Source: The Washington Post
The National Prayer Breakfast, an annual gathering of inspiring speeches and solemn moments of silence, recently drew President Bush and hundreds of lawmakers when it was held in Washington. This year, the event was unusual in that it was attended by much of what is the most religiously diverse Congress in American history.
The 110th Congress includes one Muslim and two Buddhists. The U.S. Senate is now led by a Mormon. All of these are firsts. The new Congress also includes more Jews than Lutherans, Congregationalists or Episcopalians.
The writer G.K. Chesterton famously remarked that America is "a nation with the soul of a church." One look at Congress, indeed one look around the country, shows that Chesterton is only partially correct. Throughout the centuries, America has remained a devout country, with uniquely high rates of belief in God and attendance at religious services, when compared to Europe. But we have also become the most religiously diverse country in the world. To be true to our 21st century demographics, we have to amend Chesterton's line by adding "mosque, synagogue, temple and gurudwara" after “church.”
In this era of global religious conflict, when religious tensions travel in nanoseconds over the Internet, America's religious diversity can be a great opportunity or a great danger. It is not impossible that violence engulfing Shiites and Sunnis in Baghdad, Hindus and Muslims in Bombay, or Catholics and Protestants in Belfast could have ripple effects in Boston. Already, there are too many examples of religious communities who refuse to talk to one another on college campuses in America because they come down on different sides of the political debate on issues ranging from domestic spying, to immigration, to aid to Israel.
America was founded partly on the idea of religious diversity. We are a nation of ideas formed by people who wanted freedom to worship God as they felt called. In a world where conflict between faiths threatens to set off a centuries-long clash of civilizations, Americans would do well to remember this heritage of reverence combined with tolerance. Indeed, this tradition has played an important role throughout American history. Take, for example, the famous picture of Martin Luther King Jr. marching through Selma with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, both called by their different faiths to extend the American promise to all people. Heschel later acknowledged the religious differences between him and King, but still claimed that the march was worship: "I felt like my legs were praying."