Building interfaith America in a time of Covid-19

Donald Trump’s use of the phrase ‘Chinese virus’ and the many reports of racism faced by Asian Americans calls to mind the many ugly moments from American history when minorities were scapegoated during a time of crisis.  

But history also gives us reason for hope that a crisis can make us more inclusive. The way the World War II era helped us move past the idea of America as a narrowly Protestant nation, and brought us to our current Judeo-Christian ideal, is one such story.     

The United States has long been marked by religious prejudice, despite the architecture of religious freedom and interfaith welcome created by our founders. Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Sikhs, atheists and others faced bigotry from organized forces ranging from the KKK to the United States Congress. American Presidents long before Donald Trump openly exhibited prejudice. Franklin Roosevelt was quoted as saying that the United States was “a Protestant country” and “the Jews and Catholics are here under sufferance.”    

But the national crisis of World War II changed that, at least for some communities. As the social historian Kevin Schultz highlights in his excellent book, TriFaith America, there were so many obvious contributions by Jews and Catholics, and such desperate need for cooperation between diverse groups, that a narrative wider than Protestant nation was required.   

Judeo-Christian was the phrase that came into favor. The term is not especially theologically useful; Jesus is at the center of the faith lives of Christians but not of Jews. Nor is it particularly historically accurate. Catholics and Protestants have a long history of conflict in Europe, and Jews have generally not fared well as minorities anywhere Christians ruled.  

Instead, Judeo-Christian is that most American of things: a genius civic story invented to meet the needs of the moment.  

It was the ultimate sacrifice that provided the most powerful symbol of the emerging Judeo-Christian story. In February 1943, a torpedo from a German U-Boat hit the USS Dorchester. The Four Chaplains aboard – a Catholic, a Jew and two Protestants – handed out life jackets to the frightened soldiers. When there were none left, the men removed the vests from their own bodies and gave them away. Witnesses saw the four arm in arm, each whispering their final prayers according to their respective traditions, going down with the ship.   

Various parts of American society did their part to center the Four Chaplains (always capitalized out of respect) story into the national narrative. The government honored the men with posthumous medals. Warner Brothers made a film called Four Men of God.  

The most poignant role might have been played by Daniel Poling, the father of one of the Protestant chaplains who died a hero on the Dorchester. Poling was a well-known conservative Protestant, part of a broader community generally hostile to Catholics in the middle of the 20th century. But after losing his son, Poling underwent something of a change of heart. He wrote a letter in the Congressional Record telling of the comforting visit that he received from a Catholic priest the night the Dorchester sank, further adding, “Where the boy was going and where he is now, there are no schisms or divisions …”   

Our IFYC alums – like front line workers everywhere - have been working feverishly to meet the overwhelming need of this time.  

But it’s the doctors and nurses I’ve been hearing from who most remind me of the Four Chaplains on the Dorchester. One of our alums, Aamir Hussain, is a resident at Long Island Jewish Medical Center. He told me, “There are people from at least seven faith or philosophical worldviews in our group. All of us are relying on our individual traditions to give us strength. And we are relying on each other. This is interfaith cooperation that’s saving lives.”    

The United States is, by some measures, the most religiously diverse nation in human history, with meaningful communities of everyone from atheists to Zoroastrians. A previous crisis helped us recognize that we needed to welcome the contributions of the new religious communities of that era.  

It is high time that the American story caught up to our current reality. Virtually every hospital in the United States is staffed by teams of medical professionals from a range of different religions, cooperating together to save lives and doing so at great risk to themselves.  

Judeo-Christian did good work for many decades, but we have moved beyond it. We should embrace being Interfaith America.  

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

"Both the suffering and the pursuit of justice stand true at the same time. We must hold and be responsive to both."
It is new every year. Watching my students move from multifaith to interfaith. Daring to tear down walls and build bridges to faith traditions and spiritual expressions different from their own.
It is reasonable to believe that King would support holding people accountable for crimes committed, but King also held a higher hope for at least some of those who were part of the mob.
Having recently completed a monograph on the rhetoric of divine wrath, a year ago I led an honors seminar on the way in which an angry deity is presented in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It was the most successful course I’ve ever taught.
The four officially wrapped up their fellowship on Sunday (Jan. 10) with a virtual graduation where they shared the lessons they learned from one another during the tumultuous year.
...But if you follow the evidence from the very start and all throughout, President Trump has thrived in generating chaos and stirring up doubt. Was this a premeditated effort that was designed to create some larger future momentum?
A Biden transition official noted there was significant energy at the meeting created by Biden's promise to overturn President Donald Trump's travel ban, which advocates characterize as a "Muslim ban."
The presence of anti-Semitic symbols and sentiment at the Capitol riot raised alarms among Jewish Americans and experts who track discrimination and see it as part of an ongoing, disturbing trend.
And so this Administration gives me hope that we can rebuild. Or, to use the President-elect’s own transition team slogan, that we can “build back better.”
In too many cases, religious beliefs and commitments have been overshadowed, and even dominated by political and racial cleavages.
To achieve full religious diversity, equity, and inclusion, it is important for the new Presidential administration to establish more interfaith dialogue and opportunities to work together.
I’ve been thinking about my death more than ever lately. Not suicidally, but quite frankly, it’s eventuality. I wish the world could understand what it means to be Black during the middle of a pandemic. Like pulling petals off a flower...
On a predominately White campus that didn’t have its first Black student (Robert Gilbert) or Black faculty member (Vivienne Malone-Mayes) until the 1960s, Black bodies have always be situated as out of place
This form of practice – central to Pure Land Buddhism – arose from Mahayana Buddhism, a branch of Buddhism that emerged in the first to sixth centuries A.D.
She thought little more about it than what she'd said in her prayer before the House that morning: America is enduring a time of “great discord, uncertainty, and unrest.”
As a scholar of religion, I argue that a particular segment of white evangelicalism that my colleague Richard Flory and I call Independent Network Charismatic, or INC, has played a unique role in providing a spiritual justification for the movement.
"The need to unite the American people is evident for most. But what is the foundation upon which unity can be pursued?"
I believe that with darkness comes light, and with pain comes relief. Although the past four years have been extremely difficult, we have learned some lessons collectively that we must cherish going forward. Here are just a few of them.
The arrival of the vaccine has brought new hope to healthcare workers around the nation, who were feeling overwhelmed at work as they witnessed increasing COVID-19 deaths from the third surge of the pandemic.
For our Muslim family, January 1 is not a holy day, as it is for many of our Catholic family members. But it is an opportunity to pause, reflect on the past year, and show gratitude for it.
While the spirit of the Capitol was very confrontational the spirit of the Lincoln Memorial was conciliatory. While the atmosphere of the Capitol felt hazardous the other was healing. I guess those “better angels of our nature” reside there with...

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.