Every Mother’s Day at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, New Jersey, the Alvin Ailey Dance Company performs Revelations to a packed audience of families, from children to senior citizens, as diverse a crowd as one can conjure – peoples of all hues, heritages, faiths, dress, and language. Strongly identified with the particulars of the Christian spiritual tradition the dance invoked a message that moved members of multiple faith traditions. There are universal elements to the story. Those who see in it an affirmation of a particular struggle for civil rights, and those who identify from a less personally direct lineage but from its compelling call to humanity and the human spirit nonetheless. It feels like America at its best, and the moment is decidedly strengthened by the variety of personal histories in the room, as it is also by the commonality of the experience of uplift. There is always a loud and resoundingly prolonged standing ovation, holding out the hope that the moment of collective affirmation will last. Indeed, those are the moments that we want to last in which diversity contributes powerfully to the strength of community. And although it surely isn’t only a day a year that this is evident, it does seem that there are precious too few demonstrations these days of what some might say is the distinctly American ethos, E pluribus unum.

Expanding the American Civic Religious Narrative

In this volume, we turn to what has been foundational to our national identity, emblazoned in our initiating documents as the freedom of religion and the establishment of a government embracing our people’s many faiths and traditions. We tackle what an expanded, inclusive, but not homogenized, civil religious narrative might be in this 21st century America, as Eboo Patel frames the central dilemma of our religiously and ethnically diverse nation. We start with the basic premise of his analysis, that the vibrancy of civic life is enhanced by religious participation and therefore by tolerance for religious diversity in its broadest sense. As his essay and the commentaries in this volume detail, there is no guarantee we are up to the challenge of matching religious diversity and civic tolerance. On the contrary there is every reason to wonder whether the American democratic project, built on a promise of religious diversity and freedom amidst a reality of expectations of assimilation, can stretch and evolve sufficiently to reap the benefits of the insights and talents of new communities of faith in our midst.

The challenge posed by the demographic and religious map of America today may well tax the limits of an expanded embrace, as religion mixes once again with race and ethnicity and homeland, perhaps in ways less palatable to many than in the past. As both Patel and Jones explicate, while the journeys into the fold of the American civic religious tradition may not always have been smooth, the assimilation of Catholic and Jewish immigrants, among others, was accomplished over time both by stretching the definition of whiteness and simultaneously moving the prevalent religious narrative (from Anglo-Saxon Protestant) to an expanded Judeo-Christian one. Today this inclusiveness may be harder to achieve. In fact, the Cold War afforded a need for a rewrite of America’s religious narrative. If the Soviet Union and China were godless, America was godly. This rewrite enabled the pivot from a narrative about Anglo-Saxon Protestants to one of a Judeo-Christian community. With growing (though still proportionately small) numbers of Americans identifying as Muslim (from many origins, including African Americans), and an increasingly pervasive political landscape of Islamophobia and American nationalism, American Muslims, some of whose families have been here for decades, if not centuries, as Patel ironically points out, test both the dominance of whiteness and the centrality of Christianity (even in its adapted face, where the symbols and language of faith are imported into a somewhat neutered public civic sphere). And the threat of losing predominance, of being displaced, as Jones characterizes it, is made worse for some by the growing populations of religiously unaffiliated Americans, particularly in younger generations. The threat of the unaffiliated is only exacerbated as John Inazu’s commentary delineates, as many push for a set of policies and laws that protect rights and enforce responsibilities that some see as threatening religious freedom (if not religion itself), from contraception coverage to transgender bathroom choice. This growing divide is bolstered no doubt also by a prevalent narrative that lays the economic losses of rural white Christians at the feet of the “elite,” largely metropolitan, less Christian and/or less religiously-identified, who are said to welcome foreigners and not to care about the loss of American jobs to globalization.

This mix of exclusionary racial and religious sentiments with anti-global paranoia, while certainly not new in our nation’s history, is finding new life in a range of public debates from affirmative action to immigration, and a substantial uptick in acts of vandalism and violence in places of worship and community centers, especially those hosting Jews or Muslims. Patel poignantly documents in telling the story of American Muslims, how they have become an all-encompassing blank screen upon which to project anger and resentment about race, immigration, national security, and religion. At their core, these anti-Muslim expressions, often dragging in other minority identities in the process, belie a fear of the erosion of some foundational American identity and way of life -- an existential threat putting under siege the place and privilege of those who once dominated the landscape and controlled the narrative. This in turn sets a high bar today to overcome in spreading any kind of empathetic welcome or sense of shared fate and purpose, and, at the same time underlines the urgency of doing so.

This post was excerpted and adapted from Nancy Cantor and Earl Lewis’ introductory essay in Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise (Princeton University Press, 2018).