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POV: What BU Can Learn from Evangelical Christians

Interfaith efforts miss potential without evangelical students’ input

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In a time when brown people are suspected of being terrorists, turbans and headscarves are seen as signs of creeping sharia, and the religious “other” seems something dangerous, interfaith work is one of the new frontiers of social justice. In our post 9/11 world, where religious prejudice is often tied up in issues of race, ethnicity, and otherness, pluralism is desperately needed.

On this campus of more than 33,000 students, we are lucky to have a diverse and thriving community, with 21 groups representing traditions ranging from Islam to Sikhism to Hinduism to Jainism and more. But I don’t want to paint a picture of a “Kumbaya” circle holding hands and giving off good vibes. There are problems and challenges to interfaith work at BU, as I know from my work with the BU Interfaith Council.

In the Interfaith Council, where we promote education and engagement between religions on campus, we want to have open arms. We welcome groups with constant invitations and messages. But inevitably, the majority of the people who show up are from minority religions. This is understandable—members of minority religions feel the need to educate the majority and to combat prejudice. Muslims are concerned about fighting Islamophobic stereotypes; Christian Scientists want to show that they are not Tom Cruise’s Scientology; Sikhs want to explain the turbans they wear and their long beards.

But often, this eagerness of minorities to share and engage is contrasted with a lack of interest from the majority religion of America: Christianity. When we do have Christian participants, they are often from less understood or often-stereotyped denominations themselves—Orthodox Christians, Catholics, the aforementioned Christian Scientists. We also have some mainline Protestants (such as Anglicans and Methodists). But we tend to lack one specific group—evangelicals.

We’ve had a couple of evangelical participants. But almost half of the 21 religious life groups on campus are evangelical. So where are the rest?

Of course, this is not a BU-specific issue. Lack of evangelical engagement is a problem in the interfaith movement at large. One of the common fears for evangelicals in interfaith settings is the question of relativism-versus-truth claims. Will I have to give up my belief that my religion is the true one? Will I have to cede to religious relativism and say that, really, all religions are true? 

The answer is no. The goal of the interfaith movement is not universalism. It’s not to say that we are all the same and are all right. It is about celebrating the difference and diversity among us. It is about learning to live in community while acknowledging that we all believe our religion is, indeed, the right one (why else would we practice it?). And we need evangelicals, so strong and secure in their convictions, to challenge us on this. Sometimes it is easy to seem inclusive when only interfaith-friendly people, ones who think there might be truth in more than one religion, are present. But that’s not doing the needed work of asking hard questions.

So the interfaith movement and the Interfaith Council want to bring evangelicals to the table. They are welcome here. We will not demonize them; we are about breaking down stereotypes, not perpetuating them. In a nation deeply tied to its Protestant roots, where evangelicals are an important political force and make up more than a quarter of the American population, we need their commitment to a rich and religiously diverse community.

While minority religions feel a need to teach about themselves and strive for acceptance, the majority religion runs the risk of complacency. Christianity is secure in its position. It does not need to explain the meaning of its symbols or the motivations for its practices. It does not need the interfaith movement. But the interfaith movement needs Christianity.

Evangelicals, who speak the language of the Bible Belt and the Midwest—as well as that of the vast global evangelical community—can spread the ideas of interfaith acceptance to places and communities where minority religions may not have access. They can help realize a vision of American pluralism. The American creed promises equality for all, and to realize that for people of all faiths, we need the evangelicals on board.

Abigail Clauhs (CAS’14) is a Unitarian Universalist and president of the Interfaith Council. She can be reached at aclauhs@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu.

 

9 Comments

9 Comments on POV: What BU Can Learn from Evangelical Christians

  • Phillipe Copeland on 01.21.2014 at 5:15 am

    Thank you for this. While I am not an evangelical Christian I agree that they are our fellow students, faculty members and staff and should be part of any efforts that calls itself “interfaith”.

  • Ryan on 01.21.2014 at 8:15 am

    An interesting article, one that raises some tough questions.

    Here’s one of them: if someone comes to your Council holding religious beliefs that, say, non-believers ought to be killed; women ought to be subjugated and severely punished if they become ‘insubordinate’; or that people who are gay are guilty of one of the most heinous sins and deserve little more than to be outright degraded (i.e. given fewer, if any, rights; excluded; considered to be ‘lower’ people, etc.); do you still celebrate the ‘difference and diversity among us’?

