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Elections and Interfaith Leadership Skills

Elections and Interfaith Leadership Skills

National, state, and local elections bring forward pressing issues concerning interfaith cooperation. Religious discrimination, immigration, refugee policy, and the role of religion in government are some of the issues raised in campaigns related to religious diversity. Many individuals and voters, especially those supportive of interfaith cooperation, have been discouraged by the negative and damaging rhetoric and policy fostered by this debate. Attention is brought to these issues in a divisive and purely oppositional way, ignoring areas of commonality and common sense. Issues are raised, but values—like service to others, respect for identity, and commitment to a greater good—are ignored.

Yet, of all time periods, elections particularly demand interfaith engagement.At its core, interfaith cooperation is a civic enterprise. Recognizing and respecting the values of differing worldviews is essential for any religiously diverse democracy like the United States. Indeed, to create a healthy civic life we must foster spirited and meaningful democratic engagement with one another. As in other areas of civic life such as education, healthcare, and business, the skills of interfaith cooperation can have a significant impact on our electoral process.

What role then can interfaith leadership play in an election characterized by vitriolic disagreement? As an interfaith advocate in higher education or your community, how can you engage in a critical aspect of civic life—elections—in a productive manner? The following set of suggestions, informed by the work of interfaith leaders across the country, can offer a starting point for developing your own capacities. 

Interfaith Practices

Develop a ‘Radar Screen’
Before you can act on challenges, you have to be able to identify them. As election issues develop in your campus or community, think deeply about their impact on religious diversity and/or interfaith initiatives. If your student government or local city council is debating whether to fund programming for international students, what are the interfaith implications of that decision? Connect the expertise in your field to an awareness of larger local and national issues that impact religious diversity. Also, recognize where you can build expertise. Before the election, convene a religiously diverse group of students, staff, and faculty to identify what issues concern them and how to address those issues through interfaith engagement. After the election, reconvene the group to discuss how to follow-through on those recommendations and identify what assets your campus has to affect those outcomes.

Proactively Engage
According to recent reporting from the Interfaith Diversity Experiences & Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS), a nationwide survey of incoming college students, 85% of first-year students believe Americans can overcome major global problems if multiple religious/nonreligious groups work together. Yet only 50% of those students have participated in any interfaith service. Filling this gap between solution and action is critical for students, staff, and faculty in higher education. If possible in your role on campus, proactively engage topics of religious diversity related to civic and electoral life. At Wake Forest University in North Carolina, Wake the Vote was established as an intensive civic learning and democratic engagement experience for undergraduate students. The program randomly placed students in presidential primary/caucus campaigns in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Students documented their experiences working for the campaigns and observing the positions they advocated for—positions often at odds with each student’s individual opinions. Students were asked to identify the values motivating those positions and reflect back on their own values. The program continues in the fall with a series of panels and other educational content meant to highlight engagement across difference. You may not be able to organize something so robust at this stage in the election season, but perhaps you have time to organize a program using this resource from Ask Big Questions.

Connect Campus Groups
Research has indicated that social capital—or bonds between people, often expressed through networks of friendship, service groups, civic organizations, schools, etc.—is easier to produce in homogenous groups. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to bridge social capital between differing groups; instead, it suggests that intentionality is needed. Campus groups related to religious or ethical worldviews can be disconnected from each other or unaware of the work happening in other groups, even when that work is on issues of common concern. Student leaders of these groups, or of an interfaith group, should reach out before Election Day and connect with their peer groups on campus around shared issues related to religious diversity. Staff and faculty can also serve as conduits to bring groups together through their roles as advisors or administrators. Establishing a standard ‘check-in’ meeting, co-hosting events, or simply attending an activity of another group can establish relationships that matter when larger civic issues affect a campus.

Provide Educational Outlets and Reflective Environments
According to the IDEALS report, 65% of incoming students report that it is important that schools provide educational programs that will help them learn about different religions. In politically-charged times, like an election season, educational opportunities matter more than ever. Providing a range of educational activities for students, staff, and faculty about religious and interfaith literacy can help productively shape campus-wide conversations. From casual, student-led activities like speedfaithing, to more formal and academic forums like the Center for Religious Diversity and Public Life at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, educational offerings provide a common basis for conversation and action. Speedfaithing (and other quick tools like Talk Better Together) can be done before Election Day and then used as a springboard for further discussion.

Offer Reflective Environments
It is important to recognize that many groups, especially in student populations, can feel targeted or under stress during this time. In response, student groups can design events that allow students to rest and reflect on what values they rely on in difficult times. Activities based in a particular tradition but designed for interfaith engagement, like an interfaith challah bake or iftar meal, are good opportunities to encourage these reflection. Staff and faculty can think about how they can use their positions to create environments for personal reflection and support. Often, by being an aware ally or  shaping preexisting spaces to reflect interfaith engagement, staff and faculty members can offer students the tools they need for reflection and growth.

Identify Areas of Campus Life that can be Utilized to Accommodate Student Religious Needs
Although obviously focused on political issues, events like elections can be spurs to assess internal policies and procedures. In terms of interfaith engagement, campuses can utilize this time to examine their own accommodations in regards to religious and nonreligious needs. Through surveys of students or inventories of university by-laws and guidelines, universities can think about if they are best supporting their community’s needs in regards to prayer/meditation spaces, food accommodations that meet kosher, halal, or other religious requirements, and even holiday or absence policies that reflect a religiously diverse student body.