Here in the United States, it is legitimate question to ask: Do we live in a polarized society? Or maybe a better way of phrasing the question is: Just how polarized is American society?
There are many ways we can characterize divisions within the United States. Economically speaking, we have witnessed a growing chasm between those who are well-off and those whose earnings have remained stagnant or are even less fortunate.
Racially, especially in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, we are awakened again to the disparities in our society between blacks and whites. Actually, African Americans have always been keenly aware of this division – it is Caucasians Americans who may have been lulled into thinking that the election of a black President would radically change the course of race relations.
Politically, it is hard to say with complete confidence whether the polarization between Republicans and Democrats is at an all-time low. In the 18th and 19th centuries, arguments between elected officials led to duels, fistfights, and canings. But surely in comparison to 50 years ago, the obstructionism, posturing, and deterioration of political discourse between the two major parties lead average Americans to hold in very low esteem our congressional representatives.
What about religious divisions within the United States? How deep do they run? A sociologist of American religion, Will Herberg, wrote an influential book in 1955 entitled Protestant-Catholic-Jew, claiming that these were the three primary ways Americans identified themselves, regardless of economic, racial, or political background. Clearly we live in a time of greater pluralism than the 1950’s. The population of American Muslims is about the same as American Jews. Americans who do not identify with any religious tradition at all are growing in number.
Economic disparities, racial divisions, and political differences are challenging to address. But there is an opportunity readily at hand which offers us a way to dialogue about our religious distinctions. On Saturday, February 7, here in the Tri-City area there will be a second annual World Interfaith Harmony Day. The highlight of last year’s event was the opportunity to participate in small group discussions where you could talk with people unlike yourself. With around 8 people sitting around a table, the conversation was lively and educational. Unquestionably the planners of this year’s program will ensure similar opportunity for dialogue. There also will be information booths about different religious faiths and a panel discussion including questions from the audience.
Interfaith Harmony Day will be held on Saturday afternoon, February 7 at the Fremont Veterans’ Memorial Building in Niles from 1-4pm. There is no charge for the event. Oh, and there will be appetizers and refreshments. I am sure that that is something everyone can agree is a very good thing.