For over two hundred years, Americans of all faiths have come together, put their shoulders to the wheel of history, and made this country what it is today. And I know that as we go forward, it’s going to take all of us – Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim, believer and non-believer – to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
--President Barack Obama, in a video announcing the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge
When a university president shakes hands with a senior on graduation day, she is likely confident that the student has certain positive knowledge, attitudes and behaviors toward diversity, including racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, class, and gender diversity. If she’s feeling optimistic, she might expect these attitudes toward diversity to shape students’ civic participation and leadership beyond college.
So where is religious diversity in this mix? What knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors should a college president expect of her graduates when it comes to the Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Jews, Hindus and nonbelievers that make up the American fabric? Religion is increasingly prevalent within American public and political discourse, and religious intolerance is at significant levels toward groups like Muslims, Mormons, Evangelicals and Atheists. Intolerance toward Muslims and Mormons appears to be rising.
These rates and attitudes mirror prejudices that Catholics and Jews have faced in the past. The good news is that Catholics and Jews are now -- according to Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s research -- among the most favorably viewed by their fellow Americans. How did this powerful change occur? Social science data suggest that increasing appreciative knowledge of these religions and expanding opportunities for meaningful positive encounters with Catholics and Jews were the keys.
Given that colleges and universities are places that facilitate encounters with and knowledge about diversity, could higher education play a similar role with regard to today’s more expansive religious diversity?
On March 17, President Obama offered colleges and universities an opportunity to address this question: the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. Obama invited campuses to commit to a year of interfaith cooperation and community service programming on their campuses, bringing students of different religious and nonreligious backgrounds together to serve the common good. This challenge allows us to highlight those dimensions of different religious traditions that inspire service and social justice and create spaces where students from different backgrounds can have positive meaningful encounters by working together to apply these shared values.
Obama was right to pick colleges and universities as the proving ground for this work. Other forms of diversity have robust curricular and co-curricular initiatives meant to foster appreciative knowledge about diverse traditions and positive meaningful encounters between students of diverse backgrounds. President Obama is asking us to do the same work with regards to America’s religious diversity.
So what kind of impact might we expect to see as campuses take on this challenge?
1. College and university presidents will start talking to each other about why this work matters, and why it ought to be an institutional priority. As campuses articulate an institutional commitment to interfaith cooperation, we hope it sparks a national conversation among higher education leaders, and that college and university presidents will encourage and challenge one another in their advancement of this work.
2. Learning from the broader diversity movement, colleges will begin to address these topics in the classroom to build students' appreciative knowledge. We imagine specialized courses such as the history of the interfaith movement or theologies of service in different religious traditions, as well as interdisciplinary curriculums that will explore interfaith cooperation within a variety of fields, such as political science, history, and sociology. The latter curriculums will be aimed at engaging a broad swath of the student population.
3. Campuses will initiate broad co-curricular programming meant to intentionally foster positive encounters between students of different religious and nonreligious backgrounds. Just as students participate in regular service-learning days, and diversity is incorporated into training for orientation leaders and RAs, campuses will get creative about programming that engages a significant number of students in interfaith cooperation, like campuswide interfaith action campaigns and religious diversity trainings for RAs.
4. The work of engaging religious diversity on campus will move from niche to norm. Excellent interfaith initiatives exist on many campuses, but they are often run by a single chaplain or small campus unit who only has resources to reach a small group of students. When engaging racial and ethnic diversity became a priority on campuses, we saw sustainable campuswide curricular and co-curricular programs and a national exchange of best practices and measurement for impact. Our hope is that we are nearing a similar tipping point for this work.
5. Campuses – with students leading the way – will harness the social capital of their communities and demonstrate the power of interfaith cooperation. We think about Greg Damhorst, a student leader at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who with religious and nonreligious student groups mobilized 5,119 volunteers to pack 1,012,640 meals for earthquake survivors in Haiti. A local paper called the event the largest humanitarian effort ever staged outside of a major metropolitan area. This challenge should inspire projects like Greg’s on campuses all over the country, with students of diverse religious and nonreligious backgrounds making real impact on social issues.
6. We will see measurable changes in national knowledge, attitudes and behaviors toward religious diversity. As college students who simply think it is normal to cooperate with those who believe differently from them graduate and begin to take leadership, we hope that some of the dismal numbers on religious tolerance might significantly shift.
So what will it take for a college president to know that her graduating seniors are ready to lead in and engage with a religiously diverse world? Obama’s interfaith challenge offers the chance to find out.
Eboo Patel is founder and president and Cassie Meyer is director of content at Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), an organization that works with college campuses on religious diversity issues. IFYC is a close adviser and partner for the White House on this effort.