The Social Context for Our Theory of Change
Dr. Nathan C. Walker, June 9, 2020
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Our world, our nation, is experiencing an unprecedented time of disruption and uncertainty. On May 28, 2020, the number of Americans who died from the coronavirus surpassed 100,000 with an additional 2 million known cases. Over 36.5 million Americans lost their jobs, sparking the largest rate of unemployment since the Great Depression. Meanwhile, education institutions in the United States and around the world helped prevent the spread of the coronavirus by moving all in-person courses online. Studies foresee that possibly one-quarter of colleges may permanently close because of the lack of resources to adapt to what will likely be a prolonged crisis. I reflect on these alarming statistics on Tuesday, June 9, 2020, the night that George Floyd’s body was laid to rest, which marked the fourteenth day of nation-wide protests over police brutality.
A pandemic. A depression. Civil unrest. These are not new to the American experiment, but never before has a generation experienced all of this chaos at once.
These disruptions are even more heightened by three recent developments in American democracy that motivate us to take action.
The United States is experiencing an unprecedented change in demographics. In 2012, Protestants, for the first time in U.S. history, became a minority, representing forty-eight percent of the population, Pew Research Center reports. The United States is experiencing an unprecedented religious diversity. In 2012, the United States became the first democracy in human history to become a nation of religious minorities––where no one religious group represented more than half of the population. It is imperative that we prepare the next generation to do what no previous generation has done––to self-govern a nation of religious minorities
Even in our most stable of times, many schools and colleges are not equipped to promote the civic competencies of religious literacy and legal literacy. Often students receive little or no civic education about religion. Teachers are often ill-equipped to promote the academic study of religion. And school districts have few constitutionally-friendly resources about the academic study of religion. Consequently, generations of citizens have misperceptions and stereotypes about religion and non-religion, which can breed social hostilities, religious-based bullying, and even violence. Unfortunately, postsecondary schools provide teachers and school administrators with little or no training about the legal frameworks that guarantee religious freedom as a constitutional and human right. As a result, many educators, and in turn, their students, are confused about the civic promises and legal parameters for governing the academic study of religion in public schools and afterschool programs.
What effect does a religiously illiterate society have on the most vulnerable among us? What effect does a legally illiterate society have on how people treat one another in private and public life?
The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding reported that bullying has recently become a significant problem for Muslim children. More than two in five (42%) Muslims with children in K–12 school report bullying of their children because of their religion, compared with 23% of Jews, 20% of Protestants, and 6% of Catholics. A teacher or other school official instigated one in four bullying incidents involving these Muslim children.
Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims and have been targets of hate crimes. In March 2018, the Sikh Coalition reported an average of “one hate crime per week since the start of 2018.” A year later, the nation saw a “200 percent increase in anti-Sikh hate crimes,” according to FBI reports.
In 2017, Jews experienced an all-time high in religion-based violence against them. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported that “the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. rose 57 percent in 2017.” This was “the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported since ADL started tracking such data in 1979.” Echoing the rise of anti-Muslim hate crimes in public schools, the ADL attributed the sharp rise in anti-Semitic incidents to “a significant increase in incidents in schools and on college campuses, which nearly doubled for the second year in a row.” By 2019, the ADL reported over 2,100 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, an alarming 12 percent increase from the year before.
In 2020, “supporters of domestic and international extremist groups have encouraged followers to conduct attacks during the COVID-19 pandemic, reports the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security. In seeking to build a “racially pure nation,” these groups have “encouraged followers to conduct attacks during the COVID-19 pandemic to incite panic, target minorities and immigrants, and celebrate the deaths of their enemies.” This has put religious and racial minorities at greater risk, reports the Anti-Defamation League. State officials, like in New York, are not only having to manage the heathcare crisis but also create a new hotline for minorities to report Coronavirus-related hate crimes.
These alarming trends suggests that people of all ages have been exposed to chronic and escalating acts of intolerance and violence. At the same time, Americans have an increased sensitivity to religious discrimination against Muslims and Jews. Historically, many Christians in America––Catholic, Baptist, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so on––also faced social hostilities and violence. These acts of bullying and discrimination often occur when the general public is illiterate about religion and the law.
This widespread illiteracy leads to the breakdown of social systems and legal systems that would otherwise restore health to a diseased democracy.
I founded 1791 Delegates—a delegation of First Amendment and human rights educators—on the premise that religiously literate and legally literate leaders are uniquely positioned to promote peaceful coexistence between people of all religions and none. Our theory of change is simply:
Religious Literacy + Legal Literacy = Peaceful Coexistence.
We assume that religious literacy is more than knowing facts or trivia about religion—it is a fundamental civic competency. Religious literacy is a set of teachable skills and attitudes that equip citizens with knowledge of how religion, spirituality, and non-religion informs everyday life. Religious literacy is also achieved through relationship-centered learning environments where people can know one another as they seek to be known.
Pew Research Center reports “Americans who personally know someone in a religious group different from their own—or who have at least some knowledge about that group—generally are more likely to have positive feelings about members of that group than those who do not.” This further reinforces the fact that religious literacy is more than textbook knowledge but an expression of interpersonal intelligence.
Religious literacy, as acquired through academic and social settings, also requires knowledge about the civil, constitutional, and human rights afforded to all people. In these ways, religious literacy and legal literacy are interlocking civic competencies. They are teachable and measurable skills that are needed to create informed and engaged citizenry.
A religious literate leader as one who dispels stereotypes about religions, counters gross generalizations with nuanced observations, and meaningfully contributes to the civic discourse about the intersection of religion and public life.
Imagine if there were a heard of religious literate teachers in public schools who helped prevented their colleagues from bullying Muslim children. Imagine if civil servants, at every level of government, were doing the same—immediately putting an end to any attempt to fuel fear and misperceptions of the religious other.
Religious literate leaders serve as antibodies in unhealthy social systems. As influencers in their professional sector, they use their knowledge and empathic attitude to ground people in verifiable research. These leaders help create countercultures in their local communities and organizations. They help their constituents heal from systems where people are being threatened, diminished, or made invisible for their religious or non-religious identities. They not only take responsibility for defending the rights of people different from themselves, but they inspire others to do the same.
This is why the First Amendment and human rights educators at 1791 Delegates understand religious literacy and legal literacy to be interlocking civic competencies to promote peaceful coexistence.
In an age of demeaning rhetoric about others we need leaders to help us make meaning of our lives. Leaders do this by helping people make meaning about the complex ways individuals and groups form and manifest their identities. They help their communities make meaning about the diversity between and within religious and non-religious groups.
Religiously literate leaders not only respond to oppressive agendas but serve as agenda setters. They apply their knowledge of both religion and the law by serving as bridge builders in the communities in which they live and work. Doing so ensures that peaceful coexistence becomes not merely a slogan but a way of life.