“Become the Community You Want to Be”: An Open Letter to RELG 150

Here is the letter I delivered to my RELG 150 students today, the last day of class.

Dear Students of “To Be Religious and Modern”:

First, thank you again for taking this journey with me these last few months. As our “temporary community” meets for the last time, I want to do some reflecting about where we have been and where we might go.

Let me spell out and reflect on this course’s goals. I had three major goals.

  1. Teach you a bit about the history of religion and modernity.
  2. Teach you how to interpret world events.
  3. Teach you how to understand the experiences and beliefs of people not like you on their own terms.

First, to teach you a bit about the relationship between religion and modernity. You can now, I say with confidence, better understand what “religion,” “modernity,” and “democracy” means in the three great republics of the world: the United States, France, and India. Second, and relatedly, this course was as much about teaching us how to interpret the world as it was about the material itself.

The course material has been, in some ways, too relevant to have much “distance” from it. Such distance is often helpful to understand the past with a bit more clarity, if not objectivity.

In the United States, race and religion—the two issues that have shaped American history more than any other—continue to divide many Americans. Unfortunately, for too many Americans, these divisions have everyday consequences—the arrest of two black men at a Starbucks—as well as historical ones. Scholars have shown that more than economic insecurity, it was a race and religion-based nostalgia and anxiety that propelled Donald Trump into the White House.

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Many of his voters feared losing their status as the cultural rulers of the nation, as America becomes increasingly diverse racially and religiously. Providing safe harbor, if you recall, was one of the key features of the American ideal that James Madison described in his “Memorial and Remonstrance.” But today President Trump’s “America First” rhetoric and policies call back to periods in the twentieth century when some Americans saw more kinship with the Nazis than with the Nazis’ victims.

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Such antipathy or apathy for the “other” was not necessarily partisan. Take for example the history of some 900 Jewish passengers aboard the St. Louis, a transatlantic ship that fleeing the Third Reich sailed from Germany in 1939 to the Americas. Even when the St. Louis passed so close to the Miami that the would-be refugees could see the night lights of that city, then President Franklin Roosevelt refused these asylum seekers’ pleas. Instead, they were told that the strict quotas put in place based on the 1924 Immigration and Nationality Act meant that they had to go back home and get in line to gain entry into the U.S. The St. Louis thus was forced to return to Europe, where about half of its passengers were admitted to other countries. The rest were trapped in Germany, with hundreds dying in the Holocaust.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard challenges to this administration’s so-called “travel ban.” Whether or not the Supreme Court upholds the ban, the intent of the ban—to vastly limit immigration from Muslim majority countries—is working. We’ve already discussed how the U.S. has only resettled 11 Syrian refugees this year. And the U.S. is on track to resettle only about 23,000 refugees from around the world, which is down from the 85,000 resettled in 2016. And the administration has refused to renew residency permits for people from war or natural-disaster ravaged nations, including Nepal, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, Liberia, and Sudan. This has national implications. But it also has local ones, and religious ones, too. Lincoln, after all, is a refugee resettlement city. And, before the beginning of the Trump Administration, Nebraska led the nation in welcoming refugees per capita.

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Catholic Charities and Lutheran Family Services do the vast amount of the work of welcoming these new residents. From the diverse food and cultures these people share with their new neighbors, to their expertise in many fields of study and work, adding to our economy and communal wealth, I challenge anyone to explain to me how these Lincolnites have taken more than they give.

In France, “what it means to be French” is a perpetual debate, but one that, with the rise of the Front National, along with recent Islamic terrorist attacks, has taken center stage. Is France part of a global community as well as a proud nation with its own unique culture? Or should France return to its quasi-monarchical “heritage,” close its borders to outside workers and religious outsiders, including those from its own former colonies like Algeria? There is here, of course, an ironic legacy of the French Revolution, which was based on the suspicion of Catholic outsiders controlling the political and cultural centers of power. Today France grows increasingly suspicious of Muslim “outsiders,” while using the Revolution’s secularism to justify this suspicion and exclusion. As all of you head to the beach this summer, so will French Muslims. And on these beaches, scenes like this one—where armed police officers force women to disrobe in the name of liberté, égalité, and fraternité—will certainly unfold (Let’s not forget our Camus. The beach is where the “Arab,” in literature and in real life, is shown to matter little, if not much at all.).

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More than any other that we’ve studied, India is a nation founded by religious violence (created by colonialism). Partition was one of the most violent episodes in the twentieth century and the largest mass migration in human history. Yet as we learned, India and Pakistan barely acknowledge this history publicly. There are no great memorials to the “Ghost Trains” or the butchering of Sikh and Hindu innocents. India is a nation that tried to end religious violence and strife by creating a pluralistic society based on Hinduism’s “big tent” approach. Yet, in our study of “Hindutva,” this “Hindu universalism” has today been made the sole provenance of Hindus. As is the case in our country, words (tweets) can hurt you, and can hurt democracies. Words lead to stick and stones and worse.

