2016-06-30
Harvard University religion scholar Diana Eck says the United States is now the most religiously diverse nation in the world, thanks to the Immigration Act of 1965, which eliminated quotas linking immigration to national origins. Since then, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Zoroastrians, and new varieties of Jews and Catholics have arrived from every part of the globe and altered the religious landscape. Eck recently spoke with Deborah Caldwell, Beliefnet's religion producer, about America's new religious pluralism, which she documents in her new book, "A New Religious America."

What statistics surprised you?

The growth of the Islamic community. They see a growth to 6 million Muslims, 1,200 mosques, and a doubling of the mosque attendance rate. All of us have some sense there are more Muslims here than before, but the dimensions of this, that make the Islamic population virtually equal to the Jewish population in the United States, are arresting.

One Nation, Under God

  • Read an excerpt of Diana Eck's new book.

  • Gregg Easterbrook says America is still a Christian nation.

  • Another view: Despite pluralism, Rick Rood says, there is still just one way to God.

  • Explore the website of Eck's Pluralism Project.
  • What trends surprised you?

    Zoning difficulties [between religious groups], hate crimes, the ways people in local communities become astounded and even frightened by the fact that there are new Islamic or Sikh communities in town.

    Suddenly a Sikh gurdwara will apply for permission to build in a certain neighborhood, or a Vietnamese Buddhist home temple will suddenly be noticed by its neighborhood, and literally the first place they encounter one another as neighbors is in the courts and the zoning board.

    One of the things you say is that now, immigrants are beginning to fill in the middle of the country, as opposed to living primarily on the coasts. Were you able to document how far along that trend is?

    Certainly the density of the multi-religious population is still in the big urban areas, but there are lots of smaller urban areas and even rural areas where we were surprised to see new communities. For example, in the farmland outside Minneapolis there's a Lao temple and a Khmer temple. And similarly, some of the oldest Islamic communities in the country are in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where there is a very old Syrian and Lebanese Muslim community.

    I think because of the presence of universities all across mid-America, there are Hindu and Buddhist and Islamic communities. And in places like Des Moines and Oklahoma City and Lincoln, Nebraska, immigrants have been drawn by factory work. There are Vietnamese Buddhist and Catholic fishermen along the Louisiana coast. There are some places in mid-America, like Wichita, Kansas; Lincoln, Nebraska; and Tulsa, Oklahoma, that actually have interfaith councils that include Muslims, Hindus, Baha'is, and others.

    One Nation, Under God

  • Read an excerpt of Diana Eck's new book.

  • Gregg Easterbrook says America is still a Christian nation.

  • Another view: Despite pluralism, Rick Rood says, there is still just one way to God.

  • Explore the website of Eck's Pluralism Project.
  • How aware are people of this trend?

    My hunch is that people are not very aware. Most people know that immigration has changed the face of America in the last 20 years, and they're aware of Latino and Hispanic immigration and recognize how that has changed the Catholic Church and Protestantism across the country.

    But I think people are less cognizant of Islamic and Hindu and Buddhist and Sikh communities. There are some reasons for this. One is that the early mosques and temples for the first 20 years or so were not particularly visible. You could drive by a mosque in a storefront and not notice there was a new form of religion in your community. But now we do have very visible landmark religious institutions that give us a visual clue.

    But still, many Americans carry a normative Christian sense of what religion in America is-with a bit of space made for the Jews. One of the things that was most interesting about the rise and contestation of the Bush administration's faith-based initiative during the winter was the presumption of so many people about what "faith-based" meant. And when they started to realize that it might mean Islam or Scientology or Hare Krishnas or Hindus, they were startled and not so sure this was OK. [For more on this story, click here.]

    There was the case in the state legislature in Minnesota several weeks ago when the Dalai Lama was speaking and one of the legislators said, "We can't have the Dalai Lama speak because Buddhism is a cult and incompatible with Christian principles." And of course, nobody sympathized with him. But still this comes up, and people find themselves very alarmed.

    I think there are many people who are blindsided by this and who have not quite absorbed the fact that having new immigrants from other parts of the world means they come with religious traditions and the expectation of establishing new religious rituals in this country.

    A great example was the controversy a few years ago when the Southern Baptist Convention put out a prayer guide to have their members pray for the Hindus [Adobe Acrobat required] on the occasion of Diwali. And they really had in mind those Hindus on the other side of the world. So they were surprised that the people who showed up to picket at Southern Baptist churches were the Hindus next door.

