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Toward an Interfaith America

Judeo-Christian was a myth that served a purpose. It’s time to write the next chapter. 

October 18, 2018
 
 

Here is how I’ve been opening my speeches on college campuses lately: Did you know that when the Mayflower Pilgrims arrived on the Atlantic seaboard and dusted off Plymouth Rock, they found the words ‘Judeo-Christian America’ etched on it?

I will pause for a moment, taking in the "Oh wow" stares of twenty-year-olds who excelled on standardized tests, and then I will slowly shake my head and allow a knowing smile to climb onto my face.

Sometimes there will be a chuckle from the crowd, but I like it most when students view this gambit as a challenge rather than a joke, when they lean forward in their seats and give me looks that say, ‘Ok buddy, now you’ve got me. So tell me, where did 'Judeo-Christian America' come from? This better be interesting."

And it is. "Judeo-Christian America" was created by a group of interfaith leaders who founded an organization called the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ) in the late 1920s as a response to the anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism of the KKK.

The leaders of the NCCJ believed that the Protestant nation narrative needed to be expanded to include the growing numbers of Jews and Catholics in the United States. To accomplish their goal, they created a term that has become so woven into the American story that we forget that someone at some point made it up. "Judeo-Christian America" is a civic invention, and a genius one at that. The history is beautifully recounted in Kevin Schultz’s book, Tri-Faith America’

Why do so many students in the room look like they believe me (or at least like they want to) when I tell my little Plymouth Rock story? The answer is simple: no one, not in high school or in college, has told them the real story.     

In fact, outside of the obligatory references to the First Amendment, no educator has talked to them much about one of the great achievements of American civilization – the creation of a religiously diverse democracy.

There is data that underscores the important difference that colleges can make regarding how students engage with religious diversity. The findings of the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudanal Survey (IDEALS), co-led by Alyssa Rockenbach, Matt Mayhew, and IFYC survey show that students come to campus interested in learning about religious diversity issues, and that incorporating religious diversity education into first-year orientation and creating interfaith course sequences or minors are particularly impactful for achieving higher appreciative attitudes towards diverse identities and increased pluralism orientation.

That’s important, because while the civic invention "Judeo-Christian America" did good work for 80-some years, we now live in a nation with appreciable numbers of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’I’s, Jains, atheists, seekers and more, and in a moment where the forces of religious prejudice are on the rise.

We need a new national narrative that directly combats prejudice and proactively welcomes the contributions of these various groups to the American Table.

The person who writes that narrative might well be a twenty-year-old student on a college campus right now.

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