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Hope in the Broken Places

For two decades of academic and professional work I have worked to build religious pluralism. Leaning heavily on American First Amendment rights, I have always believed real pluralism must make space for those who disagree and even find one another repugnant. That is the foundation for our ability to work with, instead of against each other, to understand our brokenness and our hopes, and learn to support one another's thriving. This is the last in a three-post series about my work and where I am going to focus next.

Over the last six years, I worked at the Aspen Institute Religion & Society Program developing a new systems-thinking framework to understand how we get there, and then working with the philanthropic sector to support those changes.

We all know that living with the great demographic, religious, and ideological diversity of our nation is both an asset and a challenge. In recent years, the aspect of challenge has loomed large. Americans have lost trust in media, institutions, and each other. Political violence has been on the rise for years; the attack on the US Capitol on January 6 was a terrible but logical culmination of the steady escalation in conflict. Many of the most vitriolic conflicts are religiously-inflected – with high-profile battles over prayer in public schools, abortion access, and transgender rights. Despite incomplete data, hate crimes numbers still tell a story of rising rates of crimes against people of color, gay men, and religious minorities. All of these categories of hate are influenced by religion, especially by the ideology of white Christian nationalism.

These challenges will destroy us, but they are not outside of us, these challenges are products of our collective will to demonize each other. We must change our collective will, relearning what it means to be in communities encompassing real difference and recognizing shared interests. At Religion & Society, I gathered communities encompassing that very diversity, crossing ideological as well as religious, racial, and ethnic lines to collaborate on shared interests like religious freedom or racial justice. These were contested, emotionally-charged topics at the heart of national culture wars; issues that must be faced collectively and collaboratively if we are not to tear ourselves apart.

As both polarization and obsession with moral purity have intensified over the last five years, I found that what Religion & Society program participants most craved, and paradoxically least tolerated, was space for discussion across political divides about what lay nearest their hearts. The brilliant and generous souls our Program gathered yearned for the space to contend civilly about complex personal identities and where those identities connect to our collective identity. They asked for those spaces to contest and dream and learn how everyone might participate equally to shape the boundaries and rules of that collective.

Yet in those contested spaces, some participants quavered, bound by the idea that to exist in a room across deep dissent is to be morally implicated in the offending viewpoint. One or two participants walked out of our programming early, unwilling to stay or struggling with PTSD of previous hurts. I suspect some who completed the programming left feeling guilty with the knowledge they had failed to destroy the offending idea. What can we expect of our nation, then, if generous-hearted people who share a deep concern on individual issues cannot practice pluralism person to person?

Yet, some people cracked open, as in Leonard Cohen’s Anthem, to let the light in. One of these, a CEO of a philanthropy serving organization, wrote me a note after my Religion & Philanthropy programming in August of 2022 that included heart wrenching, painful conversations about what it means to love our neighbor: “This is the conversation we should all be having. This is about democracy, and what we are doing here together across all our human differences.”

So a few found hope in those most-difficult of conversations. But with all the tools that religious traditions and communities have to offer, most Religion & Society Program participants struggled to function in deeply contested spaces and political diversity. I came to feel that, so long as political identities are Americans’ mega-identities, the most important work to be done is where the hurt is hardest: where we are most fragile, most easily broken.

I pray that we can all break open, bells ringing, to let the light in.

the Liberty Bell, with its iconic crack in the side


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