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Envisioning the system of religious pluralism … and figuring out how to talk about it.

During my time with the Aspen Institute Religion & Society Program (previously Inclusive America Project), Director Zeenat Rahman and I worked to clarify and refine the project founder Meryl Justin Chertoff's vision of religious pluralism. Most definitions see it as a way of being with difference (credit: Diana Eck!). Those definitions urge people to behave better. But they don’t consider the info and experiences that shape how people behave when difference walks into their neighborhood.


Instead, we took a systems-thinking view that aimed to make sense of the bewildering variety of stakeholders and the social systems that shape them (credit: us!), which no one had done before.


We knew: Stakeholders included faith-based and secular nonprofits, academics, and funders, and people of faith and no faith. Religious literacy, preventing hate crimes, and promoting religious freedom were important. People came from incredibly different identities and antagonistic viewpoints. Every stakeholder had different missions and different needs, and many were in conflict.


My role was to map out how all those missions and needs interacted. I did this building on Meryl’s vision, and on work from other visionaries like Brie Loskota and Chris Seiple, in conversation with Zeenat, Amy McIsaac, Elizabeth Lynn, and Ashley Quarcoo, along with lots of our stakeholders and friends.


I developed the idea that there are seven component systems of work that mutually support each other in a virtuous cycle, together creating religious pluralism.

  1. Religious Freedom

  2. Dismantling Hate & Extremism

  3. Religious Literacy

  4. Diversity & Representation in Media

  5. Racial Justice & Religion (initially Religion in DEI)

  6. Multifaith & Intrafaith Engagement

  7. Thriving Religious Communities

Each of those components has its own academic literature and theories, locations of practice, and community norms. There were occasional bridges between fields, but no one had expressed how all seven of the areas intersected. Just for one example: it’s obvious that a lack of religious literacy negatively affects media representations of … well, just about everyone, yet rarely do folks in those fields convene to discuss shared interests. We needed a unifying framework.


But even once I could see that framework with my mind’s eye, I couldn’t explain it. And when I tried, eyes glazed over. To clarify it for myself, I beta-tested my theory.


I’ve written about this in The Multiplier Effect we published at Aspen, but here’s the shorthand. In Chicago in 2019, I asked around 24 faith-based and secular orgs working in religious spaces to tell us which of these components they relied on and advanced. When I mapped it out, the virtuous cycle became obvious. Every org (in the middle in grey), relied on and advanced at least one component, indirectly supporting the other organizations.

Diagrom showing 8 "components relied on" feeding into a dozen different organizations, and returning back out as those same "components advanced."

Zeenat used to call this the “Spaghetti Diagram.” It looks like a tangled mess, and is hard to follow, but the mess proves the point. It shows how totally different organizations with divergent, sometimes even adversarial missions and needs are stakeholders in the shared space of religious pluralism.


Then I showed that orgs doing pro-social work also relied on religious pluralism. The diagram below shows a few examples of how congregations and faith-based nonprofits promote the common good through their "secular" prosocial work.

Chart showing how "components relied on" by 5 organizations lead to different types of prosocial work.

Research (credit: Brad R. Fulton!) shows that together, congregations and faith-based nonprofits doing secular work make up some 35-40% (!!!) of the nonprofit sector. My beta-test showed that sector is supported by religious pluralism. And with that, we are able to show funders that religious pluralism is vital to everyone.


We went on to build a program stream dedicated to making that case fully, and I'll write about the Religion & Society Program’s work with philanthropy, and my contribution to it, in my next post.

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