    How are Jews responding to this phenomenon?

    The Jewish community is very vigilant about protecting the religious rights of minorities. So Jews become allies of minority religious communities. And when Joseph Lieberman was nominated for vice president last summer, the first response from Islamic and Hindu and Sikh delegates to the Democratic National Convention was positive. They felt that the success of someone from a religious minority in the United States is a success for everyone.

    One Nation, Under God

  • Read an excerpt of Diana Eck's new book.

  • Gregg Easterbrook says America is still a Christian nation.

  • Another view: Despite pluralism, Rick Rood says, there is still just one way to God.

  • Explore the website of Eck's Pluralism Project.
  • That's not to say the Jewish community might not feel somewhat nervous at the ways in which the Muslim community is organized politically. There was one dramatic instance in the summer of 1999, when Salaam Al-Marayati, a prominent Muslim civic leader, was nominated for the U.S. Commission on Terrorism, and immediately Jewish groups responded with suspicion. His nomination was withdrawn, and that was an important moment in which Muslims began to recognize that having a seat at a real table--a table that wasn't simply the interfaith council, but a table at which real issues of power are being negotiated--is still a few steps away for them.

    What were some of your favorite experiences as you did your study?

    One of my favorites was the celebration of Baisakhi, which is the Sikh festival of the new year, in a gurdwara outside Washington, D.C. I had called in the morning with a bit of trepidation because it really is like calling up and asking yourself to dinner. I didn't know anyone there. I arrived about 6 in the evening, and people were already gathering and singing hymns of the Sikh scripture. We sat with people for an hour while the singing took place. Then a few friends took us upstairs, where they were sponsoring a continuous reading of the Sikh scripture.

    Eventually, there was the meal, where everyone ate together, and we talked and were taken into this community. And we didn't leave until 1:30 in the morning, when everyone was finally cleaning up. By that time, we were receiving the embrace of what seemed like old friends.

    What effect will pluralism have on the exclusive claim that Christianity makes? You alluded to it earlier by saying we have this idea of normative Christianity, but that's cultural. What about theologically?

    Well, of course, the diversity of religious traditions does raise the question of how we understand ourselves in light of the others--and that is a theological question. And quite rightly, there's almost no other question more to the forefront of the Christian theological agenda than that very question. I don't think our theological exclusivity is good enough anymore. Most people are guided in their response to people of other faiths by a couple of verses torn out of the New Testament as if they were Chinese fortune cookies. "I am the way the truth and the life. No one cometh to the Father but through me." Or, "In no other name under heaven and on earth shall you be saved."

    I think it's very important for people within my own tradition--and now I'm speaking as a Christian--to grapple anew with the underlying message of the gospel in the light of our relations with these new neighbors. This sends me back to a view of Christianity that is based in the overwhelming affirmation of the importance of strangers and neighbors that I see in the gospels. This doesn't mean we become exactly like the neighbor or the stranger but that our primary duty for those of us who are followers of Christ is to develop a relationship of respect with the people among us whom we do not know. My confidence is that when we do that, we will have a set of questions about the mystery of God that is wider than what we are able to understand from the standpoint of our own branch of Christianity.

    One Nation, Under God

  • Read an excerpt of Diana Eck's new book.

  • Gregg Easterbrook says America is still a Christian nation.

  • Another view: Despite pluralism, Rick Rood says, there is still just one way to God.

  • Explore the website of Eck's Pluralism Project.
  • We're talking about people we come to know personally who are Muslim neighbors or Hindu neighbors and who also have voices in that sense. If we're going to describe them, we need to hear their own self-understanding. This is a time of really thinking boldly about our own community of faith.

    What worries you about where we're headed? What do we need to be concerned about?

    This new period of multi-religious America is going to require of us a little more religious literacy than we now have. We're a country with lots of talk of religion and not very much understanding, especially of religious traditions other than our own-or if you're secular, of any religious tradition whatsoever. I think it's dangerous to live at such close quarters in a society such as ours, with a series of half-baked truths and stereotypes functioning as our guides to the understanding of our religious nature. We need as a culture to think about what it means to be religiously literate--and that means taking on more directly the task of teaching about religion in our school curriculum.

    If you ask what my fear is, it's that if our diversity becomes isolated enclaves in which we really do not allow ourselves to encounter one another and don't take on the difficult task of creating a positive pluralism in which we're engaged with one another, we may end up with communities that are more isolated.


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