How can we agree to disagree? How can we get Americans of different views, religions, races, and backgrounds in the same room and debate the issues of our times? Right now, accomplishing such a lofty goal seems elusive. Still, at a recent conference, there were glimmers of hope.
On June 20-21, Brigham Young University’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies held its fifth Religious Freedom Annual Review, bringing in speakers of different faiths and races to talk about religious freedom and related topics. More than 500 people attended. While most were Mormon and white, the attendees included Jews, Muslims, and Christians of various branches and races. I gave talks related to my book, Faith Ed, Teaching About Religion In An Age Of Intolerance. As I have done in other parts of the country, I asked attendees to consider a scenario involving a guest speaker on Islam in public schools as part of instruction on world religions.
What gave me glimmers of hope? There were people on all ends of the political spectrum delivering presentations, and the audience was respectful and engaged. Just the agenda topics showed a willingness to consider other points of view, to hear about the experiences of non- Christians in America, and to recognize the changes within Mormonism, too. The sessions included one called, “Religious freedom issues facing American Muslims,” and “Finding common ground and the common good on religious liberty and LGBTQ Rights.” There was also a session on fostering community at BYU with LGBTQ students and a talk about how religion can contribute to the common good.
In Faith Ed, Utah received a brief mention for its history of hosting religious education classes on Christianity during the school day in buildings next to its public schools. The Mormon church created those buildings, known as seminaries. These classes clearly are about preaching one faith, not teaching about world religions as a part of social studies or geography. But they are legal because they are taught outside of the regular public school building.
During my talk, I mentioned my own experiences as a captive audience of such classes held illegally in my rural Ohio school in the 1970s. I talked about the ostracism and isolation I felt every time the religious ed teacher walked in, and I walked out, feeling the eyes of my classmates following me. While Utah’s approach was legal, I said, I noted that audience members might want to think about the experience it creates for the students who do not go. They may end up feeling like the ‘other’ in a predominantly Mormon school and region, as I did in my predominantly evangelical Christian school and town. In fact, Ohio friends of mine who later moved to Utah said they left the state partly because of those religious classes. They did not want their child to feel peer pressure to attend. They were Christians, but not Mormons.
I saw some heads nodding in agreement as I spoke. But I saw others who sat there silently. One woman raised her hand at the end of my talk and asked why these classes would ever be an issue. She said they were an elective, like theater or music, and students had a choice. I noted that theater or music were a part of a well-rounded education in a public school, while a class intent on preaching the tenets of a faith was not.
My talk ended, and the woman stayed behind as others left, wanting to push the issue more. I stayed calm, and so did she as we debated. She said she had had non-Mormon friends, and they never seemed bothered. “But how did you know? How can you really know?” I asked. During my reporting for Faith Ed, I interviewed numerous youths who were religious minorities, including Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and a Jehovah’s Witness. Most said they rarely talked about how their status as religious minorities affected them. Muslim kids told me about peers asking them if they had a bomb in their locker or comparing them to terrorists in their other way. Ultimately, we agreed to disagree.
My last day in Utah, members of the Mormon church took on the main role as speakers and tour guides. We toured a center for Mormon charity operations and saw a multi-silo building that held wheat, a storehouse of food produced entirely by Mormon volunteers, a bakery, and a thrift store. We also received a guided tour of parts of the Mormon history museum in Salt Lake, and heard a talk from a historian of the church’s fights for religious liberty.
The museum highlighted persecution Mormons experienced as they tried to create their Zion, a utopian community, in Missouri and in other places. Our guide did not hide an unflattering part of that nineteenth-century history; Mormon settlers, after being attacked by one village, attacked another one that had had nothing to do with that initial battle.
At a closing session of the conference, Kristen Looney, the director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum, had given a talk on civil dialogue, a concept debated rancorously in America at the moment. She gave her talk before the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, VA, made national news for asking White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave. The restaurant owner, along with many on her staff, felt Sanders was supporting inhumane policies.
Looney did not weigh in on the Red Hen incident. It hadn’t happened yet. But she shared wisdom that could apply to all of America. “Dialogue does not mean you have to give up your deepest beliefs. Dialogue is thinking together and understanding,” she said.
For those of us at that conference in Utah, our time together was all about civil dialogue. May it make a difference.
About the Author
Linda K. Wertheimer, a former Boston Globe education editor, is the award-winning author of Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion In An Age of Intolerance. During her nearly thirty-year journalism career, she was a reporter at The Dallas Morning News and The Orlando Sentinel as well as for other publications. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Boston Globe Magazine, USA Today, Time, and many other publications. Faith Ed in 2016 won a national book award—second place in the Religion News Association nonfiction religion book contest. She has also won awards for her writing from the Education Writers Association and other organizations. She was a 2014 finalist in the Massachusetts Cultural Council artist fellowship awards. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, she lives in the Boston area with her husband and son. Follow her on Twitter at @Lindakwert and visit her website.