This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a conference at the White House entitled: "Dharmic Seva: Catalyst to Strengthening and Building Pluralistic Communities".
Hosted by the not-for-profit organization "Hindu American Seva Charities," whose mission is to mobilize the Hindu American community around seva (public service), the weekend's panels and speakers were filled with multi-religious perspectives discussing and trying to understand the role faith and religion can play in community development, health promotion and immigrant and refugee support in the country.
A question however, struck me as I listened to these discussions in the elegant meeting rooms of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building of the White House: do faith-based groups still have a relevant role to play in developing the future of this country?
Perhaps my initial skepticism comes from my own background as a newly transplanted Canadian in the United States. Though religious extremism and accommodation for religious minorities is certainly a topic of sometimes heated discussion in Canada, religious life and religious figures have never quite permeated the public consciousness the way it has in the United States. It is this reason perhaps, religious groups have never been allowed to assume the same level of public space and seats at the table when it comes to policy decisions and shaping the future of the country.
The United States on the other hand is certainly a different ballgame, both when it comes to the role religious groups play in public and political life in the country, but also in the way the political leadership in the country has sought actively to create interfaith dialogue in particular.
Take for example, the remarkable creation and effort of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, or even the explicit acknowledgement by President Barack Obama to recognize faith-groups in his inaugural address in 2009: "for we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers," he declared.
It seems to me, that though this country has its fair share of heated debates around religion (the ground zero mosque controversy comes to find), there are also seems to be a yearning and a willingness by policy makers, community groups and other stakeholders to publicly engage and bring into the fold Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh groups and tap into their ready-made networks and organizational capacity to solve some of this country's most dire social issues.
For example, at the conference I heard different religious groups speak of using religion and religious networks to tackle nutrition and healthy eating, climate change, women's equality and empowerment, and to promote cultural understanding and harmony between different diverse groups. Hearing these ideas on the same weekend where the debt crisis was being fought just down the road at Capitol Hill with the looming reality of spending cuts and decreased support for social programs, it seemed more pertinent than ever to me that these religious groups become more empowered to step into the public space where the government can no longer.
Certainly, there are those that will continue to decry religious groups and religious peoples as insular or clinging to irrelevant ideas and beliefs that can not tangible positive impact on society. However, as the work of Hindu American Seva Charities and the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships demonstrate, I have great faith (pardon the pun) that religious groups and religious persons in our society can have a positive impact, and interfaith dialogue in particular can cultivate a certain level of peace and understanding that we so desperately need.