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Mostly Christian and most diverse
Scholar says minority faiths are shaping U.S. life more than numbers tell
By JEFFREY WEISS / The Dallas Morning News
After two decades of study, Harvard University professor Diana Eck knew a lot about the complex mix of faiths in India. But she didn't know about the variety of religions that had become as common as curry in her own back yard.
Then an American-born student asked her a question about what he'd learned at a Hindu summer camp in the Poconos.
"I had no idea there was a Hindu summer camp in the Poconos," she writes in a new book, A New Religious America.
That one question, posed 11 years ago, was the seed for the Pluralism Project, an effort to study and document the growing religious diversity of the United States. In a CD-ROM and on a Web site, Dr. Eck and her Harvard students have inventoried the spectrum of American religion and recorded stories of minority faiths in the United States.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded her the National Humanities Medal for her work.
The subtitle of Dr. Eck's new book explains what she says she's discovered: "How a 'Christian country' has now become the world's most religiously diverse nation."
The book both describes that diversity and argues that members of all faiths need to learn how to get along.
Its strength is in its stories about Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists and how they find ways to express their faith in America:
A Hindu temple in suburban Detroit features kids doing a skit called "Hanuman meets Superman" where the heroic monkey-god is compared to the fictional superhero. (Hanuman has love for the Lord in his heart, which makes him superior.)
The Sangha Council of Southern California celebrates the Buddha's birthday with customs of many homelands a diversity of Buddhist tradition found nowhere else in the world.
A new mosque is built in Opa-locka, bringing a Muslim reality to a suburb of Miami where though Dr. Eck doesn't mention it the developer envisioned an Arabian Nights fantasy 80 years ago and the street names include Bagdad Avenue and Caliph Street.
In each case, she makes a strong case that minority faiths are being shaped and reshaped by their American experience. But Dr. Eck's ambitious claim about American religious diversity and its effect on the majority seems to defy the numbers.
The United States has always been and continues to be an overwhelmingly Christian nation. According to a February Gallup poll, more than 8 of every 10 Americans say they're Christian. Fewer than one in 10 say they belong to any other specific faith.
How diverse is that?
"We're not really talking about numbers. We're talking about the impact that multiple minorities have on our sense of the 'we,' " Dr. Eck said last week. "This has really changed the texture and configuration of American religious life."
Her evidence is another series of anecdotes.
In the halls of Congress and in state houses, in public schools and at zoning boards, in offices and sporting events, Americans are bumping up against people of other faiths, she said.
"Your kids know Muslim and Hindu kids, whether you know Muslim and Hindu parents or not," said Dr. Eck, a Montana-born lifelong Methodist.
The mixture doesn't mean that Christians are becoming less Christian or that those of other faiths are less fervent in their beliefs, she argues. But American law requires that those other faiths be accommodated in public ways. And privately, she says, she believes that most Americans just want to be good neighbors.
"My feeling is that we are generally guided by a deep-seated feeling of hospitality," she said.
In her book, Dr. Eck describes American culture as an orchestra with a variety of faiths and customs that produce the symphony of society. If Dr. Eck is right, the minority faiths are like piccolos in that national symphony, affecting the "music" more than size or numbers might predict.
Hindus come to a zoning board with a new temple site, for instance, or Muslim students ask their principal for a prayer room for their daily afternoon worship.
Those contacts force members of the Christian majority to expand their sense of the religious ingredients of American life, Dr. Eck argues. And that kind of public interaction is happening in every American city.
But those who know people of other faiths, however, do not necessarily love them.
Last year, the Family Research Council attacked the U.S. House of Representatives for inviting a Hindu to deliver the daily invocation. Last month, some conservative Christians criticized President Bush for describing the Buddhist Dalai Lama as an important religious leader. And the current debate about how (or whether) the federal government should increase financial support for faith-based social service agencies is snarled, in part, over the question of how to define a "legitimate" faith.
Finding ways to respond positively to those with other beliefs "is the challenge of our society. It's also the challenge of our world," Dr. Eck said.
That's why she wrote the book, she said.
"I'm aiming it at a general reader who is interested in religion, which is just about everyone in America in one way or another," she said.
So how do we go about getting along? The book describes a number of interfaith forums and less formal meeting places where people of many faiths reach out to each other. That reaching out is Dr. Eck's best answer.
"Participation is really the key for the kind of society we have," she said.
The book avoids retelling scandals that have colored the American perception of some minority faiths in recent years. That's because the bad things are all that most people know, she said.
"Much of what we hear about our religious neighbors is the negative stuff," she said.
In the same way, non-Christians are more familiar with the negative tales about America's majority faith, she said.
"Most of the ways they get their information about us is through Bible-thumping evangelists on the TV and through the images of Christianity that are presented in Christian broadcasting, which are often the most strident and, in the eyes of people of other faiths, the most negative," she said.
Even American Christians who have little contact with other faiths in their neighborhoods need to recognize they are increasingly linked to a larger world where Christians are outnumbered.
"When we look at it in a global framework, everybody is a majority somewhere, and everybody is a minority somewhere," she said.