Reconciling Public Religion and Difference Through the President's Interfaith Service Campus Challenge

By: Shayna Solomon

October 13, 2015

“Religion must play a role in the public sphere.” Each time I heard this sentiment, it sounded so strange. I was raised in a household religiously committed to church-state separation. Over the course of two days, the idea of religious-public sphere partnerships became more comfortable and inspirational. 

I was at the Fifth Annual President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge hosted by Howard University and coordinated, in part, by the Berkley Center at Georgetown University. About 500 campus administrators, students, interfaith professionals, and government officials had gathered to talk about how interfaith work can inform our community service and vice versa. Such partnerships cannot exist healthfully without a public and diverse conversation about religions.

In the nineteenth century, social scientists came to the misguided conclusion that religion would be completely privatized with industrialization; they were sure it would fall into irrelevance in people’s lives. Instead, with today’s diversity of religious expression in society and on campuses, students need support now more than ever in exploring their own traditions.

In my work on Dickinson’s campus, we struggled to give voice to different religious traditions. In the heavily Protestant area in which our college is situated, churches are readily available to students from many Protestant denominations, while students from some other religions feel silenced. Having been told so often that religion is a “private matter,” students often feel that their religious and spiritual well-being is their responsibility alone. When they can’t find a place to worship or a way to practice their faith, they may accept marginalization as a sour consequence of going to a college in south central Pennsylvania. In reality, our Religious Life Office can connect students to communities ranging from Baha’i to Orthodox Jewish. Our office needs to actively assist students from smaller traditions in order to create equality.

With public legitimation, though, I often worry that some groups are marginalized further. I got very nervous at the conference when the discussion of whether religious groups should be allowed to make religiosity a prerequisite for campus leadership positions. What if, for instance, a religion says that LGBTQ members of their organization cannot hold leadership positions because they aren’t "true" practitioners of their religion? Thinking further, I realized we need to struggle with these policies publicly. Rejecting even the discussion of this conflict in the public sphere allows instances of discrimination against identity groups (religious and non-religious) to pass quietly, making students from many persuasions feel silenced. Rather than pushing potential conflicts under the rug by asking “How can we separate religion and public life?” our office and others like it have to be putting these questions at the forefront by asking, “How can we best empower students to publicly express their full selves without oppressing others?” These discussions are not easy, but they are, in the end, healthier than ignoring the conversations.

One of the sessions at the gathering demonstrated the necessity of public expression to interfaith understanding. The presenter, Kristin Looney of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, had us practice an activity in which we looked at pictures and said associated words. Everyone had different associations. Something that was extremely obvious to someone else may have been absent in the picture for me. Once they explained, I could see the picture from their perspective, but only after noticing how my own perspective differed. She asked us to think about how our background and upbringing informed that perspective. The message was two-fold: (1) our inner perspectives are valid because they are based on our experiences; and (2) acknowledging those differences publicly is the only way to gain respect and to respect others. Negotiating differences with the “other” first requires us to acknowledge our own perspectives. I know I will use this tool in interfaith engagement because it represents healthy negotiation of space in the public sphere.

The difficulties of negotiating this space are often paralyzing, but the gathering inspired me to continue working towards a pluralistic public. The civil servants at the gathering demonstrated that vocal, negotiated public space is possible to help the American people as a whole. I constantly heard about government/religious partnerships. These partnerships exist precariously close to governmental religious endorsement, which made me very nervous. I went to a session where lawyers discussed the boundaries of the public and private spheres in front of the most important government official for government/religious partnerships, Melissa Rogers, director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Certainly, if the government grapples successfully with how to avoid strict legal frameworks against government endorsement of religion, Dickinson College, which enjoys less legal constraints as a private institution, can encourage the public role of religion without disrespecting different groups. The gathering inspired me to consciously create a public space for religion through my work at Dickinson College’s Center for Service, Spirituality, and Social Justice (CS3). I am currently in the throes of planning an interfaith service trip for Dickinson students.

The conference raised questions for me. How can I lift up the voices of the students on my trip without putting anyone else’s voice down? How can I let students know that they can talk about their own spirituality, religion, and/or belief system because it does not inherently belong in the shadows? How can I create service projects that honor many traditions and recognize the presence of others? I saw at the gathering the possibility for creating pluralistic public spaces for engagement with religious traditions and community service. I hope to create such spaces through my own work at Dickinson and beyond.

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Reconciling Public Religion and Difference Through the President's Interfaith Service Campus Challenge