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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Religious Diversity and the Common Good

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

On November 13 the Boisi Center organized the university’s final academic event of its sesquicentennial celebration, on the theme of Religious Diversity and the Common Good. The daytime portion of the conference, open to the public and well-attended by an audience that filled the Heights Room throughout the day, featured thirteen distinguished scholars from the fields of history, sociology, law, government, theology and religious studies. They were divided into two panels, entitled “Historical Trajectories 1863-2013” and “Contemporary Issues and Approaches,” followed by a keynote address by journalist and professor E.J. Dionne. A private dinner for religious, civic and academic leaders closed with a panel discussion on “Working for the Common Good in Boston” that featured five leaders of influential local organizations. A summary of each session follows here; speaker biographies and complete transcripts, along with photographs and audio and video recordings of the entire event, are available at

Boisi Center associate director Erik Owens opened the conference with introductory remarks on the fundamental tension between unity and diversity, and the problem of the common good it reveals. “Is there such a thing as the common good?” he asked. “In what might it consist, when we disagree on so many things about what is true and good, and what it takes for individuals and communities to flourish?” Though religions and politics have provided answers to those questions for thousands of years, the focus that day was to assess how we have done and what we have learned in the past 150 years— the Boston College era—and where we might be headed.

The opening session, “Historical Trajectories 1863-2013,” outlined the rise of religious diversity in the United States, with panelists describing the ways in which Jewish communities, Catholic immigrants, and black churches all expanded the boundaries of shared identity in an initially homogeneous nation. Jonathan Sarna described this process as a nonlinear shift away from a missionary mindset, which seeks to convert the other, toward a positive assessment of pluralism, while Omar McRoberts highlighted the persistence of diversity within religious communities as well. Marie Griffith challenged the prevailing assumption that diversity is inherently good, and other panelists agreed that too much diversity might dilute public voices for the common good. Jim O’Toole, however, underscored the contributions diverse religious communities have made through their faith-based hospitals, schools, and social service organizations. On the question of the common good itself, the panelists collectively promoted the importance of enabling political participation by diverse groups, and condemned the abuse of the concept to impose conformity against diversity. A vigorous question and answer period with the audience addressed the rise of the “nones,” secularization, the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, and the future of Islam in the United States.

The “Contemporary Issues and Approaches” panel primarily explored the processes by which communities in the United States encounter and explore religious diversity. Panelists noted that cultural efforts to welcome religious groups can both challenge rigid boundaries between faith communities and minimize theological differences within religions. Laurie Patton introduced the idea of “pragmatic pluralism,” most prevalent in situations where one religious tradition cannot meet its needs alone and requires the assistance of another. Nancy Ammerman affirmed the value of similar small-scale interactions between people of different faiths, stressing that relationships formed in pursuit of one or more mutually held goods is essential to bridging diversity, while cautioning that this process cannot operate within an “enclave mentality.” As a concrete example, Reza Aslan touted the success of Interfaith Youth Core’s commitment to shared community action, suggesting that the experience of cooperation would be more fruitful than dialogue alone, and he referenced the ways in which public challenges to one religion’s freedoms—like the legislative attempts to ban Sharia law—often garner the support of other religious groups. Randall Kennedy added a helpful voice of realism to the conversation, questioning excessively optimistic notions of the common good that ignore its sometimes ideological uses by majorities to oppress minorities and insisting on the need for some boundaries to diversity in the name of the common good. Audience questions dealt with intentionality in interreligious dialogue and how schools could provide non-academic avenues for bridging religious diversity.

Echoing themes from the second panel, E. J. Dionne argued in his keynote that collective action for the common good is the best way to connect across religious differences. If religious adherents should be able to contribute to public life in a diverse society, he said, the fact of pluralism imposes dual obligations upon them: to tolerate the rights of others to express their beliefs in public, and to explain one’s own convictions in an accessible, rather than parochial, fashion. Dionne cited the success of “civil rights Christianity,” which brought faith commitments to the public square, as proof that such engagement need neither obliterate distinctiveness nor devolve into relativism. He expressed a fear, however, that exclusively political engagement might undermine the spiritual significance around which religious communities are originally founded, and serve to reinforce political differences, making them even more intractable. Nevertheless, he closed with a note of hope, asserting that Pope Francis’s vision for the Church is encouraging Roman Catholics to make a more holistic contribution to political life.

The dinner panelists all offered insights into the challenges their organizations face when encountering Boston’s diversity. John McDonough cited the increasing diversity of Boston public school students and spoke of the need to tailor strategies to eliminate the achievement gap among them. Amy Ryan described Boston Public Library’s unchanging mission in an evolving city, citing its long-standing English language classes taught to ever-changing constituencies. Mohammad Ghiath Reda acknowledged the ethnic diversity of Boston’s Muslim population but underlined the community’s collective desire for policies promoting the common good rather than its own isolated interests. Bryan Hehir discussed the secularization of the city’s Catholic population and suggested that academic institutions offered a unique environment for renewed interactions across religious differences. Jonathan Walton insisted that institutions privileged to work with the next generation of leaders must empower them to use their diverse backgrounds to serve some higher cause in new and distinct ways, rather than pigeonholing them into antiquated models of leadership. The panel complete, academics and practitioners returned to their tables to plan their next steps in the work for the common good in Boston and beyond.