Building on the success of this past year’s “Race in America” focus, the UConn Reads Steering Committee selected “Religion in America” as the theme for the upcoming year. And now, for the book, the Committee has chosen Eboo Patel’s Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America (2012), picked from among recommendations submitted by members of the UConn community.
Founded as a haven from religious persecution and envisioned as an asylum of spiritual tolerance, the United States is not surprisingly home to a number of different faiths and diverse denominations; nevertheless, as the increase in Islamophobic and anti-Semitic crimes makes clear, religion remains a contested and central issue in contemporary American life.
One year ago, in May 2015, the Pew Research Center published a series of reports, “America’s Changing Landscape,” focused on Americans’ shifting religious affiliations. At the time, the Center’s findings drew scrutiny and surprise: an unprecedented number of U.S. adults averred that they “do not identify with any religion, while a shrinking majority describe themselves as Christians.”
Subsequent reports issued by the Pew Center laid bare changing attitudes about religious observance and secularization, alongside the growth of an identifiable “religiously unaffiliated population.”
While many news outlets contemplated and decried a seemingly unprecedented loss of American religiosity, perhaps most telling was a series of facts that accentuate demographic shifts and a largely under-examined spiritual diversity. For example, according to a previous Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study, more than half of U.S. adults – 51.3 percent – identified as Protestants in 2007; seven years later, in 2014, that figure had dropped to 46.5 percent, or fewer than half of Americans who considered themselves Protestant, a significant first for this previously-held “majority Protestant nation.”
More and more Americans are “religious switching” between traditions and faiths; and, just as important, while Christians continue to comprise a firm majority of members in Congress, U.S. religious groups and denominations exhibit a wide range of racial and ethnic diversity, consistent with the “changing face of America.”
Despite such diversification – evident in the multiplicity of ethnic, racial, and religious identities that substantiate characterizations of the United States as a multicultural nation – the United States has yet to fully live up to its potential as an unequivocal “promised land.” In 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigations reported that roughly 60 percent of reported anti-religious hate crimes involved Jewish Americans; and anti-Muslim hate crimes are currently five times more common than before the Sept. 11 attacks.
As church shootings (e.g., Charleston, S.C. in 2015), mosque vandalisms (nationwide), and Wisconsin Sikh temple attacks (such as in 2012) bring to light, anti-religious bias is often intermingled with profound racism and unfettered xenophobia. Such unsettling religious politics are by no means limited to isolated neighborhoods and seemingly faraway ethnic enclaves: indeed, presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s call to ban the Muslims traveling to the United States has entered the mainstream political debate.
Given the current state of America’s “religious landscape,” it is fitting that this year’s UConn Reads selection is Muslim interfaith leader Eboo Patel’s Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America (2012). After the initial call for nominations was issued in March, the committee received a number of very strong recommendations from the UConn community; Sacred Ground was chosen after much discussion and deliberation.
Beginning with the increased animosity toward Muslim Americans and situated within the context of post-9/11 public discourse, Patel deconstructs the politics of Islamophobia by insisting that such religious-based discrimination militates against core American ideals and values. From George Washington to Martin Luther King Jr., Patel explores U.S. history and American pluralism through the actions of such “interfaith leaders;” he also attends to their lessons of interfaith activism in order to offer a more hopeful way forward in an admittedly complicated and convoluted contemporary moment. As this brief description underscores, Sacred Ground’s contemplation of spiritual pluralism, anti-religious prejudice, and national promise corresponds directly to this past year’s theme of “Race in America.”
Patel is the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based non-profit committed to making interfaith cooperation a social norm by engendering faith-oriented action campaigns and dialogues; most recently, Patel serves as a member of President Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships. In addition to Sacred Ground, Patel is author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (2007) and Building the Interfaith Youth Movement: Beyond Dialogue to Action.
The UConn Reads program was created to bring together the University community – from students, faculty, and staff to alumni and friends of UConn, as well as citizens of Connecticut – for a far-reaching and engaging dialogue centered on a book suggested by the community.
To give your suggestions for UConn Reads programming or for more information on starting your own UConn Reads reading group, contact the chair of the UConn Reads Selection Committee, Cathy Schlund-Vials, at firstname.lastname@example.org.