There’s a dreadfully wrong-headed article by Eboo Patel in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. You can probably guess the gist if you remember that he’s one of Chris Stedman’s favorite interfaithy types. The gist is that faith is great, it doesn’t matter what kind as long as it’s faith, and it’s a kind of identity like race so let’s start making sure there’s lots of diversity of it, because faith.
Part of the rationale for 1990s-era campus multiculturalism was to remedy the racial bias in the broader society: to lift up underrepresented narratives, to remind people that many communities have contributed to the American project, to ensure that our perceptions of race were not driven by the crime reports on the evening news. Gender, sexuality, class, and ethnicity all got some airtime, but mostly we talked about race. And one form of identity was almost totally excluded: faith.
Now that the evening news is full of stories of faith-based violence, and our public discourse has a constant undercurrent of religious prejudice (Barack Obama is a Muslim! Mitt Romney isn’t a Christian!) colleges can no longer ignore faith identity. For many of the same reasons that they actively engaged race, so should they now actively and positively engage faith identity.
That’s how he gets the toe in the doorway: treating “faith” as identity rather than a set of beliefs and claims, and then treating identity as something that has to be “engaged.” But that’s a bad idea. Religion does operate like an identity in a lot of ways but it’s bad to treat it like one because it makes it less open. It shouldn’t be hard to leave one’s religion just because it feels like an identity.
What if campuses took religious diversity as seriously as they took race? What if recruiting a religiously diverse student body, creating a welcoming environment for people of different faith and philosophical identities, and offering classes in interfaith studies and co-curricular opportunities in interfaith leadership became the norm? What if university presidents expected their graduates to acquire interfaith literacy, build interfaith relationships, and have opportunities to run interfaith programs during their four years on campus? What impact might a critical mass of interfaith leaders have on America over the course of the next generation?
I have one word to offer as an alternative to Patel’s nightmare vision: secularism.
H/t to Christopher Moyer, via Jessica Moyer.