, the truth of the matter is we’re all minorities somewhere. So if I’m a majority culture here, how do I think about—and I hate the term “minority”—but how do I think about the non-majorities that are in my context? Because those folks are a majority someplace else and I hope that they would actually treat my folks the same way. And then, what does that look like?
In the previous conversation, the word didn’t come up as much as I would have liked to have seen, but this is really a question of citizenship and this is how you educate. What does it mean to be a good citizen?
And we love to go back to the Founding Fathers—and I’ll get off the soapbox—but I love to go back to Roger Williams because he did not engage and respect the other faith despite them, but because of his own faith. He thought it out. He wouldn’t even witness to the Native Americans until he learned their language to speak their heart language. That’s how seriously he took it. And then you can go into how he institutionalized it through the Rhode Island colonial charter and related it to security. There’s no witch trials in Rhode Island or Quakers being hung on Boston Common—God bless Massachusetts and the Red Sox—but it’s because there was no ecclesial order that was also implementing the way to worship. And that’s a thing that has to be taught. We have to recover our history, recovery our scripture, and then break this down into this is in your self-interest, besides being the right thing to do.
WERTHEIMER: I’d like to move over to Diane for a second on part of what I was asking in my question.
Because I know you’ve done some work in Hartford, which might be able to translate a little bit to what religious groups could do in their own communities. I know you’ve worked with schools. Is there some of that could translate to how we work in faith communities and, you know, some of the instruction that you give there? Can that go beyond a school setting?
MOORE: Sure, thank you. Yeah, I think—I think, for me, it’s a—it really is—when we look at the power of religion and we step back and say, like, what’s a framework to understand or get better understanding of religion, one of the fundamental assumptions that we have to confront is that even our definition of religion is profoundly influenced by Protestant Christianity.
So right away, we’re already, you know, just even our frameworks and our categories are already influenced by the hegemony of Christianity and then, in our context, the hegemony of Protestant Christianity here in the U.S.
So even the very notion that somehow religion is always about a leader and your set of beliefs and the way that we even define what we mean by religious literacy in a more narrow context is all very Christian oriented and it doesn’t allow for the depth of understanding of this integrated way to think about religion.
So the reason I think this is relevant for our conversation, which is about religion and global affairs—I just want to, you know, remind us because that’s what we’re kind of talking about—is it’s a—for the U.S., for us in the U.S. to get clear about, what are the embedded, deeply embedded assumptions about religion that we bring that we think are self-evident, but are not?
So when I think about religious literacy, it’s actually asking us to understand something more complex about the power of religion and the roles of religion that won’t inadvertently or unwittingly reproduce these assumptions, which, again, are that somehow religion can be separated from economic, political, cultural life, that we can teach about religions by teaching the Four Noble Truths and the Ten Commandments and the Five Pillars.
And I just think that’s a very problematic way to go about teaching religion, even at the youngest levels, because, I mean, frankly, aside from the fact that you can Google that—(laughter)—right, you can do that in five seconds, we don’t need to be spending our time. It’s more, how does that—how do those beliefs and understandings, how are they shaped in a particular cultural context? And that is profoundly related then to our work in thinking about religious literacy and global affairs.
WERTHEIMER: Can you give a concrete example of, like, something that you taught maybe the folks in Hartford that maybe they could do in their own worship communities as a way to teach religious literacy? Like, something you do in your training.
MOORE: Sure. Well, Linda is referencing some work we’ve done with educators, not just in Hartford, but across the U.S. And it’s essentially what I started with, which is to say, rather than be talking about the beliefs, rituals, practices, to, first of all, challenge those categories and to think about, again—when we talk about teaching about religion, we teach—we teach about how we understand the power of religion and to challenge the notion that religion is always a positive force, to challenge the notion that there’s universal assumptions within religions.
I mean, these become, on some levels, some them are truisms, but we don’t—we can—we articulate those distinctions, but we don’t actually embody those, particularly in public discourse and in public policy around religion. Which is, again, why I wanted to raise the question this morning, because when we make an assertion that even everyone in this room has some kind of fundamental belief about what religious people think about immigration, I think that’s a problem because I don’t think we even in the room believe that. And then—and then I don’t think it helps us to then gloss over the profound differences within our traditions that play out in public policy and discourse.
And I think for us, for me, and what I—what we’re—when we think about working with educators or when I’m working with humanitarian action, people in humanitarian action or journalists, it’s to say, all right, let’s just—let’s just rethink even the category of religion and what it means to think we’re addressing religion, and then, again, those four—those four foundations are what we promote.
Farah, kind of moving to, like, more global, how do you approach the work of improving religious literacy in global affairs? Like, if we’re going to take this to the next level, what are some of your thoughts on that?
PANDITH: Well, look, we’re in a room filled with experts who have navigated through your own communities. And so when I say this to you, I hope that you’ll hear me.
One of the things, the words that haven’t been said this morning is the word “identity.” And as we—as we evolve and as we grow, both in the classroom and in our homes and in our communities, this understanding of who we are and how we are placed next to the other is a really important part of this conversation.
When I talked about the weighting of whose religion—you know, you asked a question of what are you supposed to teach in the classroom. Goodness, gracious, here in America, everything is a competition. So if I am something, somebody else has got to be worse than me because I’m better. We have weighted things out. What are the good, what are the bad? How religious am I? How nonreligious? I’m going to tell you who is a Muslim, I’m going to tell you who’s a bad Muslim. We’re always consistently doing that.
We heard the terminology, are you a practicing Muslim—as if that means something. I don’t know what the heck that means. So we are always doing this, we’re always setting ourselves up to be either better or worse.
So if you take that then outside of the United States and you’re looking at this question of religion, it’s profoundly separated, in my view, from the conversation about religion. It’s about sort of, what’s in the air, what’s around the community? How heritage and history and human experience combine to live. How are people living? And in some places, in some communities, even within a country, what you might call religion is very much a part of the way in which they live out their lives, even though they may not call it religion.
So how we teach that globally has got to be more than just, does that person pray five times a day? Does that person wear a turban? Does that person wear a bindi? Does that person wear a yarmulke? Does that person wear a cross? It has to be far more complicated.
