Today’s guest blog, the latest in our ongoing series of guest contributors, comes from Stephen Goeman and Bruce Wang, members of Tufts Freethought Society. It is a reflection on pluralism and its ramifications for several contemporary social issues, written from the perspective of two up-and-coming nonreligious student leaders. Initially produced for the Tufts Roundtable, it is a thorough and compelling call for pluralism — please check it out:

ingodwetrustA fundamental challenge is confronting America’s modern religiosity: a nation once considered primarily Christian, or at least Judeo-Christian, is getting a taste of secular values. The National Day of Prayer, first started in 1952, has been challenged by a federal judge, LGBT teen suicides have many reconsidering their stance on homosexuality, and Muslims are fighting to build Islamic centers wherever they please—regardless of their proximity to Ground Zero. These examples characterize a push against the fundamentalist stances of religious America—the push of pluralism—or the idea that peace in a modern society depends on allowing all lifestances to thrive. While fundamentalism threatens to divide members of various communities, enforcers of pluralism seek to unite these beliefs in order to maintain the progression of civilized debate and inclusive cooperation.

Traditionally, there are few limitations on what or who is considered American: all individuals, regardless of their point of origin, creed, or identity have an equal position as American citizens. This is a tradition worth preserving. However, this basic right is under fire on America’s religious spectrum by exclusivists, who counter America’s growing religious diversity by denying outsiders the right to participate in America’s religious culture. This view has a consecrated history in everyday language through the exclusivist phrase “Christian nation.”  Exclusivism creates a unity at the expense of America’s minority opinions—opinions that need protecting.

The progressive preservation of equality comes from pluralism. Eboo Patel, President and Founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, explains that “pluralism is neither mere coexistence nor forced consensus… Instead, religious pluralism is ‘energetic engagement’ that affirms the unique identity of each particular religious tradition and community, while recognizing that the well-being of each depends on the health of the whole.”

Pluralism is advanced through interfaith cooperation, the goal of which is to make knowledge of individual beliefs readily accessible through positive and productive interaction. Interestingly, nonbelievers are taking a leading role in this movement. Chris Stedman, Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, claims that “it is precisely because I am an atheist, and not in spite of it, that I am motivated to do interfaith work.” It is clear that the stereotype of atheists as desirous of conflict with religion is monstrously untrue (even the aggressive Christopher Hitchens is on record as saying that, given the chance, he would not end international religious belief).

As Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain for Harvard University, notes, “Would some atheists reject the concept of pluralism? Of course. But plenty of Christians reject it as well, and you’d hardly think of holding an interfaith meeting without Christians because of it.” Epstein believes that interfaith events which exclude the nonreligious are arbitrarily divisive and not truly pluralistic. Stedman agrees, and further argues that the religious should be willing to come to the defense of nonbelievers when individuals belittle nonreligious values. Progress is already being made in these areas; the Universal Society of Hinduism publicly defended atheists from Pope Benedict XVI’s comparison of atheists and Nazis, and even the conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly has recently admitted that atheists are not immoral. If we desire the end of prejudice in America, pluralism must be advocated.

Recent legislation has called exclusivist values into question. For almost 60 years, Americans have gathered once a year to celebrate faith through the medium of unified prayer with government sponsorship. However, the legality of this event has been questioned by federal judge Barbara Crabb. Does this event actually encourage equal participation between all Americans, or does it lend itself to an unconstitutional favor of religion? Crabb asserts that the event characterizes the latter, stating that, “In this instance, the government has taken sides on an issue that must be left to individual conscience.” It is also clear that the event is not a celebration of all American religions, but instead caters exclusively to Christians. An Indiana celebration in 2003 split into two disjointed events: one for conservative Christians, and one for everyone else. In 2005, invitations to participate in the Day of Prayer in Plano, Texas were restricted to Christians. That same year, the National Day of Prayer Task Force objected to an American Hindu woman leading a prayer.

This string of events characterizes the clash of exclusivism and pluralism; Americans who seek equal representation for all citizens, regardless of their religious stance, have to contend with an exclusivist tradition. Crabb is right to contest the National Day of Prayer’s government sponsorship. America is characterized by a distinct cohesiveness which unifies greatly varying beliefs, and this is absolutely something to celebrate. However, the National Day of Prayer does not foster these pluralistic values. Our nation can do better.

The conflict between Christianity and homosexuality could also desperately use an injection of pluralist values. The issues of gay marriage and LGBT teen suicides in the last few years have been a painfully divisive wedge between fundamentalist Christian values and those advocating for progressive equality. At every gay rights rally, there are those who vehemently oppose legal equality for all LGBT-identified people on religious or moral grounds, and there are the Christian progressives reminding us that everyone falls under God’s love. If the focus is adjusted to today’s main-stream Evangelicals, the new progressives are those who fully accept homosexuality and the fundamentalists that now advocate a stance similar to the “love the sinner, not the sin” approach. While secular culture overwhelmingly continues to favor gay rights, outspoken fundamentalists have ramped up their rhetoric in order to balance against what they perceive to be antagonism towards their religious values, resulting in their radicalization.

