Engaging Civic Religious Pluralism: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions
This is the third in a series discussing civic religious pluralism and how we understand, evaluate, and strengthen it in higher education. The first article explored the question of evaluation—how do we measure in proximate and meaningful ways how campuses are cultivating respect for religious and nonreligious identity, mutually inspiring relationships across difference, and common action for the common good? The second article focused on the second part of Interfaith Youth Core’s (IFYC) definition of civic religious pluralism, mutually inspiring relationships. This article addresses the third part of pluralism.
"Common action for the common good” is the third part of IFYC’s definition of civic religious pluralism. Such seemingly innocuous words (common, action, good) are often difficult to pin down in a room of thoughtful people. It’s like the classic Baptist joke I heard regularly growing up in my Baptist church, which—now that I’ve told it in many training rooms and seminars I’ve learned it is told about many communities—if you have five Baptists in a room you’ll find at least six opinions. How can we together meaningfully engage with this important third part of pluralism?
First, let’s address the second part of that statement, common good.
In this framework the common doesn’t mean the majority population, the dominant culture, or the lowest threshold for shared experience. The common is the collective, the we, the large portion of the whole that benefits. The common good is the civic good, that which we share in public life together (IFYC, 2016). Those things that we need to live and thrive are likely part of the common good: access to quality and affordable healthcare, education, food and potable water, clean air and loving, safe homes and systems for care.
It can be challenging to have a productive conversation about the common good in the kind of polarized climate and stratified economy that characterize so much of the US today. Considering the common good is a civic mindset—it is the invitation that Robert Putnam makes in his 2015 book, Our Kids. An individualistic culture fosters thinking about my kids, and has led to the growing gaps in many important quality of life markers between the wealthiest and poorest third of the population in the US (Putnam, 2015). How do we begin to reclaim the concept of "our kids"? The common good is another way of keeping the whole in mind. Considering the common good means reclaiming that civic sense of the collective, the whole. Inviting our nation, our neighbors, and ourselves to think anew about what constitutes the common good is an important step toward asking the question of how we will get there.
Common Action both is and is not the how of the common good. Civic religious pluralism is a theoretical framework that supports a healthy diverse democracy. It is not in itself an organizing strategy, a guide for system change, or a strategy for effective policy solutions. The how of common action is a good in itself, and it nudges participants toward relationship, the second part of pluralism. One important value of common action is in what Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, called the “theology of the hammer” (Patel, 2016. p. 147). It is working side by side with someone that you disagree with on a dozen important things, and physically doing something together, beyond yourselves, to advance the community beyond yourselves. It is getting to know the person next to you as a human being and thereby finding additional room for grace in recognizing them as a complex being and, one hopes, part of the common, the community.
This framework is not prescriptive about the common action. There are many ways to undercut destructive forces of climate disruption, for instance, and while doing a garbage pick-up in the park may not be the highest impact activity one can do, clearly it does aid the cause in some small way.
What of racial equity work? Part of what the Black Lives Matter movement has achieved in the last remarkable few months, building upon years of mobilizing and centuries of pain, is to elevate attention to America’s systemic racism as a threat to the common good. While it was obvious to many before, the perception of its harm is noted by a wider swath of the public consciousness than we’ve seen in a generation. I am eagerly watching for the ways interfaith cooperation, anchored in racial equity, uses the theology of the hammer to rebuild civic life anew as the nation continues to stagger through this pandemic.
Common action for the common good may take on a new lens amidst this global pandemic, a national reckoning with systemic racism, and a bleak economic outlook, but the needs remain high. Higher education and others have an opportunity to adapt and respond to the multiple crises facing our nation in this moment.
Colleges and universities are among the most vibrant parts of civil society where these questions are exercised. There are courses that address questions of common action and common good from political, history, environmental, racial, religious, economic, and other angles. These questions are raised by and exercised in communal celebrations, budget discussions, service learning, protests, sporting events, student organization charters, and leadership training. Some of these questions and the atmosphere they generate include:
Does a free speech zone at public universities often lead to insults to the people who pass by on their way to class? Yes. Is the protection of speech an important pillar of American democracy? Yes. This accomodation of free speech, however, leads nowhere in building relationships.
Is it important to honor people’s religious holidays? Yes. Is it a legal right not to have persons interfere with other people’s practice of their faith? Yes. Is it an additional challenge for instructors to navigate lectures and tests with a religiously diverse student body? Yes. At its best there is a relationship of sustained engagement, mutual commitment and shared aspirations that manage this accommodation.
Should student organizations be in a position to define their terms of leadership? Yes. Can campuses uphold non-discrimination policies that may butt-heads with those policies? Yes. Depending on the relationships that exist between administrators and diverse student leaders, this conversation may, over time, foster mutual respect and relationship or it may result in legal action.
Civic Religious Pluralism in a Diverse Democracy
The first part of pluralism is respect for religious and non-religious identity. The third part of pluralism is common action for the common good. It is reasonable to ask how one can hold the inherent tensions of upholding individual identities and collective action that serves the whole.
The second part of pluralism is mutually inspiring relationships. It is from people’s particularity that they find connection to the whole. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish scholar whose family was killed by Nazism in Poland, committed himself to the Civil Rights Movement in the US from his personal experience and unyielding commitment to freedom. It is through relationship that we expand our understanding of the common good. Heschel called himself the “most maladjusted person in America,” refusing to accommodate the daily violence and indignities all around.
The Rev. Martin Luther King, a friend and contemporary of Heschel’s, also often spoke of being “maladjusted,” like the Prophet Amos (On Being, 2017). In fact, moved by correspondence and relationship with Buddhist Monk Thick Nhat Hahn and King’s own prophetic call, Beyond Vietnam, was delivered in Riverside Church in NYC one year before his murder. It was highly criticized on the right and the left. King’s expansive definition of the common good was too broad for many whose battles were not yet won. It was deemed unpatriotic by others—human family over national family is a dangerous stance in a time of war. Relationship has the potential of reshaping what common good means to you.
The common good will shift—depending on the moment, and how we understand the “common” or collective. In this molten moment in American and global consciousness I am thinking about the three parts of pluralism as coequal legs in a stool. When any one is askew, we are sure to fall flat.
Interfaith Youth Core. (2016). Interfaith Leadership Video Series. Lesson 2, Module 2.2. http://ifyc.org/interfaithleadership/coursemodules
On Being with Krista Tippett. (2017). Arnold Eisen: The Opposite of Good Is Indifference. https://onbeing.org/programs/arnold-eisen-the-opposite-of-good-is-indifference-sep2017/
Patel, E. (2016). Interfaith Leadership: A Primer. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Putnam, R. (2015). Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Simon & Schuster: New York.