In your brain, you have to complicate your thinking so that you’re understanding the human experience. And when I’ve traveled around the world and, certainly, you know, as special representative and talking to Muslims and non-Muslims, that question of identity consistently comes across. What is the religion versus what is the culture? What is the heritage versus the way we’re playing things out?
So when I think about this question of how we as global citizens think about what we must do for the next generation so that they’re given the right tools to be able to navigate what is a very complicated set of circumstances on our planet today, and for the generation that are digital natives who can go to sheikh Google and ask any question that they want—and not, by the way, get the answers that we want them to get—we have a responsibility in the way we teach, not just as parents or as actual teachers, but as society.
And I think one of the most important parts of that, to be honest with you, is to understand that what might be happening in one community is not better than another, that one form of a religion in one country is not worse than the other. And that means breaking down that sense of hierarchy around the way in which we understand the globe.
And, I mean, we are on the heels—and I do not want to get into a political conversation with the Iran deal, but let me just use that as an example. Within the faith of Islam, this pushing and pulling of Sunni versus Shia versus Sunni versus Shia that goes on in our country has a ripple effect around the world. And so when we teach and when we talk and when we dissect the way in which we as leaders in America and in other countries speak about—you talked about Catholics and Christians—how we speak about all these things, it’s a very integrated piece for me.
And I—and I think that the teaching that comes in global affairs comes not just from the commanders-in-chief in these countries that should do a better job of how they give honor to all faiths and what religion might me, but it also is required that within the business community, within civil society, and with others that are living outside of the government, how they assess and talk about religion matters to the young generations.
WERTHEIMER: I have a follow-up question about the Sunni versus Shia because, you know, I’ve seen instruction on that. And usually, it’s very basic. It just goes to, well, it’s who believed, you know, which Muslim leader they wanted to follow. You know, that’s as far as it goes, you know, just the historical split on what, you know, what they’re about.
How do you want people to understand the difference? And this may be a whole other conversation, but I’m just—how do you want people to understand the difference between those two parts of Islam?
PANDITH: So I’m going to totally puncture that whole question.
PANDITH: Chris talked about—said the word “monolith” and so I’m going to say it again. There is no monolith in Islam. And I get very, very frustrated with the way the United States goes forward describing Islam as if it’s this or it’s this. And it’s not.
Travel with me around the world and see the way Muslims practice their faith in thousands of different ways. They are all Muslim. And a Muslim living in Surabaya is as Muslim as a Muslim living in Suriname. And I refuse to get into a conversation about sect, about the outside image of what a Muslim is. I don’t have that right.
And I think what we have to do is stop talking about it in the—in the ways that we have always talked about it. (Applause.)
WERTHEIMER: Thank you.
Chris, on this part of religious literacy and global affairs, you know, like, what we can do, I know you talked a little about the, you know, cross-cultural literacy, scriptural literacy, but beyond that you’ve also traveled—
WERTHEIMER: Some, yeah, I know, a lot. From your perspective, you know, what do we need to do more to improve what’s going on out there?
SEIPLE: Sure. Maybe and reflect on some of these earlier comments, one, in America, I think we’re kind of patting ourselves on the back that we now include faith as an analytic factor, like we’ve got that box there. And the problem is, when you engage another culture, it depends on the culture, it depends on the situation. But the fact of the matter is, faith is in all the boxes. We can’t add faith as a sector when we miss the boat entirely, because faith leaders and people of faith or a secular humanist framework of some belief are already present in all of society’s sectors. The question is, how much influence do they have and how do you understand that?
And then to sum up Diane in a nutshell, how do you understand them as they understand themselves? Because that’s the key.
So if you want to educate on these kinds of things globally or engage globally, I think you’ve got two choices. One is you could go under the moniker of religion, and that can be tricky, just like in America, religion and politics is sensitive in a lot of places precisely because of the word “identity,” precisely because of that.
But it needs to be addressed, right? And we—and there are, in my mind, such things as universal values and rule of law as a way to engage on these things and the protection of the non-majorities, et cetera, et cetera. That is one avenue.
But the other avenue is to engage it from a point of view that is of the self-interest of the local context and then let people of faith come to the table because they’re already there in the sectors and demonstrate the value-added of values. Now, what does that mean and what does that look like?
I’ll give you one example. We did a lot of work in Tibet working with Tibetan Buddhists. To be Tibetan is to be Buddhist; there’s some exceptions, obviously. But we did a lot of work on multilingual, mother-tongue education and then the environment. Now, what does that have to do with religious literacy or religious freedom or peacebuilding? Well, nothing, except that it is an excuse, because of the people that live there—Han Chinese and government and Tibetans—that’s a local issue of governance they’ve got to break the code on.
And so you bring them together about something they both have a self-interest in talking about and now they’re at the table as equals.
So I’ll never forget. We had a conference on environment. We were up at Shangdu on the plateau and then we come back to Shanghai and do the policy stuff. And the Tibetans were up all night, not because they were excited about the subject matter, but it was the first time they had sat across from Han Chinese as equals. That’s what I’m talking about.
And so the other dynamic to think—and Diane has mentioned this in her work and Farah has mentioned it directly and indirectly—is power. Most of what I’ve seen is a function of majority/minority relations. And the majority turning faith into a religion that validates their power. And that’s where faith communities have to step up and say that’s not my faith.
Now, the irony sometimes is, the way to get faith communities to engage on this is to talk about security before you talk about scripture. That’s sad, but that’s true. But it’s got to be a both/and. You have to be literate in geopolitics and government and your own faith if you’re going to create this broad spectrum and engage globally in ways that people can relate to.
And by the way, the majority faith of a country is usually the majority ethnic group. And if they don’t give permission to their people to practice the golden rule, then there’s a good chance that you will make the situation worse by alienating the minorities because you’re working directly with them first. These are complicated issues. But if you can work with the majority culture, majority ethnoreligious group and say we are seeking to come alongside the best of who you already are, educate us about what you think about the other and we want to come alongside, not us, name, blame, and shame, and why don’t you look like Thomas Jefferson, while ignoring all of Thomas Jefferson’s own history. It’s a different approach.
MOORE: Can I—I just want to follow up and so appreciate your comments, Chris. And I want to circle back to something you said a little earlier in this—in this commentary, which is that the deepest kind of religious literacy is to look at the diversity of religious expression and then have an empathetic understanding about what those diversities stem from and what motivates those who hold those diverse beliefs. And I think that humility notion is really key.