Consider the recent controversy over censorship of high school senior Sean Simonson’s article asking students to reach out in support of LGBT youth. Administrators of Benilde- St. Margaret’s School banned the publication of Simonson’s article, offering this explanation; “this particular discussion is not appropriate because the level of intensity has created an unsafe environment for students.” While the general response to LGBT youth suicide by the majority of Christians is that of compassion, this is merely one example of many of the widening gap  of opinion on the issue of homosexuality. Both sides want to prevent mistreatment and suicides of LGBT youth, yet one accepts their identity as morally valid while the other continues to condemn their nature as intrinsically immoral.

The questions Christians must ask themselves, regarding this issue, are: do we really want to help stop teen suicide, and does this condemnation of homosexuality further that commitment? To answer these questions definitively is vital to the reconciliation between traditional fundamentalists and a growing liberal movement, but first a plurality of opinions and stances must be accepted in order to foster civilized debate between the traditionalist and progressive communities. If the issue of homosexuality is to cease existing as a wedge, they must abandon their combative and hostile attitude regarding fundamentalist tradition and embrace a movement to bridge their differences.

Islamphobia is another form of exclusivity which has gained widespread media attention through controversy stirred by the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”. Ironically, when news of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York (actual name) was first publicized, few took notice, much less opposed the project. When Daisy Khan, wife of Feisal Abdul Rauf, project leader of the Islamic Cultural Center, was interviewed by Laura Ingraham on The O’Reily Factor, no indication of controversy was found. Ingraham, who has spoken out against radicalized Islam frequently on her radio show said, “I can’t find many people who really have a problem with it” and “I like what you’re trying to do”.

However, when anti-Muslim blogger and Executive Director of Stop Islamization of America Pamela Geller framed the issue as an offense to the victims of 9/11 and a ploy to spread extremism in America, exclusivists began to take notice. She pushed her position to the mainstream media through the New York Post almost half a year later, drawing the fear and prejudice of an impassioned constituent. By later distorting Feisal Abdul Rauf’s intentions, Geller was able to promulgate this needlessly divisive issue in order to advance the self-explanatory goals of Stop Islamization of America.

The damage of religious exclusivity and marginalization has been dealt: hostility, insensitivity, and mischaracterization of the Muslim minority in America has only fed the flames of extremism abroad. Feisal Abdul Rauf began the Islamic Cultural Center as an effort to promote moderate Islam and to combat violent extremism from creeping into American society, but the effort by mostly right-wing Evangelicals to suppress a religious minority in order to preserve and extol one’s own religious identity over another has undermined a genuine effort towards advancing international peace. It is an affront to our principles of equality when Muslims so willingly meet America halfway, only to be cut off by exclusivist thinking.

As religion grows in America, exclusivist doctrine must be repudiated in favor of impartial pluralism. Members of all faiths—and no faith—should work together through the interfaith movement on an equal playing field, and we should not be surprised that nonbelievers are being included.

Americans should rush to fight prejudice, even when they are not members of the group being marginalized. Through pluralism we can defend universal equality which is simply not attainable through exclusivism. The pluralist movement, secular in principle, should be encouraged to continue as the catalyst of individual and communal growth in America. By these means, we can live up to our most progressive motto, E Pluribus Unum (from many, one), and leave the exclusionist motto, One Nation Under God, behind.

editededited2Bruce Wang is a sophomore majoring in International Relations with a minor in Film Studies. Currently he is also the Public Relations Chair of the Tufts Freethought Society. Stephen Goeman is a sophomore majoring in cognitive and brain science and philosophy. He is the community outreach representative of the Tufts Freethought Society.

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It’s “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” — today’s guest post is from Nicholas Lang, and it addresses this controversy.

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” -Dr. Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream Speech.” August 28, 1963, Washington D.C.

Dr. KingIn 2007, students at Clemson University and the University of Arizona honored the memory of the great Dr. King by holding blackface parties on MLK day. The Clemson students called their party “Living the Dream,” but campus groups and university administration quickly labeled it something else: incredibly racist. Ironically, the King speech that the students were lampooning preaches racial inclusiveness, pushing us to look past social schisms and judge others on the content of their characters. In his toil for the Civil Rights Movement and interfaith work with Gandhi, King’s own life stands as a powerful model of looking past these divides to create real societal change.

But three years after these events, two years after we elected a black president, two years after we started talking about how to create a movement for change, I must ask: how are we doing this in our own lives? Have we made America safer, stronger, more inclusive? I have seen t-shirts informing me that “Yes, We Did,” and the bumper stickers tell me we did. My mother, my family, my friends say that Yes. We did. But upon hearing the news that three different Midwest campuses championed our rights to free speech, the foundation of America’s ethos of liberty and equality, by marginalizing Muslim students on their campuses, I wonder: What did we, the people, do? And what are we doing now?

