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Religion Reloaded: A Changing Landscape

We're going to yoga and taking Catholic communion. We're studying Zen meditation and keeping kosher. We're reading up on Sufism and believing in reincarnation. Americans are mixing religions.
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There's a student in my Introduction to Religion class at the University of Miami -- let's call him Eric -- who isn't Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim. In fact, he doesn't subscribe to any particular religion. But he's not an atheist or indifferent to things religious, either. Instead, he has an immense curiosity for religion and refuses to be pigeonholed. He draws from them all for his life.

Eric and others like him represent the most interesting trend in our religious landscape. We all know that the United States is one of the most religious, and religiously diverse, nations in the world. We boast a dizzying array of Christianities; more Muslims than Episcopalians or Presbyterians; more Jews than there are in Israel; and thriving communities of Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, and others. Our beliefs reflect this diversity. Sixty-five percent of Americans and, remarkably, thirty-seven percent of white evangelicals believe that many religions can lead to eternal life.

But what's important isn't an increasingly tolerant "live and let live" attitude toward religion. Even that still implies an arm-length relationship with other traditions. What I'm talking about is different. It's reflected in a survey presented a few months ago by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The survey reveals that Americans everywhere are becoming like Eric. We're going to yoga and taking Catholic communion. We're studying Zen meditation and keeping kosher. We're reading up on Sufism and believing in reincarnation. Americans are mixing religions.

We're a nation moving beyond religious pluralism. A religiously plural nation is a multi-religious nation, one where religions peacefully coexist. But within pluralism, religions are still watertight compartments. People aren't allowed to belong to more than one or to borrow the ideas and practices of another, without feeling like they're traitors to their faith. That's changed. In our emerging religious reality people are shattering the compartments and becoming multi-religious. We're no longer just a multi-religious nation. We're a nation of multi-religious people.

Let's welcome this development. It's an antidote to fundamentalism at home and abroad. At home, our population and our politics pull in opposite directions. While we're becoming multi-religious, our political process still refuses to accept anything other than an openly Christian president. While we're mixing faiths, Obama answered claims he was Muslim as if he were being slurred and both he and John McCain let Pastor Rick Warren cross-examine them on their beliefs. I imagine the President himself is pulled two ways. While he's Christian, he has some Muslim roots. He must be sensitive to the possibilities of multiple faiths.

What we do at home with religion shapes what happens abroad. Conservative Christian megachurches aren't just found in Arizona or Kentucky. They've spread as far as China. American models of religion replicate themselves around the globe. Given that we remain the world's most influential nation, I can't help but wonder: what if instead of exporting models of southern conservatism we exported an approach to religion that involved delving into them all? To build a life with elements from different religions is to tear down the walls between faiths that makes fundamentalism possible.

Some might think that approaching religion in this way betrays our Christian heritage. The truth is that we already have a rich history of experimentation across religious boundaries. Remember Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists. Think of Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society. Recall Sarah Farmer's Greenacre community in Maine, a place where people of different religions came together to learn from each other and experiment with various faiths. Read John Dewey and Gordon Kaufman. It doesn't go against our heritage. It's already part of who we are.

The United States has always thought of itself as a great experiment. Let's not be shy about experimenting with multiple faiths as well.

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