I also wanted to say that I think this question of—we use a lot of language—violent extremism and terrorism and calling someone an extremist, calling someone a terrorist—I also feel like that’s very dangerous. Because when we start to label, any of those labels make that really clear what we’re saying, which is that those are others and that they are illegitimate and that they’re not like us.
And I think it divorces the responsibility for all of us to say, what is motivating those behaviors? And how is religion being represented in the context of those behaviors? And for me, it’s not that those aren’t religious expressions, people who are acting in ways that we’re unhappy with. I think they are religious expressions, but they’re motivated and informed by political, cultural, social, economic realities.
And so for me, the issue is really critical to say, what is—so rather than dismiss them, to say, what are the social, political, economic forces that are giving rise to this particular expression of religion? And until we ask that question, we’re going to continue to represent these notions of there’s right religion, there’s wrong religion, there’s good religion, there’s bad religion. And those, I think are distracting categories for us and don’t help us understand the power of religion as they play out in different context.
WERTHEIMER: Diane, that’s, like, a perfect segue to something else we had talked about, and that is, like, the way we’re looking to the rest of the world right now when it comes to religion and diplomacy. It’s pretty—it’s changed dramatically since President Trump was elected. You know, he’s made it a point to say “radical Islamic terror groups.” He’s mixed religion with a foreign policy in a way that his predecessors for the most part did not. And the move to ban immigration from Muslim-majority countries, and certainly, that many of us refer to informally as a Muslim ban, I think few people would dispute that that has heightened Islamophobia in this country.
And what I am wondering is, how do these attitudes that seem to be growing, combined with religious literacy, affect our place in the—you know, affect our place in the world? You know, how is it affecting the relationship, for example, with Muslim communities, but beyond that?
So maybe actually start with Farah.
PANDITH: Well, so at the root of all of this is this idea of us and them, us versus them, right, in every way, shape, and form. What you’ve just described is one piece of it. We happen to be talking about Muslims in the example that you talked about. We could be talking about race, we could be talking about other things.
I will say—this is going to be controversial, but I will say it anyway—a large expression—well, how do I want to say this? Hold on.
It has been my experience while serving in government that many of the people that talk about the faith of Islam are learning about Islam to deal with the thing that they have been asked to do, so that they are learning on the job. Now, there is not necessarily ill-intent, there is not necessarily this desire to set up and us and them. But if you’re learning on the job about something that is somehow connected—and here I am speaking very specifically about the terrorist organizations of al-Qaeda, ISIS, Taliban that use the expression of Islam to recruit; OK, let me—let me just be clear about that—but if you are learning about a faith at that time in that way, your knowledge is very superficial, first of all. But second of all, you have—you don’t have the right language, the right lexicon to be able to understand when you’re setting up an us versus them, even in the way in which you’re talking about it.
So we do that in the United States, but I’ve also seen that with foreign ministers and presidents around the world who don’t necessarily understand that they, again, are setting up an us versus them. So one of the most important things I think that we have to do as a consciousness about what it is that you’re saying, that everything that we talk about, you’re listening to the words.
Now, you happened—and I’m not going to pick on you, because you did it in a really lovely way—even the way someone might say, and people do it all the time, “a Muslim country,” I don’t know what a Muslim country is, by the way. We slip as policymakers into “the Muslim countries.” And then—and you think to yourself you already—I know you don’t necessarily mean it, but you’re already taking the minorities that live in the country and putting them aside.
So from the most basic things of how you behave as a leader, the language that you use, the making sure that you don’t set up and us versus them, in addition to making sure as the world talks about religion that we are doing everything that we can do to undo the system of setting up the loudest voice being that person that can speak for that religion. And I am now not just talking about America, I am talking about our partners and allies that go out around the world, putting people up on a stage that says that is the person that’s going to talk for all the Hindus and that person is going to talk for all the Sikhs and that person is going to talk—and we do it consistently because it’s so easy to do.
So it takes more time and more effort as leaders and as nation states to make sure we have that diversity expressed in a multitude of ways.
WERTHEIMER: Thank you.
I wanted to go on to another question that kind of relates to that and also quote something that John Kerry had said. He said, “We ignore the global impact of religion at our peril.” And he told Shaun Casey this in 2013 when he asked him to run the State Department’s new Office of Religion and Global Affairs. Now that office seems to be in peril itself based on news reports, articles I’ve read.
And I believe, Chris, you’ve written about this as well, that it was intended to reach out to people of many faiths, and now I think Shaun Casey wrote recently that the White House isn’t interested in the broader approach and wants to instead focus more on religious freedom and Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.
And maybe start with you, Chris, and other of you can weigh in. I’m wondering, what’s your reaction to this? How is this playing out? How can the tide be reversed? You know, it seems like we’re now getting into sort of a debate of religious engagement versus religious freedom. So take that a little bit.
SEIPLE: Yeah. First off, what she said. (Laughter.)
Second, and I just want to share very brief snippets that illustrate this point and then answer the question. I went to a National Counterterrorism Center meeting, CVE meeting, countering violent extremism meeting, in the previous administration. We were talking about how to do counterterrorism, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So I just listened and listened and listened. So I was the last speaker and I said, you know, as far as I can tell, I’m the only Christian in the room. Do you realize the signal that you just sent to the Muslim community?
This stuff has been going on for a while, OK? It’s been going on for a while. They’re Americans. And don’t treat our Muslim brothers and sisters in humanity that way because that’s the signal that gets sent.
Perceptions overseas ‒ I was in Mauritania talking to Salafis one time. And we were talking about drone strikes. And she said you Americans—this is a mom talking—you Americans see terrorists to kill, we see somebody who needs to be restored to the community.
Cardinal Onaiyekan out of Abuja, a good friend of mine, we’re at an event and we had just declared Boko Haram a terrorist organization. And he says, does that mean you’re sending your drones? We don’t want your drones, that will make the situation worse.
So there’s a lot of complicated things that result from these simple reductionist stereotypes in terms of how we understand each other and how we do it. So to your question, that’s why our diplomacy—and by the way, diplomacy is not just the function of the State Department, it’s the function of all the agencies in the U.S. government, especially the Pentagon who’s doing the most sometimes, and then it’s also our own responsibility, as Richard was saying last night, of citizen diplomacy of people to people and how we think about it.
