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Cheering Religious Diversity

Diana Eck believes all faiths deserve a place in America's public square. Her program documents pluralism's interactions and conflicts.

July 07, 2001|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

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, http://www.pluralism.org, 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.

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