When Christiane Amanpour asked yesterday on This Week, “What do you think are the key, pressing spiritual issues of our time?” My answer was quick and clear. I said, “The role religion is going to play in the 21st century is going to be one of the key issues. Faith can either be a barrier of division, a bomb of destruction, or a bridge of cooperation. Our job is to make it a bridge of cooperation.”
Every day we see in the newspaper and hear in the evening news stories of religion playing a bomb or barrier. As I looked around at the other members of the roundtable I was part of on This Week - a Southern Baptist in Richard land, an African American Christian in Al Sharpton, a Catholic in Cokie Roberts and a Jew in Steve Roberts - I thought to myself, this is a microcosm of America. We all have to be bridge-builders, and we are in the most ideal nation to do so.
In What it Means to be an American , Michael Walzer points out that political theorists since the Greeks believed that participatory politics – democracy – could only exist in ethnically or religiously homogenous nations. “One religious communion, it was argued, made one political community … One people made one state.” The section ends with this line: “Pluralism in the strong sense – One state, many peoples – is possible only under tyrannical regimes.”
The next section begins with this: “Except in the United States.”
America ushered in a very new idea - a place where people from the four corners of the earth gather together to build a nation. President Obama spoke of it in his inaugural: “Our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.”
We are a nation that allows its citizens to participate in its progress, to play a part in its possibility, to carve a place in its promise.
It was an ethic that our first president, George Washington, embraced as well: “The bosom of America is open to receive … the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.”
When Amanpour asked me what my community is most worried about right now- for our children, for our future - my response was that I was concerned that we will be less free and less equal in America than other Americans. While that is certainly a concern of mine in the short run, it is not in the long run. And another comment from the roundtable is the reason for this.
Steve Roberts, a Jew, said that the great spiritual crisis of our time is intolerance, especially against Muslims and Latinos.
His comment embodies the American way – groups who have experienced intolerance in the past stand up for those who experience intolerance now.
It is how we build an America where all are free and equal.
Eboo is the founder of a national movement promoting interfaith religious cooperation and one of President Barack Obama's advisers on faith.