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

This is a sampling of sacred texts and statements, listed in alphabetical order by religion, that religious communities have used to engage in the work of public health amidst this global pandemic.
Ms. Moore discusses what an Office of Equity and Racial Justice does, how she and her team adapted amid the pandemic, and how religious communities are crucial partners for social change, connection, and healing.  
"We know that people of all faiths and philosophical traditions hold shared values that can serve as a foundation for a common life together."
How do we fight the evil and darkness during this time? No matter how small or how far we might be from the situation, we could use our voices to speak up, come to stand together as one human kind.
Musa writes an insightful analysis of data at the intersection of race and religion. He writes: "non-Black Americans seem to be fleeing religion because it’s become too political. Blacks seem to be leaving because it’s not political enough."
And as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins, the currently closed museum is highlighting these artifacts tied to Islam on its website's blog.
In light of the urgent need for care within our families, communities, and movements, where can and should interfaith leaders fit in?
In the United States, our laws assure the separation of Church and State. So Sikh and Muslim kids growing up in public schools will never be taught that Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem.
Vaisakhi, which falls April 13 or 14 depending on which of two dueling calendars one follows, marks the day in 1699 when Sikhism took its current form.
The presentation focused on how chaplains and spiritual life professionals can discover and utilize meaningful data to demonstrate the value of their work in higher education.
Still, there were glimmers that Ramadan 2021 could feel less restricted than last year, when Islam’s holiest period coincided with the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar commemorating Muhammad’s reception of the Qur’an, begins on Monday.
"Ramadan can be an opportunity for Muslims in interfaith relationships to introduce their partners to the core beliefs and teachings of Islam, as well as to the ways different Muslim cultures share what is a deeply communal experience."
This year, Ramadan will begin on Monday or Tuesday (April 12 or 13), depending on when Muslims around the world sight the new moon that signals the beginning of the lunar month.
"In the Qur’an, God – Exalted Be He – proclaims that we should ask the people endowed with knowledge…All the experts are saying the same thing: please get vaccinated and do it now."
"Among the topics educators must address to reduce bullying and to ensure representation in the classroom are religion and religious identity."
Whether I am based in Los Angeles, Washington DC, or Kansas City, I remain committed to building bridges of mutual respect and understanding among people of different backgrounds.
Biden said the partnership between the seminary and a community health center is one of many that are happening between religious and medical organizations across the nation.
"All the more so, we need more translators to help us understand what exists before our eyes, yet remains elusive to our understanding."
'Montero' is the anthem of a Black gay man roaring back from years of self-hate caused by anti-LGBTQ+ theologies. As a queer child of the Black church, it’s an anthem that resonates with me.
The rise of the "nones" — people who say they have no religion — is to some extent the result of a shift in how Americans understand religious identity.

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.