People lead in many ways. Harvard Professor Diana L. Eck leads by teaching and writing great books. In A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation (Harper, 2001), Eck leads readers into an unfamiliar world of radical religious pluralism—where Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs now live next door to us. Will we remain strangers, or become neighbors?
With uncanny timing, Professor Eck’s new book was published just months before the September 11, 2001 attacks on America. I doubt she could have foreseen that her book would be relevant to us so soon. But the realities and challenges presented here are of life-and-death importance. We now know how dangerous hatred and violence fueled by religious extremism can be.
A New Religious Landscape
Eck reports that Muslims in the United States now outnumber Episcopalians, Jews, or Presbyterians. The era of a dominant Judeo-Christian culture has passed. Yet we live as though it has not. Up to 10 percent of the 281 million Americans counted in the 2000 census are new immigrants who arrived after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Naturalization Act on July 4, 1965. Yet we live our lives as though they are not here. This new wave of immigrants is from China, Southeast Asia, India, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iran—and these people represent a religious diversity that both affirms and tests our principles.
Eck shows that “we the people” are more diverse than we think. Her story moves from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Detroit, Michigan, to Fairfax County, Virginia, to Houston, Texas, where a stunning religious reality comes into view. Through Eck’s eyes we see the Sri Lakshmi Temple in Ashland, Massachusetts, where piles of Reebok and Nike sneakers are placed reverently at the door near new images of Hindu gods. She takes us to Los Angeles, where we find 300 Buddhist temples and “the most complex Buddhist city in the world.”
The new immigrants have plunged into America’s congregational waters by building temples, mosques, wats, gurdwaras, and other places of worship—some invisible in suburban homes, others prominent at major intersections in our towns and cities. The institutions established by these religious communities (monasteries, libraries, day schools, advocacy groups) allow them to thrive in voluntary America.
Confronting the Past
Good leaders tell new stories and recount the older ones that we suppress. Eck confronts us with the painful history of fear and prejudice in America: Japanese Buddhists interned in America during World War II, African slaves whose Muslim identities were erased during slavery, and the Chinese Exclusion Act enacted by Congress (1882). Can we avoid repeating intolerance in the American story? We must.
Buddhist and Hindu temples, black churches, Jewish synagogues, and Muslim mosques in America have been burned, defaced, and shot at in recent years. Zoning committees have become battlegrounds between those who seek freedom of religion for all and those who would exclude believers of different faiths. And since September 11, new evidence of ignorance and intolerance has been all too visible.
Facing the Future
Leaders help us confront reality. Eck insists that we abandon stereotypes by getting to know our neighbors and ourselves. Leaders mobilize people. Eck invites us to join the work of fashioning a diverse new nation—something no longer optional.
And leaders disclose new possibilities. Eck does this by presenting a helpful example: St. Paul’s United Methodist Church and the Islamic Society of the East Bay in Fremont, California, each sought to purchase the same piece of land. But rather than compete “American style,” they became bidding partners. The resulting new church and new mosque are built side by side—with shared parking, landscaping, and outdoor lighting.
This type of leadership must be imitated. Eck is alarmed (so am I) that so few of our religious communities know one another, visit each other, or stand up for neighbors when hatred arises. But if we are to live as a peaceful and vibrant society, the kind of tolerance and leadership Eck found in Fremont must arise across America.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is the president of the Alban Institute. Prior to joining the Institute in 1995, he served as program director at the Lilly Endowment’s religion division. Dr. Wind is the author of three books and numerous articles, including the new Alban Institute Special Report on Leadership.