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Since Modi took power, vigilante violence, like the kind that the avowed Hindu nationalist boasted about in the video we saw on Tuesday, is on the rise throughout India—justified in the name of creating a nation of Hindus.

These observations lead to my third goal for the course, perhaps the most challenging for us all: to learn how to understand the experiences and beliefs of people not like us on their own terms. This does not mean agreeing with people whose views we find abhorrent. Nor does it mean trying to their actions internally consistent. Think of the Sultan from the Bookseller of Kabul who believes in building up Afghanistan through education but also prevents his own children from seeking their own. What I’m describing here as “critical empathy” does mean resisting the tendency to label actions and beliefs—say, like those of Dr. George Tiller and the man who killed him Scott Roeder—as “crazy.” This means understanding their actions as consistent with their worldviews. This means empathizing with people with whom we disagree. This means seeing their humanity.

To me “critical empathy” is not only academically the best practice. It’s essential if we want our democracies to survive:

I’ve made no secret that I, as a scholar and a citizen, am a critic of the current nationalist movements in the U.S., in France (under a would-be President Le Pen) and in India. I’m a critic in large measure because I see all three movements weakening democratic ideals and institutions (Take just one example, the birthplace of press freedom in the modern world—the United States—now ranks 45th worldwide, according the Reporters without Borders. Reporters without Borders cites attacks against the press from the highest level of our government, and personal and vindictive retaliation against reporters by the President himself, for this decrease in freedom).

I do not raise these facts because I don’t love my country. I  raise them because I love my country so much. I call this patriotism. I would even call this American exceptionalism: I believe America’s greatest legacy is exporting its democratic values to places like France and India. I encourage you to listen to France’s President Macron’s address to Congress yesterday, in which he called upon the French and the American ideals of freedom, including the free press, the embrace of fact and science, and the rejection of nationalism and isolationism.

But instead of name-calling—labeling people we disagree with us as outside the bounds of community, of nation, of family—what I hope we’ve modeled here is to empathize with those with whom I disagree. For me—as a citizen and scholar—this means to understand this administration from within its own worldview and place it in the long American history of similar moments. Members of the current administration sincerely view immigrants from Muslim countries as existential threats to American security. When signing the first travel just days after taking office in January 2017, the President grouped “radical Islamic terrorists” with other Muslims, including those Muslim refugees who have been the greatest targets of radical Islamic violence. “We don’t want them here,” here said. Think about who is the “we” and the “them” in the President’s sentence.

I don’t agree with this worldview in large measure because it’s not supported by facts. As the conviction on terrorism charges of three Kansas “militia men,” who plotted to bomb mosques attended by Muslim refugees suggests, and as yet another man with an AR-15 killing innocent people at a Waffle House makes clear, statistically speaking white American men with semi-automatic guns and extremist views pose a greater risk to American public safety than Islamic-motivated terrorism.

Understanding especially those with whom you disagree strengthens your arguments and analysis beyond name-calling. Criticism of the actions of those in power is not un-American. In fact, it couldn’t be more American. It’s inscribed in the First Amendment: “the right… to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” But just as important, understanding those with whom you disagree calls us all to reject hateful speech—from all sides of the political spectrum—as un-American and dangerous.

So there ends a bit of where we’ve been. Now, here is where I hope you—we—can go.

First, recognize your own civic power and responsibility as educated people. This means: call your representatives. This means: visit their offices. This means: vote.

Second, use your powers and privileges to build the kind of communities you want to live in. Don’t wait for others to do it—especially politicians. If there is something you want to build or to change in your community, figure out how to do it and do it. This means: volunteer for an organization you believe in. Start your own organization. What’s great about UNL is that there are resources for just such civic engagement. If you have the idea, there are people here on campus and throughout Lincoln who can help you get started.

Third, listen to those with whom you don’t agree. Try to understand them on their own terms. Form partnerships with them to build the community that you want.

This means: visit a church; a mosque. Show up to the College Republicans’ meetings; the Young Democrats. Listen to what they say. And when the inevitable happens, someone alas says something hurtful or does something hurtful, figure out if it’s intentional or not. If it’s not intentional, find a way to educate them about why what they said or did was hurtful.

If it’s intentional, the best way “to win” is to act better than them. Demonstrate to them the kind of neighborly act, the kind of patriotism, the kind of person of faith or simply faith in humanity, that you’d want them to show you, even if they can’t.

Finally, stay in touch. Stay in touch with each other. Stay in touch with me. I’d be honored to continue these conversations via email, over coffee, or meals.

Let this be the start, friends, not the ending.

With affection and great respect,

Max Perry Mueller

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