Religion in Search of a Place at the Campus Diversity Table

Religion in Search of a Place at the Campus Diversity Table
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When Suraj Arshanapally, a Hindu, took over the presidency of St. Louis University’s Interfaith Alliance, he inherited a pre-planned, large scale event that he soon discovered had the potential to become a source of conflict. His interfaith group, along with a Hindu student club, had previously invited Arun Gandhi for an event symbolically scheduled to commemorate Gandhi’s grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi, on his birthday, replete with a speech encouraging peace and service through nonviolence. Unfortunately, the date of the Gandhi campus event, a Jewish student group informed Arshanapally, also fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Moreover, some of Arun Gandhi’s writings, perceived as anti-semitic, served to magnify the conflict and turn a well-intentioned celebration of peace into a budding fiasco. 

Instead, a remarkably harmonious resolution evolved which serves as a textbook example of the power of interfaith dialogue motivated by sincere religious beliefs. Arshanapally’s Hindu sense of dharma, or call to action, motivated him to empathize with the Jewish student group. He organized a dialogue in which all students involved could voice concerns, find common ground, understand the pure intentions involved, and resolve not just this particular dilemma, but future predicaments. As a result, Gandhi’s lecture mentioned Yom Kippur positively and was preceded by a public statement explaining the reasons for bringing him to campus. Jewish students ended up joining the interfaith group, and together the group created a calendar highlighting religious holy days for event planners to work around.

“I definitely see a place for religion in the campus diversity configuration,” Arshanapally explains. “These conversations build relationships, foster tolerance, and strengthen our own identity at the same time. You can’t remove your religious identity in everyday interactions, so it’s important to create healthy dialogue to respect those with differing viewpoints.”

Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a national nonprofit that partners with higher education to engage religious diversity, cites Arshanapally’s example as emblematic of the harmony religious voices bring to an often fractious campus community. Their website, based on the organization’s aim to build religious and cultural bridges through discourse and cooperative service, overflows with impressive examples: Benedictine University’s Catholic-Muslim dialogue, a Muslim student group at Northeastern reaching out to a Jewish group whose menorah had been vandalized, and a plethora of united service involving Evangelicals, Buddhists, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, and Jews. 

Yet religion’s place at the campus diversity table remains tenuous. Many campus diversity platforms emphasize race, gender, and sexual orientation, but leave worldview diversity off the list—a major lapse, according recent research citing religious affiliation as the second greatest influence on incoming freshmen, surpassed only by family background, on determining student worldview, and significantly ahead of race-gender-sexual orientation in determining their outlook on life.

One of the study’s lead researchers (along with Alyssa Rockenbach from North Carolina State University), Professor Matthew Mayhew of Ohio State University, describes the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Study (IDEALS) as a unique and ambitious academic undertaking involving an impressive 122 campuses and over 20,000 college students who have undergone the first of three data collection efforts measuring their religious paradigm and experiences in higher ed over a four-year period. Both the students and campuses involved mirror a nationally representative sampling that includes public, private, and religious institutions and participants of all political, religious, secular, racial, and sexual orientation categories. 

“My job is to keep close to the data and stay responsible to the research,” observes Mayhew, who refrains from drawing too many conclusions from the first wave of 2015 statistics. Still, he frames the latest findings as proof that pluralism—the extent to which students are accepting of others with different worldviews and are willing to find common values and build relationships while remaining true to their own paradigm—remains a high priority for incoming freshmen. A substantial majority of students surveyed, 71%, rated opportunities to get to know students of diverse religious and nonreligious perspective as very important, and expressed interest in participating in service with and learning about and from those with diverse religious perspectives. But according to Mayhew, university outreach fixated on the race-gender-sexual orientation triumvirate of diversity tends to ignore worldview diversification altogether. 

“I can understand the reluctance,” he explains. “Integrating religious students into the mix is challenging for a number of complex reasons.” Contributing to the complexity is the hesitancy of faculty and administrators to include those who actively proselytize, such as evangelicals or Mormons. But “campuses have an imperative to support diverse students regardless of their narrative,” Mayhew asserts. “Attracting all students, not just particular groups, and not punting the religious students to para-church organizations, creates genuine pluralism, and religious students can be included responsibly.” After all, he points out, a strong correlation exists between having a close friend of a different worldview and maintaining a positive opinion of that worldview. 

Mayhew avoids postulating about whether para-church organizations like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and others feel less welcome at the current campus diversity party than others. “We haven’t been able to study the data empirically like this research is trying to accomplish,” he notes. But Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission spokesman Andrew Walker’s observations are less hesitant. He cites several examples of certain types of Christian students not only feeling unwelcome at the diversity gathering, but getting completely disinvited from the party: Vanderbilt’s 2012 and 2014 de-recognition of its Baptist Student Union and Graduate Christian Fellowship, Cal State’s 2014 disaffiliation of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship from its statewide campuses (though they were later re-affiliated in 2015), and Bowdoin Christian Fellowship advisors’ dismissal in 2014.

