On Common Ground: World Religions in America

On Common Ground

On Common Ground: World Religions in America (1997,  2002, 2008)

About On Common Ground

On Common Ground: World Religions in America is an interactive web resource based on the research of the Pluralism Project and affiliates. For over twenty five years, the Pluralism Project, under the direction of Diana L. Eck, has studied the emergence of an increasingly multireligious America.

About On Common Ground (Full Essay)

OCG HistoricalFirst published by Columbia University Press in 1997, second and third editions of On Common Ground were released in 2002 and 2008. While functionality increased with these later editions, the primary content remained unchanged from the original publication. Then, in 2013, thanks to generous funding from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., the Pluralism Project released an online version of On Common Ground: World Religions in America, complete with updated essays and resources. In 2016, with the redevelopment and relaunch of pluralism.org, the three sections of On Common Ground—Religions, Landscape, and Encounter—became the backbone of the Pluralism Project’s entire web presence. By combining the time-tested pedagogical structure of the original CD-ROM with the increased interactive features of online publication, the new On Common Ground  and pluralism.org will ensure teachers and students of all ages have the opportunity to explore the historical dimensions and current realities of a multireligious America.

Since its creation, On Common Ground: World Religions in America has received considerable critical acclaim and a number of awards. The CD-ROM won the EDUCAUSE Medal in 1998, cited as “an extraordinary resource” and a “pioneering work”; it was also a Media and Methods 1998 Awards Portfolio winner, was on Choice’s 35th Annual Outstanding Academic Books list, and was a finalist for the 1998 EdPress Distinguished Achievement Award. The resource’s most enduring legacy is the referrals and ongoing demand of the resource by teachers, professors, clergy, community leaders, and individuals across the nation and even the world.

On Common Ground was developed by Diana L. Eck, together with students, staff, and advisors of the Pluralism Project. See below for further credits.


On Common Ground

The religious landscape of America is changing as immigrants from all over the world take the oath of citizenship and claim the United States as their home. From the beginning this has been a nation of religious diversity, but today it is probably the most religiously diverse nation on earth, despite its overwhelming Christian majority. The deepest reason for America’s religious diversity is our fundamental commitment to religious freedom: matters of religious conscience cannot be legislated or decided by majority rule.

On Common Ground (Full Essay)

The more immediate reason for this new diversity, however, is the 1965 Immigration Act which changed American policy, opening the door to immigrants from many parts of the world for the first time since the 1920s. Restrictive laws going back to the first Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and culminating in the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 had severely limited immigration from some parts of the world, particularly Asia. With the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, however, America began to address the issues of discrimination in immigration policy. Robert Kennedy, supporting the 1965 act before the U.S. Congress said, “Everywhere else in our national life, we have eliminated discrimination based on national origins. Yet this system is still the foundation of our immigration law.” The 1965 act eliminated national origins quotas and opened the door again for immigration. The new post-1965 immigration has made clear for all Americans that the United States is a nation based not on race, ethnicity, or religion, but on common commitment to the democratic ideals of its Constitution.

In the past nearly fifty years, the ethnic composition of the United States has gradually changed, with new immigrants from Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. The term “multicultural” is often used to describe the new cultural reality of the American people. But what are the religious dimensions of America’s new cultural mix? What changes have taken place in the religious landscape of America’s cities and neighborhoods? How have new religious traditions changed as they have taken root in American soil? And how is America changing as the freedom of religion cherished by America’s founders is now cherished by Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Hindus who have come to America as immigrants? These are the questions the Pluralism Project has investigated since 1991 and these are the questions you are invited to explore in On Common Ground: World Religions in America.

The American Constitution begins with words, “We the People of the United States of America…” The thirty-nine people who framed and signed the Constitution in 1787 were almost all white, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon men. The “we” of which they spoke referred to the citizens of the new America, who were mostly English Protestants, joined by a few Catholics, and still fewer Jews. At that time, “we” did not include the Native peoples of America, nor the considerable number of African slaves who accounted for approximately one-fifth of the non-indigenous population.

Over the past two centuries, the “we” has expanded and become considerably more complex. Through years of struggle, America’s “we” has come to include African Americans and Native Americans, and has come explicitly to comprise both women and men among its voting members. It refers to immigrants from all parts of Europe, from Asia and the Pacific, from Africa and Latin America. Coming to know who “we” now are is one of America’s most challenging tasks.

In many parts of the world today, the “we” is being defined in ever narrower terms as the “we” of ethnic, religious, or national chauvinism. But America’s “we” has become ever broader. Today it includes Buddhist Americans, like the Hawaiian-born Buddhist astronaut who died on the Challenger, and Muslim Americans, like the Muslim mayor elected to office in Kuntz, Texas. Our “we” embraces Hindu and Jain engineers and surgeons, Zoroastrian social workers, and Sikh political advisors. It includes Native American legislators, activists, and educators. It includes Christians of all races and denominations—Hispanic pentecostalists, Southern Baptists, United Methodists, Vietnamese Catholics, Korean Presbyterians. It includes Jews from black-coat Lubavitchers to Reform women rabbis. It includes Bahá’í and Unitarian Universalists, Wiccans and Earth Spirit communities, and Afro-Caribbean practitioners of Santería and Vodou. And it includes a wide range of people who cherish the freedom to stand outside all of these religious communities—as ardent secularists, as ethical humanists, or as committed atheists.

