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Principled Pluralism: The Challenge Of Religious Diversity In 21st Century America

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The past twenty years have seen tremendous engagement around racial, cultural, and gender diversity. Millenials (ages 18-29) are generally knowledgeable about such identity differences and far better equipped to have a respectful, nuanced discussion of these issues than their parents and grandparents.

Can the same be said about religious diversity? At a time when religion fuels numerous conflicts overseas and when religious tensions in the United States appear to be on the rise, what must be done to improve religious literacy and foster inclusive attitudes among America's next generation?

At the Aspen Ideas Festival last week, we discussed this challenge and opportunity in two panels featuring Madeleine Albright, E.J. Dionne, David Gergen, Ingrid Mattson, Eboo Patel, and Jim Wallis. Secretary Albright stressed that the world is watching the United States: interreligious strife at home damages our image abroad. Gergen expressed concern about the widening religious-secular divide, cautioning that a growing overlap between religion and political affiliation contributes to antipathy and dysfunction in Washington. All agreed that in today's increasingly diverse religious landscape--marked by a sharp rise in the religiously unaffiliated (now 20% of Americans and 30% of Millenials)--it is necessary to take a more intentional approach to positively engage matters of religion. We at the Justice and Society Program call this "principled pluralism."

What is principled pluralism? Harvard scholar of religion Diana Eck defines pluralism by contrasting it with diversity. She writes, "Diversity is just plurality, plain and simple--splendid, colorful, perhaps threatening. Pluralism is the engagement that creates a common society from all that plurality." Principled pluralism encourages that engagement, but respects the desire of some groups to respectfully limit it, in harmony with deeply held views on matters of faith.

Over the past nine months, Gergen and Albright have co-chaired the Inclusive America Project (IAP), an initiative of the Aspen Institute's Justice and Society Program that has assembled a distinguished panel of leaders from youth development organizations, institutions of higher education, media outlets, religiously affiliated organizations, and government agencies.

The IAP panel's recently published Principled Pluralism: Report of the Inclusive America Project offers strategies "to encourage respect in the public sphere for the religious identity of individuals and groups; to foster positive relationships and informed dialogue between people of different spiritual orientations; and to forge partnerships among religious and other organizations in service to the common good." As the co-chairs noted at the Ideas Festival, the report contains specific action steps to which the distinguished panelists are committed. We hope readers will take these recommendations into their own communities.

Service to the common good was a major theme at the Ideas Festival, identified by Gergen as providing a "natural connection" between the Inclusive America Project and the Franklin Project. Since service is a core value across major faith traditions, bringing young people together to work on common projects builds positive social capital far more quickly than theological discussions. Jim Wallis of Sojourners talked about how religious communities can provide transformative energy in social reform, noting the role of the evangelical movement in turning the tide in Senate consideration of comprehensive immigration reform. While in 2007 the Senate failed to bring immigration reform legislation to a vote, last Thursday it passed an immigration reform bill by a margin of 68 to 32, in part due to grass-roots pressure on key members of Congress by religiously-affiliated groups in their home states. That coalition will push forward as the debate moves to the House of Representatives.

Religious differences can be a potent source of social tension, as evidenced by bloody conflicts from Belfast to the Balkans to Baghdad. However, as with race and gender, religious diversity is a source of strength and richness when properly engaged. Albright, Gergen, and their fellow Ideas Festival panelists issued a call to action, urging Americans to build bridges across religious divides. What can you do to help build a stronger, more inclusive America?