For Walker, anecdotes of exclusion like these portend a troubling trend which he characterizes as “the inability of secular campuses to entertain beliefs or values that contradict their assumptions.” He attributes the relegation of campus Christian groups to participation outside of official recognition—recognition that provides funding, buildings, and publicity—less to their conversion propensities and more to the conservative views on sexuality and gender held by some organizations. “It’s fine to disagree with Christian sexual ethics, and we don’t demand being embraced,” he concedes. “But to completely shut down discourse and stigmatize a significant number of students whose numbers comprise a real presence at elite and all kinds of campuses seems disingenuous and antithetical to the purpose of a university.”

Indeed, an overview of the vital statistics page compiled by InterVarsity Christian Ministry, one of the largest of many campus Christian parachurch organizations, reveals an outreach involving 1000 chapters on 667 campuses from the Ivy League to community colleges. And the 41,000-plus student participants are not just white transplants from the Bible Belt: 42%, not counting international students, identify as ethnic minorities or multi-racial, and the staff includes a preponderance of Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, and others. Specialized areas of ministry reflect this and include Black, Asian-American, Latino, and Native chapters at various campuses. 

“If you’re going to leave out the religiously dedicated, including Christians,” according to Walker, “you’re losing an exceptionally large group of people dedicated to kindness, freedom, and other ideals secularism is incapable of matching.” Surveys on charitable giving and volunteerism bear out Walker’s assertion. Researchers at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy drew on the National Study of American Religious Giving and the National Study of American Jewish Giving to find that the more important religion is to a person, the more likely that person is to give to a charity of any kind.

Ignoring a large, diverse swath of students with a strong moral imperative to get along, love their enemies, and donate and volunteer more than their counterparts might be a trend university administrators should rethink. Requiring religious and worldview literacy courses, according to Dr. Mayhew of the Interfaith Diversity Longitudinal study, along with other diversity training, could go a long way in creating authentic pluralism at the campus table.  

“College is a unique space in which different kinds of people are coming together in a bigger way than they’ll ever experience before or after,” Mayhew points out. “Our first wave of data shows that students are anxious and willing to learn about different worldviews and have a productive exchange, but higher ed must respond effectively. Religious worldviews, after all, are embedded in the fabric of a lot of students’ lives.”

For their part, religious participants known more for their dedication to converting have, in recent years, broadened the scope of their missions to better engage in non-proselytizing dialogue, building bridges with members of world religions and secularists. Baylor University, one of the the largest Baptist schools in the world, held a 300-plus 2015 prayer rally in solidarity with Muslim students, and politically and religiously conservative Liberty University welcomed democratic socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to speak during the 2016 presidential primaries at a well-attended campus event. 

Though well known for their global missionary force, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS)—also known as the Mormon church—has historically partnered with organizations like the Red Cross, Catholic Charities, and others for humanitarian work, but more recently demonstrated what The Washington Post called “a model in compromise” in partnering with Utah LGBT leaders to pass a landmark fair housing and employment bill that could serve as a model for similar issues on campus. LDS leadership response to the worldwide refugee crisis has consisted of clarion calls, and enthusiastic member response, to assist refugees everywhere from Munich to Salt Lake City.

Motivated by leadership imperatives, but even more so by LDS beliefs in which “all of us are children of God, part of a big, human family,” Allison Fife Hale created a remarkable interfaith outreach program at heavily Mormon Utah State University with Interfaith Youth Core’s assistance. After traveling to the United Arab Emirates and meeting with Muslim women for a leadership conference, Hale said she “got thinking about all the good things people around the world are doing,” and realized “how much I have in common with people of other faiths who are motivated to make the world a better place.” 

Returning to USU, she participated in an IFYC forum, applied for leadership training, and worked with professors to bring the organization’s founder Eboo Patel to campus, an event over 2,000 people attended. A newly created Interfaith Student Association grew to include LDS, Muslim, Buddhist, Evangelical, Episcopal, Catholic, and agnostic members who hold regular events like “speed friending,” in which participants rotate through a set of questions designed to help them learn more about others’ beliefs.

Eboo Patel, IFYC

When Hale trained with IFYC, she came to appreciate their slogan “Better Together.” She, Arshanapally, and other religiously inclined students don’t expect campus diversity engineers to accept their belief systems, but do want to find common ground and make their campuses better places through pluralistic interaction. 

By ignoring worldview diversity, higher ed not only excludes a constituency ready to build bridges in an discordant atmosphere, but ignores a historically rich perspective adding much needed transcendence to a materialistic, divisive world. As Pulitzer Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson explained recently at a Brigham Young University lecture, religion acknowledges the wonder of souls, emphasizes the interconnectedness of human beings, and refuses to resort to the impoverished answers that secularism offers up for life’s big questions. “So great is my respect for secularists,” Robinson conceded, “that I wish they had a metaphysics worthy of them.”  

The religionists are ready and willing to respect, learn from, and dine with those who claim no religious affiliation. Hopefully, campus officiators can start appreciating the feast that interfaith outreach and authentic pluralism offers to everyone. 

Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer based in Salt Lake City.

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