In May 2016, an Islamic center in downtown Houston was the site of a protest to stop the “Islamization” of Texas. A group called the Heart of Texas was the online organizer. To counter the protest, another online group called Save Islamic Knowledge set up a second protest. Turns out both of these groups were Russian internet troll groups, listed in Robert Mueller’s indictment of Russians attempting to tamper with the US presidential election.
The Russians did not create these fissures between Americans of different faiths: they were amplifying what was already there. Their message resonated because Americans have a problem engaging with religious diversity. Citizens can and must act now to set a different course to protect religious pluralism.
Religious pluralism is embedded in the First Amendment’s guarantees of free exercise and non-establishment of any one faith. It is a proud part of the nation’s history. In his letter to a Hebrew synagogue, George Washington assured the congregants that “the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Thomas Jefferson, who owned his own copy of the Koran, wrote in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, “[O]ur civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.”
Of course, America’s history of religious pluralism is not perfect. But religious intolerance has never before been so easily exploited by a foreign adversary. The nation’s religious diversity, often used against its citizens as a weakness, should be considered one of the country’s greatest strengths and a bedrock of democracy.
A significant number of American citizens would disagree with that. Some have concerns about people of different faiths and their intentions. Others consider religious faith a sign of backwardness. Americans often prefer to avoid talking about religion in public spaces, in part because their feelings about it—positive or negative—are so deeply held. In this reticence to discuss religion in public life, Americans have ceded the territory to extremists on both ends of the spectrum.
The American aversion to discussing religion has contributed to overwhelming religious illiteracy that turns a unified national narrative of “us” into “us vs. them,” argues Diane Moore, a Harvard professor and the author of Overcoming Religious Illiteracy. Moore posits that ignorance about the basic tenets of the world’s major religious traditions adds fuel to the fire of the culture wars, increasing religious and racial bigotry. In other words, Americans collectively make it possible for foreign operatives to manufacture conservative- and liberal-leaning falsehoods that they all too readily believe about their own neighbors. When Americans pull out of engagement with local faith communities, they pull out of engagement with entire neighborhoods, as the sociologist Robert Putnam argues in American Grace and the political scientist Charles Murray argues in Coming Apart.
Inclusive America, a project of the Institute’s Justice and Society Program, recently published Pluralism in Peril: Challenges to an American Ideal, a report that highlights best practices and practical solutions for combating religious illiteracy and bias. It also recommends engaging with interfaith civil society, including secular humanists and atheists, in order to build strong and resilient communities. Here are some ways the report says to take action:
Just as young people learn about history and world cultures, they must also acquire basic religious literacy. Advocate for teaching religion in your local public school, 4-H Club, and YMCA. Yes, teaching religion is constitutional. It also works to prevent the rise of bigotry in your community. And it affords young people a critical base they will need to navigate an increasingly global world.
Strong personal relationships are the foundation for trust in communities and a critical source of community resilience when disaster strikes. If you are a member of a local government, school board, or sheriff’s office, reach out to your local interfaith networks. If you’re a member of a faith community, get involved in lay leadership and advocate for participation in local interfaith service projects. Reach out to your local government. The time to exchange business cards is now, not in the hours after a tragedy.
Be a strong advocate for pluralism. Pluralism means more than tolerating a lot of difference. It means thriving, engaged, big-tent diversity. As the counter-extremism expert J.M. Berger explains in the Justice and Society report, the best hope of battling all types of extremism lies in supporting a diverse, pluralist society.
America’s adversaries will continue to seek to exploit existing and potential fissures in the national community. Working together, citizens can act to make sure that the unique strength of the nation’s religious diversity does not turn into its greatest liability.