by Heather Miller Rubens

At ICJS we believe that a multireligious democracy—an interreligious society where religious diversity flourishes and shapes civic life—is not only possible, but absolutely necessary. And if we want a multireligious democracy, we will need to work for it. That work begins when we commit to engaging interreligiously with one another in the public square. That means more religion-talk.

In this polarized moment, there is a temptation to think the public square feels dangerous enough without engaging in religion-talk. Indeed, Americans remain trapped by a fear that religious diversity is necessarily dangerous, and that religion is a conversation-stopper. Behind these fears lies a perennial question: what should we do with religious diversity in public life? 

In the United States, we usually answer this question using one of two frameworks: Christian Nationalism, which subjugates religious diversity (i.e., only one kind of Christian discourse is allowed in civic life), or the Wall of Separation, which banishes religious diversity (i.e., religious discourse is prohibited from civic life). Neither framework promotes religious diversity as a goal for the public square nor models how all people can bring their religious-selves to civic life.  Rather, Americans remain trapped by a fear that religious diversity is always dangerous.

Safeguarding a multireligious democracy requires ICJS to champion religious pluralism and encourage more religion-talk in civic life. We value religious pluralism, and we believe that our religious differences can be a powerful force for good in our community. We think we need more religion-talk in civic life (not less) in order to build an interreligious society together. That is why our educational programs and initiatives aim to help us to listen carefully with interreligious ears and to speak confidently with our religious voices.

The Fear of Religious Diversity

Right now, having a multireligious democracy in the United States is not a given.  Although we live in one of the most religiously diverse societies in human history, Americans rarely engage interreligiously as a civic practice. Rather, many of us fear religious diversity and view the rapidly changing American religious landscape as yet another problem to be solved.

Today, public opinion surveys show that too few Americans value religious pluralism and see interreligious civic engagement as possible. Christian nationalism, anti-religious bias, Islamophobia, and antisemitism all threaten the mission of ICJS. A recent poll showed that 45% of U.S. adults—including about 6 in 10 Christians—say they think the country “should be” a Christian nation. A different survey showed that 38% of Americans believe that religion causes more problems in society than it solves. Another survey found that 50% of all Americans believe the anti-Muslim claim that the values of Islam are at odds with the American way of life. And research found that over three-quarters of Americans (85%) believe at least one anti-Jewish trope, the highest level measured in decades.

A Vibrant Multireligious Democracy

So what should we do with the question of religious diversity in public life? At ICJS, we believe that Americans must abandon fear of religious diversity and embrace the messy project of having more religion-talk in public life. Then, we can identify what commitments, knowledge, practices, and skills are needed to build an interreligious public life, and design new political and religious blueprints for a vibrant multireligious democracy.

People of all religions and no religion can and should be full participants in American civic and political life. In addition, they should not have to hide their religious selves to do so. This is an interreligious society where religious pluralism flourishes.

To build this society, we will need diverse theologies and political theories to support a vibrant public square that is full of religious and nonreligious voices. We need to boldly create shared community through interreligious dialogue and shared decision-making. 

This is an important focus of our work at ICJS: to champion a multireligious democracy, and explore different models and methods that make our religious differences a powerful force for good.

Heather Miller Rubens, Ph.D. is the executive director and Roman Catholic scholar at ICJS.