So the Office of Religious Freedom was created by congressional mandate in 1998. If you don’t know, my dad was the first ambassador-at-large for that. And by default, it became a structural focal point for anything religious. It was the only place to go to talk to about it, we had nothing else to do.
Then the Office of Religion and Global Affairs came about and said, hey, look, we don’t—we’re not focused on religious freedom as a human right, but we’re focused on bringing faith leaders to bear on all of these key issues, like I was talking about before with the environment in China. It’s a way to bring faith to the table because they have something practical to say as good citizens of their country.
And as of now—at its height, the Office of Religion and Global Affairs might have been thirty and ORF was about thirty. There were sixty people in our government in the previous administration working on these issues. That’s a phenomenal statement, by the way. Now, Office of Religion and Global Affairs has been reduced to probably five and is going to come under the Office of International Religious Freedom.
Now, there’s all kinds of pros and cons to thinking about this. But the key is, who is going to do the equipping of our diplomats to have conversations like this—and to Farah’s point earlier—not see a bogeyman behind every tree because that’s of this particular faith?
Now, let’s not lose sight of this because you might think I’m leading the charge to go hug trees. I want to hug trees, I love everybody, but we still live in a fallen world and there are people that are trying to kill us and that unfortunately need to be killed before they kill us. That is what it is. I don’t like that, but that also has to be accounted for and those things have to be balanced if we want to have meetings like this today.
WERTHEIMER: Diane, I’m wondering what your thoughts are on what’s happening at the federal level?
MOORE: Sure. No, thank you.
MOORE: So Chris was actually instrumental in helping when Hillary Clinton was in the State Department to helping set up the Office of Global Affairs, which took a long time. And so I had the privilege of working with that office under Shaun Casey, to work with Foreign Service officers to help them think about a better understanding of religion and the complexities of religion. It was a really powerful office that brought together not just faith leaders and brought faith into questions of diplomacy, but also really looked at these larger questions of the power of religion and how it’s functioning really in diverse contexts and diverse ways. So that’s—and then now it’s basically defunct.
And I just want to say I think that’s a really a huge loss for us because we are now reproducing the same set of assumptions about religious freedom, which are really troubling around the globe. In my—I’ve done work in Pakistan and in India and currently in Iraq. This language of religious freedom is not well received because it is perceived often in all three of those contexts that I was working in, perceived to be a particular form of Christian nationalism and an imposition of that. And I—and I understand why that’s the case.
WERTHEIMER: And how—how is that—what are the things that they’re saying to you? I mean, is that affecting, like, even if you just want to go do work there, you know, humanitarian work, I mean, what is it that is affecting that?
MOORE: Well, it’s this assumption of, the imposition of this notion of religious freedom and that being used as a bargaining chip in relationship to economic aid and a whole host of other things, is that we’re without self-consciousness about the assumptions we’re bringing to what that religious freedom implies and entails.
And so either intentionally or by default, we end up—it’s a particular experience, it’s a particular form of cultural imperialism that is not well received and not understood in terms of particular challenges on the ground.
WERTHEIMER: Farah, I can tell you want to jump in.
PANDITH: Just a two-finger follow up. I’m going to be a little bit provocative and tell you it’s not just about the office at the State Department. OK? If you are going to teach the interagency how to integrate religion into how they think about things and do it with honor, it can’t just come from one office at the State Department that is already controversial, that already has issues within the bureaucracy of the State Department. It needs to be—we need to redefine and reintegrate the way in which we talk about its role and how we access other parts of the interagency to be able to do this.
And I think one of the reasons why it has—it has ended up the way it is in this administration is because it was not—and this is no fault of anyone, I’m just saying, if it’s only one department within the—one office within the State Department, its power, it’s only there. In order to play the game of the interagency, if there are power centers in other parts of the government that are connected to it, it can’t go away.
So when we rethink the strategy on how to bring this back in another time or how we can build out a new way of training civil servants and Foreign Service officers and the military and others around faith, we’ve got to change the system because the system isn’t working for what it is we’re trying to do here.
WERTHEIMER: I know we want to go to questions in, like, about two minutes, is that—or now?
Let me let them make—each one make, like, one final thought on what you perhaps see as a solution of trying to improve the situation we’re in in terms of global affairs and religious literacy and where we go from here. Can you each of you give a final thought? And then we’ll open it right up for questions.
SEIPLE: Thank you. I would say two things here. One is, where are we equipping people to have these conversations? And we can’t be having ethereal, touchy-feely—nothing against New York—elite New York conversations. They have to be taking place in our towns around the country. And how are universities thinking about this? How are they teaching? How are they equipping?
I’m at the Jackson School of International Studies and we have been tasked and funded by Carnegie Corporation, just down the street, to develop a certificate program in cross-cultural religious literacy. Jackson School of International Studies, if you don’t know, is the only major international relations school with a comparative religion department built in. Who knew? So there’s an opportunity to do that.
And I would love to hear from you about where and how your traditions and denominations are having these conversations and what you’re doing to equip. I want to see your syllabi. I want to see your agendas about how things are coming together.
Secondly, the elephant in the room in all of these conversations is the donors. At some point, you’re asking donors to reimagine and be re-educated about how they think about some of these things because they sometimes fall into the stereotypes, too. And so another hat that I have on here is as an adviser to the Templeton Religion Trust. And we’re going to be rolling out a new strategy in the next year about how to fund—we’re throwing around this term, if you read the article or you saw it—covenantal pluralism. And by that I mean a covenantal pluralism. And my one-sentence definition of that is the pledge to engage, respect and protect the other without necessarily lending moral equivalency to their beliefs and behavior. It has to be more than diversity. It has to be more than tolerance. What does this look like?
And the reason we went with pluralism, by the way—and we’re not sure if that’s the right phrase yet—but it was because religious freedom can be received—has become so toxic domestically and internationally. “Religious freedom” is a great phrase. I like liberty conscience because that’s what Roger Williams used. George Washington uses it in his letter to the Hebrew congregation in Newport. But we’ve got to come up with a new concept and new words to get at these very old ideas about how we live together and with our deepest, most irreconcilable theological differences.
