Cheering Religious Diversity


While growing up in a small Montana college town, Harvard University scholar Diana L. Eck rarely encountered anyone but Christians. Her local Methodist church, founded in 1873, was nearly as old as the town of Bozeman itself. Eck thrived on that legacy, becoming active in Bible-study groups and a national leader in Methodist youth organizations.

But a college year abroad in the sacred Hindu city of Benares shook her world and forced her to rethink her Christianity. Living among Hindus, she discovered people who were as religiously devout and socially conscious as any of the Protestants she had known back home. Rather than writing them off as infidels, she sought to understand them, the Hindu tradition's tremendous sense of God's infinity and the multiplicity of ways in which they saw God's presence.

"It forced me to question in my own mind what it meant to claim that my way of being religious was the only possible way," Eck said during a recent visit to Los Angeles.

Eck, a Harvard professor of comparative religion and Indian studies, has become one of America's leading voices on religious pluralism. Her previous book, "Encountering God," explored what Hinduism and other world religions meant to her personally as a Christian. Her latest book, "A New Religious America" (HarperSanFrancisco) challenges all Americans to embrace the astonishing religious diversity that now animates the nation.

Eck is not asking Americans to accept other faiths theologically. Her point is that the American covenant of citizenship requires the public square to make room for all faiths--whether in zoning laws, workplace rules or school holiday celebrations.

Employers, she says, should learn to accommodate a Muslim's need to leave for Friday prayer service or wear the hijab head covering. Officials should be as embracing of plans for a Hindu or Sikh temple as a church or synagogue. And to people like the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who objected to President Bush's faith-based initiative because it might provide public money to minority religious groups like the Hare Krishna, Eck said:

"This is the United States of America and we don't have a religion czar . . . [to] determine whether one religion or another should be superior. In matters of conscience, we do not have majority rule."

In immigration gateways like Los Angeles, Eck's message might not seem terribly surprising. For example, the region is said to be the most religiously diverse place on the planet, home to some 600 faith traditions. Scholars say Los Angeles is the most complex Buddhist city in the world, with virtually all of the 100 or so sects of that faith represented.

But, as Eck documents, the diversity has spread well beyond major urban centers. Interfaith councils are springing up in places like Lincoln, Neb. and Columbia, S.C.

Her Pluralism Project, a Harvard-based research program documenting the nation's growing religious diversity, now uses affiliate researchers in far-flung places like Alaska. The project's Web site,, offers a directory of religious centers, a national calendar of events, news articles about diversity and links to issues about religion in the public square.

Eck, 56, earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College and her doctorate at Harvard. She became deeply involved in ecumenical work with the World Council of Churches for 15 years, traveling widely abroad. But she began to realize that world religions were increasingly found here--among her students, her Boston neighbors. So, in 1991, she launched her project to document the nation's shifting religious landscape.

The dynamic new mix offers both opportunities for enriching interactions and painful conflict, Eck said. Some Christians, threatened by what they perceive as a weakening of the nation's Judeo-Christian heritage, are pushing efforts to post the Ten Commandments in public buildings or recite the Lord's Prayer at football games. Eck views such efforts as violations of the constitutional separation of church and state.

Eck's book describes more violent responses: concrete blocks thrown through the windows of a Chicago mosque, youths calling themselves "dot-busters" who preyed on Indian immigrants in New Jersey.

Looking at Los Angeles, Eck criticized the opposition by Jewish organizations to the appointment of Los Angeles Muslim leader Salam Al-Marayati to a national counter-terrorism commission. She said it marked a moment when a Muslim American finally would have sat at a table where powerful issues were being discussed, and called "very unfortunate" the opposition that killed the appointment. The growing religious diversity will require real power-sharing, she said.

"I think we're at a point where we need to move beyond a ceremonial recognition of diversity--proclaiming the month of Ramadan in Kansas--to a real sharing in the public discussion of our society," Eck said.

The Harvard scholar appears, in the main, optimistic. She writes of many efforts at bridge-building: After the Chicago mosque was attacked, for instance, the interfaith community came together to sweep up the damage and make a public witness that such violence was intolerable.

In Los Angeles, efforts to deal with religious diversity began early. The city launched the nation's first interfaith council 25 years ago. Muslims say that more employers accommodate their prayer needs, indicated by a dramatic decline in complaints on the issue to the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

And while some zoning boards still balk at the unfamiliar, others are welcoming. Eck writes of the San Diego City Council's decision to allow Sikhs to build a temple with three gold domes instead of the red tile roofs of the area's Mediterranean style. "Let's go for the gold!" Eck quotes a council member in successfully urging the panel to overturn a Planning Commission recommendation against the Sikhs.

The committed Methodist says she does not have the ultimate answer to the theological questions about pluralism, about whether her God and the God of Muslims and Hindus are the same. "I'll just leave that to God," she said. "I think that is really beyond the scope of those of us who are human."

But she finds satisfying the idea that there is one God whom people of all faiths only partially understand, since the divine transcends human comprehension.

Eck urges careful readings of the Gospel to evangelical groups that refuse to engage in interfaith dialogue in the belief that non-Christian faiths are false or even demonic. The New Testament, she said, is filled with stories of Christ embracing the stranger, and non-Christians, like the Good Samaritan, demonstrating the essence of Christ's message of love and justice.

Ultimately, Eck said, the nation's robust diversity will transform both the world religions transplanted on American soil and Americans used to thinking of the nation as Christian and Jew.

"This new religious diversity really requires us to be who we are supposed to be, which is a nation of religious freedom and nonestablishment of any religion," Eck said.

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