It came as no surprise to me to read the recent New York Times article indicating that Muslim students feel particularly welcome on Roman Catholic campuses—precisely because of their faith. "Here people are more religious, even if they're not Muslim, and I'm comfortable with that," a Muslim student said of her experience at the University of Dayton.
That was my father's experience at the University of Notre Dame 35 years ago. He was a Muslim immigrant from India in the land of gray snow and white Catholics. While the priests didn't always understand his faith, they always respected it, and he felt that the broader environment nurtured it. When he missed home, he'd go to the Grotto of our Lady of Lourdes, where the flickering candles reminded him of the line in the Koran that God is light upon light.
When I went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in the mid-1990s, we were focused on other forms of identity. The Rodney King beating and its aftermath had sparked a rise in campus activism around race. You couldn't walk 10 feet in any direction without seeing a copy of Cornel West's Race Matters or running into a heated discussion about the role of black women in the feminist movement. Freshman orientation, resident-adviser training, speeches by the football coach at pep rallies—race was a theme in all of these.
Part of the rationale for 1990s-era campus multiculturalism was to remedy the racial bias in the broader society: to lift up underrepresented narratives, to remind people that many communities have contributed to the American project, to ensure that our perceptions of race were not driven by the crime reports on the evening news. Gender, sexuality, class, and ethnicity all got some airtime, but mostly we talked about race. And one form of identity was almost totally excluded: faith.
Now that the evening news is full of stories of faith-based violence, and our public discourse has a constant undercurrent of religious prejudice (Barack Obama is a Muslim! Mitt Romney isn't a Christian!) colleges can no longer ignore faith identity. For many of the same reasons that they actively engaged race, so should they now actively and positively engage faith identity.
That Catholic colleges are welcoming places for people from other religions is very good news on one front. It means that Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis—the idea that people of different faith backgrounds are inherently in conflict with one another—is not inevitable, at least not everywhere. On American Catholic campuses, it appears, the clear and proud expression of one faith identity isn't a barrier that separates people of different faiths, it's a bridge that invites them in.
And it's not just Catholic colleges. A few years ago, I was invited to speak at Berea College, a nondenominational Christian college, and my podium was set up right in front of a large cross. The minister asked if I would feel more comfortable if it was covered. Not at all, I told him. Berea's understanding of that cross was the key reason the college had such a diverse student body, and precisely why they had invited a Muslim speaker to address the community. I was proud to speak in front of that cross. In fact, its presence allowed me to open my talk with a Muslim prayer.
But interfaith work is not just for religious campuses, and creating a "safe space" for different faiths cannot be the ultimate goal. In the most religiously diverse nation in human history and the most religiously devout nation in the West at a time of global religious conflict, how people from different faith backgrounds get along and what they do together is a crucial question. And so it must be a central question for our public universities as well.
Robert Putnam, who teaches American politics at Harvard, emphasizes that faith communities are the single largest repository of social capital in America, but that they operate mainly within their own restrictive networks. Certainly faith groups can continue to work in isolation. The tension among religions in America can grow, faith can become a weapon, and we can move directly into the open conflict we see in other religiously diverse societies. Or we can encourage more social capital among faith communities (and between them and philosophically secular ones), and help them cooperate to serve the common good. Colleges are miniature civil societies that can nurture that vision of interfaith respect and cooperation, and train a critical mass of leaders to help achieve it.
What if campuses took religious diversity as seriously as they took race? What if recruiting a religiously diverse student body, creating a welcoming environment for people of different faith and philosophical identities, and offering classes in interfaith studies and co-curricular opportunities in interfaith leadership became the norm? What if university presidents expected their graduates to acquire interfaith literacy, build interfaith relationships, and have opportunities to run interfaith programs during their four years on campus? What impact might a critical mass of interfaith leaders have on America over the course of the next generation?
I'm pretty convinced that one reason Barack Obama is president is because of the 1990s-era multiculturalism movement on campuses. A generation of college students caught a vision of what a multicultural nation should look like—and those were the people who staffed the moonshot Obama campaign. Imagine the impact a 21st-century campus interfaith movement could have on the nation over the course of the next 30 years. Perhaps we won't be Googling "Sikh" when we hear of a hate-fueled murder in Milwaukee; perhaps we'll be electing a Sikh president.
Eboo Patel is founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based group building a global interfaith youth movement, and author of Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America (Beacon Press, 2012).