WERTHEIMER: Thank you.
SEIPLE: That’s the—sorry—that’s the exceptionalism of America, by the way. We get it right 51 percent of the time and it’s our capacity to self-critique and self-correct. And that’s why these conversations are so important.
PANDITH: I like everything he said. I was going to—I was going to talk about the donor and the reimagination part and I’m so glad you said that.
I think we’re stuck in a box. I think we keep trying to change the system with the same old tools and it’s not working. And I think that we have reimagined many other frontiers in really provocative and exciting ways, our imagination has been limitless. Why is it that we are—and I’m just talking about our country right now—why is it that with only fifty states we are unable to teach a generation how to do what Chris just described? I mean, really, seriously?
We have so much money in this country from philanthropists that have unwittingly allowed this to happen. I’m not blaming anyone except for ourselves. And I think the way—the way forward is to speak up that you want change, to get your local communities to do things differently. And it isn’t only from Washington, from the Rose Garden, and a speech by the president. It’s by the local actors who are demanding that we have a change and a redesign in how we are thinking about the other.
MOORE: And I’ll just agree with my wonderful panelists and just say maybe a particular strategy is to divorce—to make that distinction that I spoke about earlier, is that to think about religion not just as devotional expression, but the power of religion in a given context and to start thinking about, what does it mean to take seriously this notion of religion outside of our faith communities and outside of religious practitioners and to think about, what does religious literacy look like in the professions, what does it look like in journalism, what do—what do humanitarian action workers need to know and understand about religion to do their—to do their work, what does it mean to think in a broad way about what’s happening at the—at the government level so it’s not just something at the State Department, but something across all levels? And what does it mean to think about it in relationship to business?
So again, bring the—bring the religion question outside of the context of what we associate only with religion, which, again, tends to be practitioners and institutions.
WERTHEIMER: Thank you. And thank you to all of the panelists who are still—we’re still going to keep going.
But now we’re going to open it up to questions. And just one of the things to think about is, like, what could you do in your own community and what could be a common narrative?
So let’s go ahead and start right here.
Is there a mic? OK.
ZONNEVELD: Hi, thank you. My name is Ani Zonneveld. I’m president of Muslims for Progressive Values.
I’m really glad about this conversation about going back to the community. As a progressive Muslim with chapters in eight cities, one thing that we’ve seen and this is a challenge—I’m going to take up Farah’s word here—challenge to those here in this room that oftentimes we see a lot of interfaith events and coalitions that are going on all throughout the United States, but a lot of times our progressive Christians and Jewish brothers and sisters always tend to go to the most conservative, the most powerful voices in the communities. And I think what we need to assess—and this is also feeding into the thinking that Muslims are monolithic, this is how a Muslim is supposed to look and see and sound. And this is—this is at the community level.
And I think this is also reflected at the policy level. And, Farah, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the government is also guilty about parading conservative Muslims as the real Muslims. And we see this in many institutions.
And I think probably on the education level, there is a lot of educational lobbyists, right, that lobby for specific definitions of how their religion is being read and perceived at the school level. And I think what we need to probably reassess is, as Americans and our American educational system, maybe we should reflect on, what does American Islam look like, what does American Hinduism look like? Because they actually have changed from the traditional definitions. And so, how can we get there? Is there room for that, this variety of interpretations?
WERTHEIMER: Thank you.
MOORE: Maybe I’ll just quickly respond. So in our work with educators, this is exactly what we’re promoting, is that framework for how to think about religions, and that includes this deep internal diversity. And it also includes the recognition that religions are culturally and historically influenced. So that the notion of what does it mean to be not just a Muslim in the U.S., but the diversity of Islam, the expressions in the U.S. context. So it’s giving people language to know how to think about these questions and what questions to ask as opposed to trying to do a list of, like, you know, beliefs and practices of the diversity of religious expressions, which is never going to be possible.
So it is that—it’s a method for how to—it’s basically inviting them into critical reflection about the power and role of religion and giving them some tools to know what kind of questions to ask in the context of their—of their learning.
WERTHEIMER: OK, right here. And let’s see—OK, and then we’ll go way in the back after this. I don’t know who had their hand up way in the back, but OK.
MANDAVILLE: Hi. I’m Peter Mandaville from George Mason University. And in a former life, I was part of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the State Department.
And the people on this stage and many in this room made such valuable contributions to our work. I mean, our operating principles were basically informed, re-plagiarized from Diane’s four-part framework. I think Katherine [Marshall] eventually just stopped taking our calls because it was, like, every day at a certain point. (Laughter.)
And I wanted to kind of take the conversation back to this question of religious literacy in the domain of foreign policymaking and diplomacy and kind of pick up where Farah left off, which is, I think, an incredibly crucial insight. Which is, you know, part of the problem is where you locate a religion office, right? The secretary’s bureau is a great perch from which to announce yourself, but it’s a crummy place to try to institutionalize yourself into the operational culture of the State Department.
We spent a lot of time designing courses to train diplomats on religion, but I started to get the sense at some point that it wasn’t about providing information. You could do that, you could give people more and more nuanced information about religion, but a lot of the challenges we faced had more to do with the operational culture norms of the State Department as an institution where people would say to us, yes, we get it, religion matters. OK, thank you for helping us understand the connection between protecting the environment and engaging religious leaders, but I’m afraid that if I talk to those people I’ll get in trouble because of the establishment clause or I’m afraid that I’ll accidentally appear to be endorsing that religious belief or just I’ll get in trouble.
So I guess the question I want to ask is, how do we get at that piece of it, right? Beyond providing more information about religion, how do you reconfigure the incentive structures and operational culture of governmental agencies to enable this kind of work?
PANDITH: I can jump in. We’ve had this conversation many times and it’s at the root of—I mean, I don’t think, for those of you who have not served in government, there’s no way to fully describe what Peter just described. It is torturous for those people who care about a particular issue like this and who feel it every day.
Your work was so important, Peter, and the service you gave to our country has to be applauded. I mean, you have no idea what he has done. Yeah, seriously. (Applause.)