    If not, why? And if not, how would you reconcile this with accepting to the table individuals holding less extreme, but perhaps equally dangerous, unfounded, and ultimately outrageous beliefs?

    The problem, I suggest, is that the Interfaith Council can’t possibly reconcile its commitment to universalism with its commitment to the legitimacy of belief systems that are often at once rigidly absolute (like some evangelical beliefs might be) and dangerously radical.

    You can try to find a middle ground, where you say, ‘Well, we won’t accept those holding religious beliefs that non-believers ought to be killed en masse, but less radical beliefs are acceptable.’ Why? Isn’t this a moving line? How do you draw it? How do you determine what’s acceptable and unacceptable within the domain of religion? Doesn’t this immediately discount your commitment to giving legitimacy to all religions, even evangelicals?

    Short of a good reply, the project seems to me half-baked.

    • Aliana on 01.21.2014 at 10:22 pm

      The simple answer to your question is that there is no religion that holds the beliefs that you specified. There is no religion in the world that calls for people to degraded. If you are asking if there are religions out there who have different ideas about what is sinful as compared to the general public, yes, there are, but that does not mean that those religions are hateful. No legitimate religion that I have ever heard of is innately hateful or out to degrade people. Now, there are some people out there who are out to degrade, but the council can’t control that.

  • James on 01.21.2014 at 1:58 pm

    “It is about learning to live in community while acknowledging that we all believe our religion is, indeed, the right one.” In other words, a community where we believe that everybody else is wrong. That does not sound like a good basis for “community.”

    What we *really* need at universities are institutions that help students overcome the indoctrination they have been subject to. We need a Non-Faith Council.

    Failing that, we need to abolish all faith-centered institutions and programs on campus, as faith has no place in a modern educational institution. Tolerance and acceptance, yes, but sponsorship and legitimization, no.

    • Tom on 01.21.2014 at 7:36 pm

      Someday when you become the dictator you can mandate this. Otherwise you are merely an evangelical atheist.

  • tom on 01.21.2014 at 2:13 pm

    Ryan, the author clearly says, “The goal of the interfaith movement is not universalism.” You’re caricaturing the interfaith movement, and forcing it into a tedious, overplayed, and ultimately unnecessary impasse concerning the limits of “universal” acceptance. Inviting everyone to the table is not the same as agreeing with what they say.

    • Anonymous on 01.21.2014 at 8:58 pm

      Inviting everyone to table legitimizes all beliefs… I’m not sure if you want that as a consequence.

  • Louis on 01.21.2014 at 11:24 pm

    The author wisely observes that “while minority religions feel a need to teach about themselves and strive for acceptance, the majority religion runs the risk of complacency.” However, she immediately goes on to say: “Christianity is secure in its position. It does not need to explain the meaning of its symbols or the motivations for its practices.” Apart from the early stages of Christianity in Jerusalem under the persecution of the Sanhedrin and of the Roman Empire, I cannot think of a time when Christianity has been less secure in its position than ours, and from what I can tell we are with increasing speed returning to the position Christianity held during the times I just referred to. To be an evangelical Christian or a “conservative” Catholic (one who believes the teachings of the Church on the authority of God’s having revealing them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived) is to be considered a fool or a fanatic (or both) by almost everyone in academia, in politics, or in the media, in short, by anyone who counts in the intelligentsia and elite who dominate in the present American regime. Evangelicals and true Catholics are not staying away from interfaith gatherings because of any complacency arising from the assurance that their views are the dominant ones– far from it. Rather, they fear not only contributing to the prevailing religious relativism according to which their views are supposedly no more valid than anyone else’s, but also that they will be held up to ridicule and even get into trouble for their “outmoded” or “intolerant” views, or any of several other available and even less flattering epithets which are commonly applied to them for disagreeing with those who are, in fact, quite complacent in the views they hold in keeping with the currently reigning law of opinion. It is the Christians who have the challenge of giving reasons for their views, not complacent liberals, smug in their unquestioned dogmas of “progress,” “freedom”, “tolerance”. While the author is to be commended for her offer to receive such people into the discussion and not “demonize them,” I cannot share her assumed optimism that others besides her will be so tolerant and benign towards evangelical Christians or conservative Catholics who dare to come out of the woodwork and voice their heretical and heterodox views.

    • Ethan DuBois on 01.23.2014 at 12:42 am

      Very, very well said. I couldn’t agree more.

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