The Public Square

The public square is a place of meeting. America has long had many kinds of meeting places—the town greens, meeting houses, and commons of New England, the gracious plazas at the heart of the Spanish towns like Santa Fe, the great green malls of Washington D.C. that have seen so many demonstrations and celebrations. Legislative halls and courthouses, zoning boards and city council meetings, schools and sports facilities may also be considered part of the public square. Whatever the public square may mean as a physical space, it is space that symbolizes the free encounter of peoples and ideas that is at the heart of civil society. It is the space—wherever that may be—in which people gather together for the work, the ceremony, the celebration of the whole, leaving for a moment the privacy of their homes and churches, synagogues and mosques, temples and gurdwaras. Here we explore the debates of the American public square over the issue of religious difference.

In “Historical Perspectives” we take a historical look at the expanding religious diversity of America. The peoples of America have long encountered religious difference—from the variety of Native tribal traditions which existed before Europeans arrived on American shores to the presence today of every major religious and ethical tradition of the world in the United States. We look at key moments in American history when the question of religious difference was discussed or debated.

Of course, the history of America’s encounter with religious difference is closely related to the history of what came to be its dominant religious tradition: Christianity. But America’s is a distinct history, a history with at least two sides (but usually many) and multiple perspectives. In the New World, Christians and Native peoples encountered one another, not only in the first decades of settlement, but in every decade since. Here in America Christians have also encountered other Christians—Puritans, Anglicans, and Catholics in colonial America, and Russian Orthodox, Samoan Methodists, Filipino Catholics, Korean Presbyterians, and Ghanaian Anglicans today.

Christians and Jews took measure of one another in eighteenth century New Amsterdam, Boston, and Savannah and have continued to discover new dimensions of Jewish-Christian relations for over two centuries. Today, Jewish and Christian leaders in-training study side-by-side as theological schools in places like Greater Boston and Philadelphia strive to prepare students for leadership in a religiously diverse world. America’s Muslim tradition goes back to at least the eighteenth century when 10 percent or more of the captives brought from Africa as slaves were Muslim. In the late nineteenth century, Muslims came to the U.S. as immigrants from Lebanon and Syria, and in the late twentieth century, from India and Pakistan. Chinese and Japanese workers first brought Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian traditions to American shores in the nineteenth century. The last fifty years have seen the growth of new Asian immigration—both Buddhist and Christian—from Taiwan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Thailand.

For the past two hundred years, immigration has brought both dynamic growth and controversy to the American public square. The free exercise of religion enshrined in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights has proven a sturdy foundation, making space for people of differing religious convictions. As America’s ethnic and cultural diversity grew, the “melting pot” and the “symphony” became images for shaping the pluribus of diversity into the unum of American society.

“Historical Perspectives” makes thirteen stops along the path of encountering religious diversity—from the 1600s to the early twenty-first century. At each stop there are historical documents and document-excerpts to enable you to read and study what people have said along the way. These documents express the debate, the prejudice, the struggle, and the vision that have accompanied America’s encounter with increasingly complex diversity. The historical documents, document excerpts, and important web resources can be found under the “Historical Documents and Links” section on the right side of your screen.

“Today’s Challenges” enables you to consider the American public square today. Here we define the term “pluralism” as more than mere diversity, but the engagement with diversity that comes only from real encounter and dialogue. Where and in what ways is this engagement, this encounter taking place? There have been initiatives toward interreligious and ecumenical dialogue from Catholic and Protestant churches; there have been a multitude of new interreligious councils in cities and towns throughout the nation; and the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions held in Chicago brought together in one place a new multireligious America that had never been witnessed before. Stereotyping, prejudice, and hate crimes are not a thing of the past, as some of the news stories will here demonstrate. But at the same time, the growing number of initiatives for local cooperation between Muslims and Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Catholics, Protestants, and Humanists are providing new models for community life together.

What are some of the contexts in which Americans are challenged to think in new ways about our religious diversity and enter into dialogue with one another, different as we are? What are the issues? We look here at the interreligious encounter in zoning boards as new temples and mosques become part of American neighborhoods. We look at encounters in the courts as Native peoples, Afro-Caribbeans, or Sikhs raise important new questions in a nation committed to religious freedom. We look at the public schools as school boards, principals, and teachers deal with the contested issues of religious holidays, classroom prayer, and the curriculum in a multireligious America. And what about hospitals? How are these important institutions beginning to address medical care for a widely diverse patient population?

Every topic in “Today’s Challenges” is also accompanied by a group of documents and newspaper articles. They include such documents as the Presbyterian “Principles for Interfaith Dialogue,” the PTA “A Parent’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools,” a Muslim “Guide on Muslim Patients,” and a Hindu pamphlet outlining students’ rights. These documents and links provide important information as well as rich and provocative material to print out for study and discussion. These resources can be accessed by clicking on a title under the “Historical Documents and Links” section to the right of each essay.

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