For those unfamiliar with the context, these aforementioned demonstrations are a part of Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD), a nationwide movement to protest against the censoring of images of the Prophet Muhammad on South Park. Muhammad’s depiction was part of an episode in which Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, featured all of the religious prophets. In the episode, Muhammad was drawn in a bear costume. Although this was not the first time that Muhammad had been featured in the show, two bloggers from the radical site Revolution Islam warned that Stone and Parker should expect to be murdered for this particular affront against the Prophet. To support their claims, they cited the case of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was assassinated following the release of his short film “Submission,” which told the stories of four abused Muslim women.

Comedy Central replied to these threats by censoring subsequent episodes of the show, citing that the network’s utmost priority was the safety of its staff, but writers, artists and cartoonists across the country went further, responding with outrage. For them, the issue here was one of free speech. Our constitution endows us with the creative license to say what we want, even if our choice is to say things that offend others. Although this is a problematic position on a fraught issue, the artists’ feelings were understandable. However, Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris took her anger further, by creating a national “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” on May 20 to speak out against censorship.

“But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

Through the power of Facebook, this idea grew into an astoundingly pervasive grassroots movement to combat Muslim extremism by drawing stick figures of Muhammad and labeling them “Muhammad.” Many of those participating feel that Little Stick Men are not offensive, although others have been more creative in their licenses. The Swedish artist Lars Vilks made Muhammad into a canine which Vilks then named “Modog.” Other drawings have shown Muhammad to be a suicide bomber, a pig, Freddy Krueger, Michael Jackson and the Kool-Aid man. One shows him engaging in sexual relations with a sheep, and in another, he is sodomized by Jesus. One of them really strives for every target possible: the artist alleges that only a “violent, illiterate pedophile” could have composed the Qu’ran. Another is much simpler, equating Islam to nothing but a piece of shit.

chalkmuhammadThis is not simply exercising an inalienable right. This is hatred and bigotry. The University of Madison-Wisconsin’s student group stated in a letter to their school’s Muslim Student Association that their “Chalking for Freedom of Expression,” in which they drew Little Stick Men on their campus sidewalks in chalk, was not meant to be offensive. Their actions were not “intended to mock or intimidate” anyone. Many bloggers have been in the same boat as the University of Madison-Wisconsin students, deciding to participate in the movement, despite its increasing tones of religious hatred. One specifically stated that she had to participate, to fight for free speech, even if she didn’t like EDMD.

However, UW-M campus’ Muslim group responded, in a wise and patient letter, informing the secular group that they were, crazily enough, offended by these drawings. And we must also remember that, as Americans have the right to engage in hurtful acts, the objects of that vitriol and their allies have the right to be offended by them. Molly Norris herself rescinded her participation in a campaign that has veered far from her satirical intent, one that has been taken over by anti-Muslim groups like Stop Islamization of America. When a movement is increasingly designed to attack our Muslim classmates, our Muslim neighbors, our Muslim friends, we have the right to speak out.

“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy… It would be fatal to overlook the urgency of the moment.”

This campaign has made every Muslim accountable for the actions of two, and many of the Muslims that the Stop Islamization of America movement and its borrowed campaign have demonized responded with tolerance and love. The Muslim Student Association from the UW-M responded by “politely” requesting that the secular group revoke its participation in EDMD and join UW-M’s Muslim students to discuss this issue. Although many Facebook users have lobbied to get all EDMD-related pages and events removed from the site, sweeping the campaign under the rug is not enough. We must do more than account for a single digit on a social networking site. We have a duty to bring this issue to our classrooms, schools and communities, many of which will be as divided as the America that the EDMD’s discordant call to action represents.

In 2008, after Obama had been elected our first black president, the collective we came together for a short while to celebrate the incredible potential of the American people. The potential we have of coming together to realize impossible dreams. We had a dream of a people united, and for a moment, we were the singular people that our forefathers addressed us as. The honeymoon may be over and Obama’s approval ratings may have fallen back to Earth, but do we have to stop dreaming? Do we have to engage in offensive, divisive acts, ones we don’t even like, when we could devise others that might help us come together? Do we have to stir up more controversy and create more hatred and misunderstand, when a simple dialogue could generate understanding and engender friendships out of assumed enemies?

This controversy underlies an America divided: one angry that, despite progress made, we still have such a long way to go. We are still segregated, we are angry, we are scared, but we still long for more, we still hope. However, in tearing down the schisms of a divided America, King urged that we do not have to wait to act, we can realize our festering dreams today. If we are going to inspire others to speak out against marginalization, we must inspire ourselves. For we, the people, have the power to come together for dialogue today. We, secularists and religious folk alike, can work with our Muslim brothers to create change today. All we have to do is dream bigger.

“We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”

Want to start a discussion for interfaith cooperation on your campus today? Then check out the Interfaith Youth Core’s resource, “Talk the Talk, Don’t Chalk the Chalk,” here.

NickNicholas Lang is the Social Media Intern for Interfaith Youth Core and a Senior in International Studies at DePaul University. Nick just started up DePaul’s first film club, the DePaul A.V. Club, and will be the lone agnostic among 2010-2011’s Vincent and Louise House residents, who represent DePaul’s Catholic intentional living and social justice community.

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