I think there are a couple of things. One is, indeed you have to have leadership from the top that says this matters and we all get why that’s important. You could be a CEO of a company and—I mean, look at John Mackey, look at Paul Polman. At Unilever they have reimagined what their corporate design is going to be, who they are, what they value, and not just the way they operate along their supply chain, but what they stand for. And that came from the top and it required them to push against the shareholders to change things. And I’m using business as an example because there’s money involved that.
This, this is ego, this is about power. That’s a pretty difficult thing to break, but it can be broken, I believe, if we begin to get the interagency principals to say we’re doing this. It’s not just the white paper that’s written or the thing that was passed in the Principals Committee, but it’s really we’re integrating this into our agencies and our departments in the way in which we’re doing things and, by the way, here’s how. So that redesign in the thinking will enable the younger members that are entering into—let’s use the State Department as an example—into believing that this is OK.
Now, the establishment clause, I came, you can imagine, came very closely against a lot of the time. The lawyers have to make it easy for people to understand where the lines are. And I think for a lot of the people within government—as we should, our Constitution is remarkable and important and we cannot cross the lines of church and state, obviously. That’s who we are as Americans.
But how do you—how do you get through that? And I think some of that complication and the worry that people have is because they don’t understand what those lines are. And I’ll give you a very specific example that’s not a brilliant one. But when I was traveling as special representative and I would go to embassies around the world and want to meet with a lot of different kinds of Muslims, I would get this question of you don’t want to bring that kind of Muslim in because, you know, this and that. And I would have to do several things. One, I would go back to the L bureau, the legal part of the State Department, and make them write an email to me that I could then show to the embassy that says, guess what, it is OK for me to bring these kinds of Muslims to the table. OK? So I released their worry legally that they were never going to get a job again and they were going to be in trouble.
But then the second part was normalizing—and this is where I’ll stop—the normalization of bringing that different kind of voice to the table can only start if it starts at the highest level. So if the secretary did it, for example, in the case of the State Department, oh, it’s all right and he or she did that because they demanded—and this is what I demanded in the work that I did—don’t bring me the same old people to that table. If you’re going to bring me the same old people, make them bring two more people that I have never seen before and you’ve never seen before, so now there’s a new mechanism that comes to the table.
And I think the way we do that, Peter, is to enforce a new—a new framework and a new paradigm and a new set of operational behaviors that allow things to change.
WERTHEIMER: OK. Chris, I know you wanted to weigh in.
And then I’ll—we’ll take a—there was a man way in the back, I guess with the beard—hi—after Chris weighs in and then we’ll take a question.
SEIPLE: Yeah, a quick comment on these things. One, government people are people too and we’ve got to love them where they’re at. They are overworked, underpaid and, at the end of the day, with all these things coming down, they just want to be told what they can do and what they can’t do. And it has to be simplified to that version.
But this also speaks to how do we understand education versus training. So when we—when we started the Institute for Global Engagement, we had a book in 2004 called Religion and Security: The New Nexus in International Affairs. It’s never been talked about really before in that way. And we took it—I took it down to FSI, the Foreign Service Institute, where we train our diplomats and I said, what do you think, could we get this included as a course and I can get a sponsor? A friend of mine was then assistant secretary of state for pol-mil and all that kind of stuff. And they said, well, you know, we do training here, which is to say we don’t teach people how to think, that’s education.
Now, here’s the quote that I was given: We assume a certain cosmopolitanism from the people who join the Foreign Service. Well, where is that cosmopolitanism going to come from? Well, it’s going to come from our elite international relations schools where they’re all getting their master’s degrees to get into the Foreign Service. And at that point in time—and it’s still—there was almost none and now there’s a few—religion has never been taught in international affairs.
Part of the reason we founded the Review of Faith & International Affairs, now published by Routledge, the only journal of its kind in the world still, was because of my experience at Fletcher where I didn’t talk about it because you couldn’t talk about it. The only thing more maddening than trying to get an international relations geopolitical person to understand religion was then, I found out later, was somebody at seminary to understand geopolitics. (Laughter.) And this is the issue.
So how does some of that education come together in a meaningful way?
Now, there is a model within our government and the model comes from the military. In the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, there’s something called joint professional military education at the entry, mid, and senior level. And it’s yearlong programs and it’s about education. And that education not only teaches people how to think about the world, but it creates a common culture of understanding about how we engage as Americans. That’s what we need for the interagency and the religion piece has to be essential to that process based on, selfishly, I think, some or all of the arguments that we’re putting forward up here.
WERTHEIMER: OK. Diane would like to jump in on this topic as well.
MOORE: Just a quick comment to say that I think a lot of our efforts need to go into the rising generation of leaders. Because right now, to try to work within the current systems, it’s, as Peter said, it’s just really challenging.
So there are some really great programs. What Katherine’s been working on and Shaun now at the Berkley Center—and Georgetown is fabulous, really doing important work. We just were able—talk about—Farah and I were joking. You think the government is challenging? You should go to Harvard. (Laughter.)
So we just, after a remarkably challenging bureaucratic red tape, we just are launching a four-year initiative with the Divinity School and the Kennedy School of Government on religion, conflict, and peace, looking with a focus particularly on the Middle East, and really looking and a more sophisticated way to think about this, to get policymakers and religious studies scholars together in the same room to be sharing wisdom.
We need more of those kinds of programs. So if you are at an academic institution and have any sway to create those kinds of cross-references, I think that’s what we need to think about in the long term. Because when we just beat our heads against what’s currently happening, it’s a—it’s a revolving door and it’s really a slow slog.
PANDITH: So just one sentence. The word “fear” hasn’t been used and I want to use it because I think people are really scared of religion.
And on the issue of Islam in general, my colleagues at the State Department, with all due respect, who did not have a background at all, so afraid of even getting anywhere near talking about the issue that they were going to either make a mistake, they were going to do it wrong, we’ve got to—we’ve got to—that has to be—that has to be put on the table.
WERTHEIMER: Excellent point. And that fear is driving through the K-12 system as well on these same issues. Yeah, it’s an epidemic.
Way in the back, the guy in the beard. And then we’ll go to the person next to him after that just to give some people in the back a chance.
LESLIE: Yeah. David Leslie with Rothko Chapel in Houston.
A lot of our work is very grassroot literacy, you know, working with different faith traditions, bringing people together post Harvey. I mean, during Hurricane Harvey, that was another opportunity to some very on-the-ground training and just relationship-building and reaffirming what we already knew about each other and then learning new things.
