“Becoming a More Complex ‘We’”

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Mr. President, you are the first-ever American president fully aware of the great diversity of America's faiths. We are a nation of Christians and Jews-and Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists. You understand this and rightly see that this diversity is a source of our strength. Yet, this reality is a great challenge-especially for those who still advocate for a "Christian America."

As president, your every word and gesture of recognition and respect sets a new tone for people of all faiths in America. How you speak the names of America's people of faith-Buddhist, Baptist, Muslim, Methodist-and touch the chords of our diversity will change the way in which "we the people" see ourselves. And it will change the way in which people all over the world see America.

Your October letter to Hindus wishing them a "joyous Diwali" as the festival approached gave recognition to a whole community. This was not only a formal gesture-it also conveyed both warmth and understanding. The Sikhs heard from you too. Your response to the questions of the Sikh Coalition for their voter's guide made it clear that you know your Sikh constituents and have a real concern for the issues of discrimination, hate crimes, and profiling they have faced. Your thoughtful response to the Sikhs stood in stark contrast to that of your opponent: "No Response."

It was perhaps a missed opportunity, when responding to those who wondered whether you were a Muslim, not to have said something along these lines: "While I am a Christian and my faith is profoundly important to me, for much of my life I have known, admired, and worked with Muslims. And I look forward to continuing this as president. I have noticed how people's mutual stereotypes fall apart as they work together. America is, after all, a multi-religious nation. The religious freedom we cherish is also a recipe for religious diversity. As we become more diverse, all of us need to know more about our neighbors and their faith. We are often afraid of neighbors whom we do not know, and our democracy does not function well when we are afraid of one another. No, I am not a Muslim. But many good and patriotic Americans are Muslims, in virtually every part of this great country. Faithful people throughout the world are Muslims too, and the world we leave to our children will have to be shaped by all of us, working together."

Of course, Muslims in the United States understood your reticence to speak directly to them or about them during the campaign. They know today's fears and prejudices first-hand. Their mosques and Islamic centers have been the targets of vandalism and arson. Women have been harassed for wearing the headscarf and told to "go back to where you came from." They have slogged through battles over zoning and parking that were really about anxiety and fear.

Despite it all, think of how many American Muslims have put themselves out there as participants in the great American project. They held open houses in mosques across the country just a week after 9/11. They not only spoke out against terrorism, they worked hard to educate the rest of us about Islam. They developed advocacy groups to make their voices heard in Washington. And this year, they held countless voter registration drives and the Muslim "Rock the Vote" campaign in cities across the country. They registered to vote, and they voted-for you.

Our "we" in America has become more complex over the past four decades, with all the new immigration. We are people of every faith, and none. And you are president of all of us now. You clearly understand what this means.

Today, all of us are challenged to claim for our time the principles of religious freedom that have shaped our nation. We need to find ways to articulate the "we" of our nation anew-whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or secular Americans. This will mean finding ways to bridge the deep differences that have divided people the world over. Those bridges where the traffic of dialogue moves back and forth will be our strength. For all of us, this will require an effort to understand the religions of our neighbors, old and new. It will require the engagement of our religious communities in the common work of our civil society. It will require your moral leadership as our educator-in-chief. Through speech, word, gesture, and action, the president of our nation must always remind us who "we" are.

I believe that here in the United States we have an opportunity to create a vibrant and hopeful pluralism. In a world of increasing fragmentation where there are few good models for a truly democratic multi-religious society, we can be such a place. Yes, we can.


Diana L. Eck teaches comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University, directs Harvard's Pluralism Project, and chairs the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches.

Last updated on 12/04/2012