Nonreligious Must Embrace White House’s Interfaith Service Challenge

The White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships unveiled an unprecedented new initiative: The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. For details about this call by President Obama for college and university campuses to design year-long service projects that diverse religious and secular student groups can partner on, see here and here.

For many, this project may go unnoticed precisely because it is so obvious-- what could be more clearly needed than young people of different beliefs and backgrounds working together for the common good? Yet for me and perhaps for millions of my fellow nonreligious Americans, there is one particularly historic and controversial aspect of the challenge that cannot be ignored. As with his other main speeches on interfaith cooperation, President Obama has gone out of his way to make clear that this initiative must be fully open to and inclusive atheists, and agnostics, and Humanists.

I can vouch for the fact that we have been included every step of the way; not only in big public moments like the inaugural speech shout-out to “nonbelievers”, but also behind the scenes. Last June, I was invited to visit the White House as part of a small gathering of University and college presidents, deans, chaplains, and interfaith student leaders to discuss the initial plans that led to this initiative. I’ll never forget the moment when Joshua Dubois, the convener of that gathering and Director of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, greeted us.

Dubois, a young African American Pentacostalist, took the podium and talked about how the group gathered that day was one of the most diverse in the history of the White House. It included many different kinds of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others—and, he emphasized, there were even secular activists in attendance (I was joined by my good friend August Brunsman, Director of the Secular Student Alliance.) To emphasize that point, Dubois even mentioned me by name and title, had me raise my hand, and everyone in the room applauded at the idea that we were there. I felt chills—despite polls consistently showing atheists like us to be the least electable demographic group in the US, here was a key representative of the highest authority in the land, looking us in the eye, in public, and making it indisputably clear that our beliefs, our Humanist values, and our secular colleagues were every bit as American as anyone else. And in the months that followed, some of my students and staff have joined other Humanists in attending White House-sponsored training sessions on interfaith service. We’ve been full partners in a lively and constructive debate about how people from diverse religious and ethical traditions can build a better society together.

Fittingly, I write today from Eagle Butte, South Dakota, where I am helping lead an interfaith spring break service project on the Cheyenne River Native American Reservation, working with an amazing organization called the Cheyenne River Youth Project (CRYP). This is one of those places where all kinds of people are working together—Humanists, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, practitioners of Native American spirituality; gay, straight; young, old, middle aged. All of us share the common goal of helping the youth in the US’s poorest county overcome (and indeed forgive) centuries of injustice and struggle. We’ve immersed ourselves in life on this reservation: talking with native American teens about the importance of college, designing curricular materials to promote self-discipline and critical thinking among the youngest children here, and getting to know our fellow volunteers in the process. My secularist students and I have been inspired by CRYP director Julie Garreau, a Native American whose Christian convictions inspired her to work so selflessly on behalf of her people’s children. And I’m sure Julie never thought she’d receive a group of volunteers proudly wearing T-shirts with slogans like “Secular Service” and “Good Without God.” But as we’ve done so, I’ve grown increasingly convinced that multiplying such projects and the understanding they generate will have an enormous positive impact across the nation.

Still, I think President Obama was wise to frame this initiative as a “challenge.” First, it will encourage us all to remember my favorite quotation on pluralism in the Quran: “compete with each other in doing good works” (5:48). At Harvard University, I know many of us will be inspired to honor the memory of the late Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes, one of the 20th century’s great proponents of pluralism on campus, by achieving White House recognition. But even if we fall short of that, the interfaith conferences and projects we’ve been working hard on of late will themselves carry great value. And I personally am so proud of the fact that the current president of the Harvard College Interfaith Council is Chelsea Link ’12, one of my Humanist students.

But that raises perhaps another reason why the White House’s initiative is called a challenge is the two extremely challenging questions it raises for many of us: will campuses around the country rise to the White House’s challenge of including atheist, secular, and Humanist students in their work? And will nonreligious students get past their discomfort about the word “faith” to join in this work? The answer to both is, “we must.” Administrators can no longer afford to ignore the that the Secular Student Alliance now has hundreds of chapters on campuses around the country, or that our Humanist Chaplaincy is now one of the largest chaplaincies on Harvard’s campus. And by the same token, secular students must recognize it is now their responsibility to extend a hand, in the spirit of cooperation, to those with whom they passionately disagree on theology. It is no longer enough for any of us to simply tear down and criticize others. On this historic day of inclusion, we will be judged by what, and whom, we build up.

For resources on how to do so, see my staffer Chris Stedman’s outstanding online manual.

This blog was originally posted on the Washington Post's On Faith blog.