In 2012, the Aspen Institute formed the Inclusive America Project. Housed under the Institute’s Justice & Society Program, the project was designed to increase respect for diverse religious identities and foster positive interfaith interactions and partnerships. Nearly a decade later, the project is relaunching as the Religion & Society Program, a shift designed to reflect the evolution of the work and the critical role of faith in our democracy right now.
Today the program has more than a new name—it has a new vision and a new executive director.
Dr. Simran Jeet Singh joined the Institute in 2021, but he’s no stranger to religious study and acceptance. His entire life’s work has been dedicated to it. Born and raised in San Antonio to parents who immigrated from India in the 1970s, Singh and his siblings were among the only kids in South Texas with turbans.
“My childhood was great, and it was normal in so many ways,” he said. “And at the same time, we were very cognizant of our difference—our racial difference, our religious difference, language, all of it. It’s something we grew accustomed to.”
Having such first-hand visibility of those differences shaped Singh’s interest in this work early on. He even participated in interfaith gatherings and awareness presentations while in elementary school. But the watershed moment was September 11, 2001, when he was a senior in high school. The national tragedy and the ensuing racism and violence towards turbaned Sikhs in America shifted the trajectory of his life and career.
“The big realization was that we can’t just ignore the racism that comes our way. Growing up we were taught to turn the other cheek and to deflect the hate that would come our way,” said Singh. “But after 9/11, I realized we had to be more proactive in dealing with the racism we faced.”
Singh started on a path of activism and scholarship, earning a master’s degree from Harvard’s Divinity School, focused on South Asian religions, and a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University. He saw this as a way to create an accredited platform to start telling stories because he didn’t see people who looked like him sharing what was happening to them. It was a way to advocate along the lines of race and religion through his own lived experiences and deep academic knowledge.
When Singh was first introduced to the Inclusive America Project five years ago, the mission—to strengthen the understanding of religion’s role in advancing equity and the common good by shifting ideas, policies, and practices—spoke to him.
“The entire program was well organized and well envisioned,” he said. “I really appreciated that they were asking the right questions, bringing together the right people, and were sincerely committed to making a difference.”
The program is rooted in seven components of religious pluralism. Each of those was a component the father of two had been working on for over a decade, in academia and the nonprofit and public space.
“Religious literacy, hate crime prevention, religious freedom…I was already committed to each of these areas as I created my own path as a scholar-activist,” Singh said. “My approach was intuitive. I was just trying to help make the world better for me and my family and my community. When I encountered the program’s vision of religious pluralism and saw how closely it aligned with my own vision, I felt an immediate connection.”
Religious pluralism is the end goal of the Religion & Society Program, summed up in its vision: a society where religious and non-religious people thrive, respecting and engaging together across beliefs. To Singh, that simply means ensuring that people have equal footing in a society where they historically have not.
“In our country, we are willing to talk about some forms of inequity, but we’re not really willing or capable of talking about religious inequity—and that’s a problem. Religious inequity is a serious issue that I’ve experienced firsthand,” he explains. “Pluralism, on the other hand, is the antidote. Pluralism is about removing these obstacles for one another so that all of the stigmas or barriers to happiness are removed, and we can really live freely in the way we all want to.”
It’s important, Singh says, because so many people are driven by religion and see the world through that lens, and when we ignore that we’re missing a big part of the picture of what’s happening in our world. Religion and religious identity inform how people see themselves and others. And that shapes how they operate within society; the contributions they make and to whom. Singh believes that religion plays an outsized role in group identities and so we cannot simply ignore it. Regardless of whether or not we’re willing to pay attention, religion is still driving much of how people view the world and how they behave.
“I’ve been on the other side of religious equity. I’ve been denied rights, I’ve been racially profiled, I’ve been treated differently because of how I look and what I believe. Those experiences make me deeply empathetic to all those who are treated unjustly,” Singh said. “My Sikh faith teaches me that we all have a responsibility to stand up for one another’s humanity, and that teaching, along with my own experiences, is what makes me committed to this work.
As the Religion & Society Program embarks on its new journey, Singh is excited about the opportunities, the challenges, and the role the program can play in moving the country along.
“We’re primed to have these conversations now in ways we’ve never seen before. That we’re willing to talk about issues of race and racial justice gives me confidence that we will soon be willing to consider how other forms of inequity operate in our society,” he said. “I think the opportunity is really ripe, and I’m excited for that to be part of what our program is doing with our work.”
The main operating principle according to Singh, is about how the Religion & Society Program can create value and serve people. His goal is to make conversations about religion more comfortable.
“I don’t mean more comfortable in that we soften it up. My hope is that religion’s role in society becomes something that’s part of our cultural conversation,” he said. “We tend to avoid conversations about religion because they’re uncomfortable, but we’ve learned as a society that we’re better served when we confront the inequities that ail us. Starting to have those conversations around religious inequality is critical and our program is perfectly suited to help drive that conversation.”