Since the U.S. Census Bureau does not ask about religious affiliation, there is a sense in which we do not know who “we” are religiously. Although America's population is still predominantly Christian, America’s growing religious minorities have re-shaped the religious landscape for us all. On Common Ground invites you to investigate this new multireligious reality in three different but interrelated ways:

  • First, A New Religious Landscape invites you to explore what the new diversity looks like “on the ground” in select cities across the United States. Twenty cities are represented here, each with an interactive map of religious diversity and data from the U.S. census. The Directory of Religious Centers is also a resource. This is clearly a work-in-progress, and it comes to you as an invitation to become more fully aware of your own neighborhood, and to let us know what you discover.
  • Second, America’s Many Religions enables you to learn about seventeen religious and ethical traditions. What are their histories, teachings, and practices? What is their history here in the United States? What is their lived experience as communities of faith: their songs and devotions, forms of meditation, education, and social action? What are the issues they care about, argue about? What are their forms of organization? You will meet some of the people of these traditions, hear their own voices as they speak about their faith and their concerns. You can also find information about the publications and websites of organizations associated with these various religious traditions.
  • Third, Encountering Religious Diversity invites you to think encounterabout the encounter of people of different religions on American soil. In the section called “Historical Perspectives” you can explore the history of America’s long sustained argument over just how wide our “we” ought to be. Through text, image, and document excerpts you can study the first encounters of Native peoples and Christian settlers; the prejudice that beset Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish relations; the first frontier-encounters of Euro-Americans with Chinese and Japanese immigrants; the formation of a new multireligious America. In the section called “Today’s Challenges” you can look at the questions this new religious diversity poses today—for our public schools, courts, zoning boards, hospitals, and neighborhoods. You can learn about some of the fault lines that have created tension and division, and you can find out about some of the bridges that have been built in the creation of a new interfaith infrastructure.


On Common Ground Credits

On Common Ground: World Religions in America and pluralism.org are dedicated to the people of the many religious, secular, and interfaith communities throughout the United States who have welcomed us into your midst and have given generously of your time to make this project possible. Thank you.

On Common Ground: World Religions in America was first published by Columbia University Press in 1997 as a CD-ROM and initially funded with a three-year grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc. and with the support and encouragement of Craig Dykstra. The development and production of the Pluralism Project Interactive was supported with grants from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., the Pew Charitable Trusts, the North Star Fund, and the Templeton Foundation. The Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation have provided support for our ongoing research and work. The Pluralism Project is deeply grateful for the support of these foundations, individual contributors and long-time friends of the Project, and to Harvard University for its many forms of support for On Common Ground.

Full Credits

1997 Project Team: On Common Ground: World Religions in America
Principal Investigator, Author, Editor: Diana L. Eck
Producer, Principal Interviewer, Movie Director: Susan A. Shumaker (Stone Circle Productions, Inc.)
Designer: Than Saffel (Stone Circle Productions, Inc.)
Programmer: Steve Blake (Steve Blake Design)
Executive Project Manager: Terry Kay Rockefeller
Associate Project Manager: Rachel Antell
Pluralism Project Research Director: Elinor J. Pierce
Pluralism Project Manager: Grove Harris
Pluralism Project Webmaster: Alan Wagner
Photographic Editors: Lucy Tinkcombe, Geri Engberg

Other Pluralism Project Staff: Annie Astley, Julie Barker, Kristin Barstow, Michelle Cappalla, Bob Clark, Susan Fansler, Monbill Fung, Steven J. Gelberg, Courtney Goto, Robin Lewis, Zeeshan Haasan, Bob Linscott, Neelima Shukla-Bhatt, Grant Upson
Rights Procurement: Julie Barker, Clare Giles, Judith Grove Harris, Elizabeth Janiak, Jack Pan, Wendy Robison, Beth Varro

Movie and Video Production: Susan Shumaker (producer), Rachel Antell, Steve Blake, Tom Diamond, Geri Gengberg, Michael McNally, Elinor J. Pierce, Lucy Tinkcombe
Audio Research, Editing, and Production: Susan Shumaker (producer), Eric Bickernicks, Jenny Juyun Song

Graphic Design and Production: Than Saffel (designer), Tom Diamond, David Formanek, Steve Jenkins, Lucy Tinkcombe, Geri Engberg

Website Research and Production: Grove Harris, Elinor J. Pierce, Alan Wagner, Than Saffel, Hao Shen, Susan Shumaker, Emily Tucker

