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Engaging Civic Religious Pluralism: Mutually Inspiring Relationships on Campus

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education
June 4, 2020 Becca Hartman-Pickerill Interfaith Youth Core

JCC Connexions, Vol. 6, No. 2. May 2020

Engaging Civic Religious Pluralism: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions

This is the second in a series discussing civic religious pluralism and how we understand, evaluate, and strengthen it in higher education. The first article explored the question of evaluation—how do we measure in proximate and meaningful ways how campuses are cultivating respect for religious and nonreligious identity, mutually inspiring relationships across
Becca Hartman-Pickerilldifference, and acting for the common good? This second article will focus on one of the three parts of civic religious pluralism—mutually inspiring relationships. Subsequent articles will address the other two elements of Interfaith Youth Core’s definition of civic religious pluralism.

This focus may need no explanation, given the moment. While innumerable and important questions are being raised about the future of higher education, one thing is clear: relationships matter. It is difficult to keep people apart, even when it is for the greater common good, and during this period when we are coping with COVID-19, it is becoming more and more heart wrenching to remain separated. Not only are we social creatures, but in moments of crisis, our first instinct is to engage by falling together in contrast to falling apart (https://onbeing.org/programs/rebecca-solnit-falling-together) Yet, the traditional ways we typically come together and support one another—religious community, PTAs, community organizations, potlucks, parties, caring for one another’s children or aging parents—are considered as potentially harmful during an epidemic.

Religious communities have long been interested in what it means to encounter one another—both within and outside of one’s defined group. One of the innovative features of American civic life and its various groups is that we build bonds with one another from different walks of life. For instance, when I volunteer at my children’s school or serve at a local food pantry or strike up a conversation at the neighborhood park, I encounter people who think and live differently than I do, particularly in a high density city and in a socioeconomically diverse neighborhood. Civic organizations are among those structures that can free individuals from our information tunnels. This is where the strength of a society is built.

Robert Putnam’s (2000) research reveals that communities with greater diversity often had lower levels of the very vitality markers that a community desires—trust, voting rates, health outcomes, education. However, communities that had high levels of bridged social capital—relationships across affinity or identity groups—had higher levels of those very outcomes. The Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) reveals a related phenomenon, in the context of a college campus. One of the strongest indicators of  growth in  "pluralism orientation" was students’ close friendships with peers who identity with a different worldview identity. Pluralism orientation, one of the outcomes the study focuses on, is comprised of four components: “global citizenship, goodwill/acceptance, appreciating interreligious commonalities and differences, and commitment to interfaith leadership and service” (Rockenbach et al, 2019, p. 10). In colloquial terms this outcome is one’s ability and propensity to engage across deep difference for the common good.

It is encouraging, then, to learn that “most students maintain or gain close interworldview friendships over the first year on campus” (Rockenbach et al., p. 4). And while structural diversity is one important element fostering these kind of relationships, campuses have a range of ways to foster this kind of relationship across difference, including fostering a healthy campus climate, and cultivating opportunities for meaningful interaction with diverse peers.

For example, campus accommodations is a way to foster many types of relationships. It is wonderful for colleges to offer Halal and Kosher food accommodation and prayer spaces, but in order for students to benefit from unexpected encounters with these offerings, accommodations should not be accessible merely on the campus's periphery. In addition, if religious groups meet only on the periphery, there is reduced opportunity for chance encounter. 

Strategies for expanding encounter opportunities can include locating religious student groups in a centralized location where members will interact with one another; offering special funding sources for different student or religious organizations to collaborate on public projects or service work together, and embedding the expectation of curricular assignments to engage outside of one’s comfort zone. The hope is that these encounters lead to respectful relationships and even friendship and understanding.

Relationships have their limits, of course, but having a close friend who espouses another worldview is one very practical, manageable way to make change. Think of a time when your attitude about a group of people changed. What made the difference? Could it have been a relationship, even a friendship with someone who claimed that identity?

While strategies for on campus encounters are noted above, we must also think of ways to interact with others when these opportunities are not possible. How, then, can campuses foster relationships across deep difference amidst physical distancing? What can we learn from the experts on online education in fostering rich and engaging discussion in a digital space? What innovations and openings do we see emerging in this moment when people have little choice but to seek the human need for connection in a digital sphere? And what does a relationship or a friendship online look like?

Behavioral psychologists tell us that stressed environments trigger people’s fight, flight, or freeze response. A stressed global culture amidst economic downturn increases feelings of grief and loss. In addition, we now have few of the previously utilized outlets for expression. Yet, in this moment, we are seeing many kind, generous, and generative responses. In the communities of which we are apart—those on campus, in a neighborhood, the larger society and others, let’s not miss the opportunity to invite people into deep relationship across difference.


Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. Simon & Schuster.

Rockenbach, A. N., Hudson, T. D., Mayhew, M. J., Correia-Harker, B. P., Morin, S., & Associates (2019). Friendships matter: The role of peer relationships in interfaith learning and development. Chicago, IL: Interfaith Youth Core.