But I’m concerned about three parochialisms. Number one is, we have seen the rise of the parochial school movement across this country, which is not about let’s all come together, it’s about separation so often. The second one is—I think it’s a fiction living in this post-religious age—I think you just said a little bit about that—which is not influencing all kinds of decision-making in all sectors. And then the third, which is a challenge in our state, but I think is the kind of this Evangelical hold, Christian Evangelical hold on a lot of public institutions, whether it’s public or it’s kind of behind the scenes. Air Force Academy, the Texas Department of Corrections, I can go down the list.
So when we’re thinking about funnels where people come up and are trained, informed, I see kind of the both and the paradox or contradiction of these great moments, but on the other hand when you look at it more systemically, there seems to be some sector things that are happening that don’t give me a whole lot of confidence in one way looking forward and particularly this post-religious age, because that’s not what we’re seeing in Houston.
Every immigrant, everybody, these large communities are bringing culture, religion, faith, et cetera, but we pretend like it doesn’t matter. So I’d just get your feedback or comments on some of that.
SEIPLE: One, just to pick on your words a little bit, because it’s been used, Evangelicals aren’t a monolith either.
SEIPLE: And that’s important to recognize as someone who would still ascribe to that label, although my wife will not. And I distinguish between lowercase-E and uppercase-E Evangelical, and you can probably break the code on what I’m thinking about there.
But it’s very important to have public local displays. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves. Literacy, that’s just going to glaze over people’s eyes in the pews, right? So we need to be thinking about, what are the tangible examples of faith leaders in their local communities doing these things and setting a different model that other folks have to respond to, whatever their hold is on whatever institution?
And the best model that I’ve seen—this comes out of Texas, out of Keller, Texas up in Fort Worth, Dallas, is Bob Roberts and Magid. And they’ve been doing this also with rabbis, but their whole premise is this: We’re going to get together for a three-day weekend. And by the way, it’s not some touchy-feely water-everything-down thing. It’s we want to give permission to each other to say that we are never going to agree on Isa Al-Masih, Jesus the Messiah as said in the hold Quran, but that doesn’t mean we can’t love each other and work on things that are in common—compassion, peace, mercy, justice—for the sake of the city.
And so they spend time together and the responsibility of the graduates who go to that is they have to have a meal together as families—imam family, pastor family—once you build the relationship, you have to invite the other into your house of worship. And Bob’s lost a lot of people from his church for bringing Muslims into his church. And then third, you have to do some kind of joint service to the city.
And I think, at the en of the day, that’s the only way this stuff is going to actually take practical change because then people see the reality of it. This is our city, we’re Americans, but we’re Texans first or, you know, or, you know, we’re American. So I think that is ways to address it and be very practical about how to engage on those issues.
WERTHEIMER: I would just add that I’m from Boston and the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization has been around, I don’t know, twenty, thirty—a long time and it might be a good model to look at as well.
I did promise to—yes, go right ahead at the back.
GUTOW: Steve Gutow of the Wagner School at NYU. I’m the scholar for the Religious Leadership and Civic Engagement Project.
And I wanted to go to all three of you, all four of you, of which I know three of the four, and just tell you—back to Texas because Texans, as you know, just hang together. We just happened to be in San Antonio, the city—our first city that we have really looked at. Our key thought to bring religions together was not to start with, can we have conversations? It was to bring—first, to get in the room Max Lucado, who is a prominent Evangelical and, all the way over, the archbishop and a lot of Catholics, which it’s a 67 percent Catholic city, Jews, Muslims—Jews, Muslims, and Christians in every city and six there because they’re a very powerful community and they’re part of the political wheel.
And what we—what we’ve done is bring everyone together, it’s been over several months. We’re about to take on a major project that the city is excited about to fight homelessness and affordable housing and gentrification. And what’s happened is, in finding in our text, in finding out that everybody actually feels similarly and deeply committed through their own religions and their faiths, you’re seeing a connection and an excitement in the whole city.
So I’m wondering, if it’s not trying to talk about these—you know, I have no idea. I mean, I do know unfortunately about what you all are going through on a national level, but I do know that on a local level that what’s going on is people are seeing each other care about the same things and the closeness is obvious. And I think that’s what we’re missing here. It’s about working on something that makes a difference to everybody and starting out with the idea that there are things that make a difference to everybody and finding out what they are.
And I’d love your comments on if that’s something that is part of how you all think when you guide the people that follow your thoughts.
MOORE: I’ll just—I want to respond quickly because I think your comment about having a third—another thing to work on to bring people together—and, Chris, you have mentioned this and Farah has, too—is always a good strategy.
But I think I want to push against one other set of assumptions. First of all, the people who will come to any interfaith kind of conversation are already preselected, right? They’re already inclined to want to think of these larger questions around pluralism. I wish and implore those of you who are religious leaders in the room and people of faith in the room and representing your communities to really tackle the internal interreligious challenges, to get people across the spectra of diversity within traditions to get into a conversation in a room together, potentially maybe around a third issue as well,
But we’re still having these siloes. And I think the conversation this morning about the different foci of authority—the last question that was asked in the plenary this morning—is a really important one, because theologically we have tremendous diversities within our own traditions and those—the diversity as a Christian, I want to say that that’s a lot of my own work in my own faith tradition, is to think about trying to really reach across the aisle literally to try to encounter and engage people of faith in communities that are really, really different than the Christianity that I’m—that I’m promoting.
WERTHEIMER: OK. I’m going to go to the guy in the beige—in the middle here, yes. I was, like, I don’t know anybody’s names.
GOLDEN: Thank you. Yeah. Jonathan Golden from Drew University’s Center on Religion, Culture, and Conflict.
So agree with everything I’ve heard. And I would maybe even, you know, push it just a little bit further in terms of the patience, not that we can wait, but that investing in the next generation, right? I mean, I’m a college professor. In the fall will be the first class of students that were not yet alive, you know, on September 11, 2001. And there are opportunities to make a difference there, but there are great, great challenges.
And I have my college students as well as my graduate students working with the high schools. We’ve started to kind of push down, you know, into the high schools. And a school right near me, there was a teacher that was teaching world religions and they got into big trouble. One of these well-funded law centers—I won’t name them—brought a major lawsuit against them. One mom complained and they came swooping in with millions of dollars. The school now has to defend itself and so forth.