America’s Many Religions
Afro-Caribbean: Karen McCarthy Brown; J. Lorand Matory, Tracey Hucks
Bahá’í: Robert Stockman
Buddhism: Charles Hallisey, Havanpola Ratanasara, Donald Swearer, Helen Tworkov; Stuart Chandler, Duncan Williams
Christianity: Reverend Dorothy Austin, Father J. Bryan Hehir, James W. Lewis, Melanie May, Tyler Roberts; Marie Griffiths, Sarah McClintock (profiles), Richard Seager (Christianity in America)
Confucianism: Wen-Jie Qin; Stuart Chandler
Daoism: Wen-Jie Qin; Stuart Chandler
Hinduism: Diana L. Eck; Rachel Antell (profiles)
Jainism: Pravin Shah; Vivek Maru, Holly Seeling (Jainism in America)
Judaism: Nathan Glazer, Rabbi Bernard Steinberg; Rachel Antell (Jewish Experience), David Kaufman, Sarah McClintock (profiles)
Islam: Ali Asani, Ihsan Bagby, William Graham, Yvonne Haddad, Azizah al-Hibri, Shabbir Mansuri, Fareed Numan, Muzammil Siddiqi; Elinor Pierce, Lance Laird
Interfaith: Chris Coble (Interfaith Organizations, Interfaith Worship), Courtney Goto (Interfaith Organizations)
Native Peoples’ Traditions: Inez Talamantez; Michael McNally
Paganism: Selena Fox, Brigit McCallum; Judith Grove Harris
Shintō: Helen Hardacre
Sikhism: Gurinder Singh Mann; Satnam Khalsa
Zoroastrianism: Farhang Mehr, Rohinton Rivetna, Elinor Pierce

Encountering Religious Diversity
Today’s Challenges: Nathan Glazer (Pluralism); Chloe Breyer (Not in this Neighborhood), Julie Ann Canniff (Education), Chris Coble (Interfaith Organizations, Interfaith Worship), Caroline Sadlowski (Education)
Historical Perspectives: Rebecca Kneale Gould, Douglas Hicks

We are also grateful to the insights and careful work of the several anonymous reviewers who commented on the original manuscript for Columbia University Press.


2013 Project Team: On Common Ground: World Religions in America Updates
Principal Investigator, Author, Editor (1.0 & 2.0): Diana L. Eck
Webmaster, Programmer: Ryan R. Overbey
Pluralism Project Research Director: Elinor Pierce
Pluralism Project Assistant Director, Project Manager: Whittney Barth
Web Designer: Sarabjot Kaur (Creative Stride)

America’s Many Religions
Afro-Caribbean: Tracey Hucks
Atheism/Humanism: Greg Epstein, James Croft, Chris Stedman, Chelsea Link
Bahá’í: Robert Stockman
Buddhism: Ryan Overbey; Joshua Whitson
Christianity: Peter W. Williams; Whittney Barth, Matt Bowman, Jaisy Joseph
Confucianism: Ryan Overbey; Joshua Whitson
Daoism: Ryan Overbey; Joshua Whitson
Hinduism: Diana L. Eck; Melissa Nozell
Jainism: Darshana Shah, Prandip Shah, Pravin Shah
Judaism: Benjamin Baerer, Rabbi Or Rose; April Winebrenner-Palo
Interfaith: See acknowledgments for America’s Interfaith Infrastructure: An Emerging Landscape
Islam: Diana L. Eck; Melissa Nozell; Amrita Dani
Native Peoples’ Traditions: Michael McNally; Whittney Barth
Paganism: Christine Hoff Kraemer
Shintō: Ryan Overbey; Joshua Whitson
Sikhism: Harpreet Singh; Melissa Nozell
Unitarian Universalism: Daniel McKanan; Chris Alburger
Zoroastrianism: Daryush Mehta, Firoze Jungalwala, Cyrus Mehta, Firdosh Mehta, Farhad Panthaki

A New Religious Landscape
Pluralism Project Researchers: Chris Alburger, Kristin Arn, Amrita Dani, Claire Droste, Paul Escobar, Erin Cahill, Caitlin Casey, Isabel Hebert, Kayla Jackson, Abbas Jaffer, Sehrish Khan, Emily Kremer-McNeil, Dandan Liu, Aaron Lerner, Sara Lytle, Io Montecillo, Vanessa Navarro, Melissa Nozell, Terry Shoemaker, Joshua Whitson, April Winebrenner Palo, and Dina Yazdani.

Additional researchers (post-2013) include: Halah Ahmad, Emma Bass, Mahek Bhojani, Shannon Boley, Brian Cropper, Faezeh Fathizadeh, Michael Friedman, Gigi Gonzales, Charlotte Isaac, Jem Jebbia, Margaret Krueger, Mary Kate Long, Zuzu Myers Lisa Mishra, Cody Musselman, Annabel Lindau, Dr. Brent Plate, Emmett Potts, Retika Rajbhandari, Avi Rothfeld, Yusra Syed, Lewis West, Donald Westbrook, Anna Lee White, and Jessie Wyatt.

Encountering Religious Diversity
Today’s Challenges: Brendan Randall; Whittney Barth, April Winebrenner-Palo
Historical Perspectives: Whittney Barth, Paul Escobar, April Winebrenner-Palo