Interfaith work: What is God’s zip code?

A red light reminder

“Hi, I’m Anne and I’m a Christian Scientist.” “I’m Tex, a Methodist.” “I’m John, a member of the LDS church.” “I’m Dilara, a Muslim.”

No, this isn’t a religious AA meeting – it’s the monthly meeting of the Arizona Interfaith Movement, whose mission is ‘to build bridges of understanding, respect, and support among diverse people of faith through education, dialogue, service, and the implementation of the Golden Rule.’ Interfaith groups like the AIFM exist all across the USA. God is not limited by a zip code.

Whether I kneel in a pew or press my forehead upon a prayer rug, my observance of a higher power is a spiritual act of remembrance and devotion. But why are some Americans focusing on differences in dogma, rather than highlighting the common denominators of tolerance, knowledge, and unity? Their intent is to divide us.

Prior claims that American Catholics will place allegiance to their Pope over allegiance to their country are reminiscent of current allegations against American Muslims. By implying that they pray to a different God, (they don’t – Allah is the Arabic word for God – the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus), the current insinuation is that anyone who is not a Christian is not an American.

Un-American? After listening to the rhetoric in this past presidential campaign, you couldn’t be blamed for reaching that conclusion, but you’d be wrong. The basic principles laid down in both our Constitution as well as our Declaration of Independence – the concepts of equality, liberty, and separation of church and state – all seem to have been ignored in favor of relying on intolerance, fear-mongering, and religious bigotry. The ‘otherization’ of any person based upon race, religion, or ethnicity has been the go-to fallback approach rather than a serious analysis of issues. Since when did the belief in God become a litmus test for the Presidency, or indeed, for citizenship?

The most recent (February 2008 ) Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey of 35,000 people on the American religious landscape provides a useful breakdown of our country’s religious diversity, with over 78% of the respondents identifying themselves as ‘Christian.’ Another 5% belonged to other faiths, but a significant number (16%) labeled themselves either ‘Atheist’, ‘Agnostic’, or simply ‘nothing in particular’. Yet they are all Americans.

The insinuation that a non-Christian is un-American defies all logic and reason – discrimination under the guise of religious bigotry is still discrimination. I’m blessed to count Muslims, Christians, and agnostics amongst my relatives. I’m certain that many other American families can claim the same diversity, if not the same faith groups, around their Thanksgiving table every year as well.

While faith and works remain the core values of many religions, it is ultimately the private domain of each and every one of us, whether we choose to profess a faith affiliation publicly or personally, or even whether we believe in a higher power at all. I’m able to serve lemonade and cookies at my son’s Jesuit high school’s Open House alongside mothers of different faiths… because we’re not demanding adherence to the minutiae of each other’s religions, we’re simply uniting together for the common good. Isn’t that commonality of purpose the basis for citizenship – a tacit acknowledgment of the Golden Rule?

Arizona recently added a new license plate to its Motor Vehicle Division website – a picturesque plate which depicts the Grand Canyon at sunset with the logo ‘Live the Golden Rule’. This special license plate serves as a travelling billboard which extols the virtue of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” a life principle shared by many faiths. Imagine the possibilities for improved social justice, civic involvement, and simple acts of kindness if we all adopted this motto as our own.

Dr. Paul Eppinger, Executive Director of the Arizona Interfaith Movement, is always the last person at each board meeting to identify himself. He does so beautifully, by opening his arms wide in welcome after listening to the litany of faith groups present. He says, “I’m Paul, and I am all of the above.” You can’t get more American than that.

Dilara Hafiz is Vice President of the Arizona Interfaith Movement & co-author of The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook.

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