But I would submit, in one way, the school might have exposed—it was one mistake that they have made and I wonder what you think about this, is that very, very well-intentioned—but their take on it was everybody in the school already knows about Christianity, so let’s make sure that we cover the minority religions. And I—and I think the teacher had the best of intentions, but that became the hinge on which the whole sort of case came, that you were completely neglecting.
And I think that happens a lot.
GOLDEN: And I’m just wondering if that’s something that we could maybe—how might you address that?
WERTHEIMER: OK. I’d like to jump in and then hand it over to Diane, because my entire book kind of looked at controversies like this around the country.
So, first of all, yes, it happens a lot. I wouldn’t say it happens so much that the schools ignore Christianity, it happens a lot that people perceive that they’re not teaching about Christianity as part of the world religion curriculum. And a lot of times they are. I’m kind of surprised to hear that the school district made that decision, because, generally, the religions that are covered are, at least, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and then oftentimes Hinduism and another Eastern religion, and then in California Sikhism as well.
But there have been tons of controversies often over how the—what the approach is, sometimes, like, a field trip or trying on clothing. So it’s not—these controversies aren’t unusual, but I am very surprised that they’re not teaching about Christianity. I certainly think that is the wrong approach to take.
We’re not all Christian in this country, number one. Number two, as I said in the beginning, a lot of Christians don’t know a lot about Christianity. We have to learn about the world’s religions.
MOORE: Yeah, I just want to say those lawsuits are common and you’re right, they’re well-funded, people are targeting teachers. You know, what we teach in education is about culture and people are paying attention to that.
The challenge and what often happens in intro to world religions courses or in the unit on world religions in world history courses is that you teach the kind of, quote/unquote, “positive dimensions” of the faith and you teach this notion as though all religions are either the same or that they’re all positive. And that’s what some of the foundations of the—of the lawsuits are coming at.
And in fact, I would—I disagree with that approach because I don’t think it gives people language and tools to understand the negative forces that religions play in human experience.
And also, it is—it ends up being a weirdly sectarian promotion of religion, because you’re kind of promoting it. So a lot of it happens because then they’re saying you’re not teaching about Christianity or you are teaching about the negative forces in Christianity in other, like, history context if you teach about the Crusades or something like that, and you’re not teaching about the truth about Islam, which is that it’s a terrorist organization and a terrorist religion because you teach about the Five Pillars as though those—you know.
So that’s—so for me, that’s the key, is, like, get a more sophisticated understanding of religion and then those lawsuits won’t have a chance at least legally. They will have cultural prominence.
WERTHEIMER: One more question. The lady in the yellow, right there.
CHEMBERLIN: Peg Chemberlin—with Connect the Dots.
So we have a number of reasons that religious literacy is important. In the academic world, it is part of the integrity of the academic world. For some of us in the faith community, love of neighbor means truly understanding with empathy and heart the neighbor. And there are these practical, tactical sorts of reasons to go about it.
So National Guard Chaplain Morris goes to Iran and he’s had a little bit of experience with interfaith discussion and he starts knocking on the doors of imams and the next thing you know a shooting of American soldiers has gone down. You know, the self-interest issue that you raised, Chris.
We sometimes see those pieces as far apart from each other. And I think there may be a strategy that we need to open up for ourselves that says let’s look at the tactical issues, let’s look at the self-interest issues and see how those lead us to the larger moral issues.
I’m interested in, where are those points where local, regional, and national faith groups really need to connect with developing being part of best practices for organizations, State Department, local, government agencies, military? I think there’s an awful lot of opportunity with the military that the faith community often doesn’t pay attention to. Where are the connecting points where the self-interest around religious literacy is already in play outside of the faith community where we can find more structure and growing partnerships?
WERTHEIMER: All right, thank you.
PANDITH: So one of the things that has to happen is leadership on these things. It’s not finding the places of intersection, because we can today in this room in the next five minutes come up with dozens and dozens and dozens of ways in which they connect. It’s—to Peter’s question—where is the leadership that says we’re going to do this, OK, because it will mean you have to destroy the old system for the new system to be engaged. And that hasn’t happened. And I don’t see that happening, frankly, unless there is a movement that comes from the very top within our government that says we’re going to reconfigure how we do all of this.
So I think that—I’m sorry, I don’t want to end on a negative note, because I believe—I am actually a positive person and I believe that there is great intent in this room and what we can do. So I want to turn it to something that Chris said earlier, which is, if it—if we are waiting for leadership in government—and it’s going to take a while, which is what I believe—how can we put pressure on those nodes of cooperation among—and that will mean that philanthropists are going to actually have to set it up so that government—they are making it easy for government and those NGOs to do that work. And that’s the way I think it can happen.
SEIPLE: One quick, final word. Blending the two questions, the last two questions, one, it’s been my experience that the younger the clerical leader, the more they are anxious to do these kinds of things, but they need permission from their elders or theologically to engage the other, which is sad. Which is why I always start with scriptural literacy, you’ve really got to know your own faith and understand what that is.
But then in terms of finding the points of connection that can transcend, besides something that everybody is—that’s in somebody’s self-interest, there’s a—there’s a gap now. OK, now you have permission to participate, this is in our self-interest, but I don’t know how to actually engage.
So one of the things that we’re exploring at the University of Washington with this, a rare example of innovation in the academy with a certificate course on cross-cultural literacy, is to focus on skillsets that are transferrable.
So the three skillsets that I think that everybody needs to do, the kind of stuff that we’re talking about: evaluation, self and contextual; communication, verbal and nonverbal; and negotiation. Those are skillsets that can be taught. They’ve been done before. But have they been taught and brought together in a way that prepares somebody to step out of their faith community and engage another faith pursuing something that is in everybody’s common interest?
And I think skillsets will be the thing that transcends the secular and the sacred, especially as parents sending their kids to school are wondering what the value of their buck is. You just can’t say critical thinking, I need skillsets that I can apply in any context as a function of my faith and as a function of my American citizenship.
WERTHEIMER: Thank you to all three panelists.
MOORE: Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: And thank you for the great questions. (Applause.)
PANDITH: As always, great job.