Faith in America
It's as important as ever, no matter what you believe
Whatever effect the nation's religious newcomers may have in shaping American culture, experts say, is likely to pale in comparison to the strong cultural influences the new religious communities will face as they adapt to their new surroundings. In their 1990 book, One Nation Under God, sociologists Barry Kosmin and Seymour Lachman described a "process of Americanization" at work on minority religions in the United States. Catholics, Jews, and other groups "have become more individualistic," reflecting attributes of the majority Protestant culture. Like Protestants, said Kosmin and Lachman, "they are less reliant on authority and less submissive to a hierarchical structure than their forebears were." Thus, polls consistently show that American Catholics, for example, are far more inclined to follow their own consciences rather than church teachings on matters like birth control and divorce.
In the long run, learning to live together peacefully and productively, experts say, will require greater personal engagement with people of other faiths. "Tolerance is a good beginning, but it's not enough," says Eck, who heads Harvard's Pluralism Project, aimed at mapping religious diversity and promoting interfaith relations. "You can tolerate people you know nothing about and basically maintain religious ghettos." Even so, some are leery of participating in interfaith activities that suggest that one path to God is as good as another. "We want it understood that Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims are not praying to the same god," says Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, whose 51 denominations represent 10 million Christians. "Allah," he says, "is not Jehovah."
With such widely divergent views, not only on basic religious beliefs but on the value and necessity of forging strong interfaith ties, navigating the new religious landscape may be perilous. "It was easy to do when we thought of ourselves as a nation of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews," says Emory's Laderman. Now, he says, "it's going to be difficult to find the glue that holds it all together." The real challenge, says Eck, will be "to create a multireligious and democratic state"--something that has never been done before. Still, it is a task that the world's most religiously diverse nation may not be able to ignore for long.
Islam, old and new
It's nearly noon as Hafiz Ghaffar Khan peers into the prayer hall where some 20 young boys in South Asian garb sit on oriental rugs, rocking back and forth and reciting loudly in Arabic from the Koran. "They are memorizing," Khan explains over the din. "It is expected; a good Muslim will learn it beginning at a very young age." As imam of the Georgia Islamic Institute, a modern mosque and school in Lawrenceville, a sprawling middle-class suburb of Atlanta, Khan considers education an important part of his job--teaching the ways of Islam not only to the 200 or so Muslim families that attend the mosque but to his overwhelmingly Christian neighbors, many of whom, he says, harbor false stereotypes about his religion. "We want to be good neighbors," Khan says. "That is the way of Islam."