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Reaching Across Religious, Spiritual, & Philosophical Lines of Difference

Nov 16, 2022

Most discussions around equity, diversity, and inclusion in this country have involved some consideration of race, gender, sexual identity, and disability. But more recently some scholars have been pointing to additional concerns that should be acknowledged in our efforts to achieve social justice. One such area includes faith practices.  

In his book, “We Need to Build,” Eboo Patel, president and founder of Interfaith America, reflects on efforts to build bridges between different perspectives—or attempts to burn those bridges down. Too often we choose to work only with those who we feel share our values, while we ignore or avoid those we disagree with. But Patel says “anger doesn’t construct, it only destroys. Burns Everything.” If we want the prosperity of a better, healthier country, we must begin to work closely beside those who have vastly different perspectives, experiences, values, and faith lives. After all, as Patel explains, “to be a citizen of a diverse democracy means being able to disagree on some fundamental things while working together on other fundamental things.”  

In our interfaith roundtable discussion, panelists explored the role of religion and faith in building community, promoting allyship, and advocating for equity, diversity, and inclusion.

  • portrait of Becca Hartman Pickerill

    Becca Hartman-Pickerill

    Director of Program Resourcing
    Interfaith America


    Becca Hartman-Pickerill (she/her), Director of Program Resourcing, manages the teams, tools, and systems that enable Interfaith America to be flexible and adaptable. Becca has a BA in Religion and Philosophy from Northwestern University and a Masters in Forced Migration from the University of the Witwatersrand. Day to day Becca supervises the team’s talented program managers, tracks metrics, and works on a range of projects including the Campus Interfaith Inventory, campus consultations, and national bridgebuilding initiatives. Beyond the office, Becca loves to spend time outside with her partner and two small children. Her American Baptist tradition guides her commitment to safeguard religious liberty and to wrestle in relationship with others through the complexity that is inherent in a diverse democracy.

    portrait of Luna Banuri

    Luna Banuri

    Executive Director
    Utah Muslim Civic League


    Luna Banuri (she/her) is co-founder and Executive Director of the Utah Muslim Civic League, which she helped establish as a network to amplify Muslim voices across the state in public policy and understanding. Utah Muslim Civic League’s mission is to educate and empower citizens to be civically engaged in political and non-political action.

    She relocated to Salt Lake City from Chicago in late 2014 and quickly became involved in the local community by the virtue of her global experiences and her involvement in her children’s schools. She and a group of Muslim Utahn’s launched the UMCL in 2018 to educate and empower Muslim to be civically engaged and to do advocacy and service. That year, her team helped empower 15,000 registered Muslim voters and a constituency of 60,000 Muslims across Utah from 120 different nationalities.

    Luna is also the founder of Utah Muslim Women’s Alliance, serves on the Mayor of Salt Lake City’s Human Rights Commission (2018) and to Governor of Utah’s MLK Commission (2019), Salt Lake County’s Council on Diversity Affairs (2020). She has participated in several prestigious fellowship programs, including the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce Leadership Utah, USC’s American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute, the inaugural cohort of the Public Leaders for Inclusion Council by America Indivisible and Aspen Institute Inclusive America Project.

    portrait of Monica Dobbins

    Reverend Monica Dobbins

    First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City


    Rev. Monica is a minister at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City. A native of Birmingham, AL, she is a graduate of the University of Alabama and the Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, IL. Rev. Monica has served Unitarian Universalism in Utah since 2017, her ministry embracing spirituality, emotional literacy, and social justice. She lives in downtown Salt Lake with her spouse and teenage son, and connects with the land by walking both streets and trails as often as she can.

    portrait of David Levinsky

    Rabbi David Levinsky, Ph.D.

    Temple Har Shalom – Park City, Utah


    Rabbi Levinsky (he/him) currently serves Temple Har Shalom in Park City. He has also served at Chicago Sinai Congregation, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, and Keddem Congregation in Palo Alto. After rabbinic ordination at Hebrew Union College, he received a Ph. D in Religious Studies at Stanford University. His wife is a professor of Social Work at Loyola University and his son attends the University of Chicago. Most of his free time is spent, reading, listening to music, and making music.

    portrait of Robert Merrills

    Reverend Robert Merrills, MBA, M.Div.

    Baseline Christian Fellowship


    Robert Merrills (he/him) is the Pastor of Baseline Christian Fellowship, a congregation located downtown Salt Lake City. Since 1994 he has been involved in the business community working for the University of Utah, American Express, Select Portfolio Services and WebBank.  Robert has also been involved in youth ministry volunteering at two local juvenile detention centers for many years, has served as a chaplain at Primary Childrens Medical Center, the assistant Pastor at the Historic Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City and as interim Pastor or Murray Baptist Church.  Robert believes in the power of ecclesiastical and secular partnerships to solve common issues and provide support to connected communities.

    portrait of Brandon R. Peterson

    Brandon R. Peterson, Ph.D.

    Associate Professor (Lecturer)
    Department of Philosophy
    The University of Utah


    Brandon Peterson (he/him) is a parishioner at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City and is an Associate Professor (Lecturer) in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Utah, where he teaches primarily topics in Religious Studies. Courses he has taught or co-taught include “World Religions,” “Medieval Philosophy,” “Difference and Dialogue: Christianity and Judaism in Literature and Philosophy,” and “Who is Jesus? A World of Answers.” His research focuses on Christian theories of atonement and Catholic theology since the 20th century.

    portrait of Taylor VanderToolen

    Taylor VanderToolen

    Student Body President, ASUU
    The University of Utah


    Taylor (he/him) is a senior studying QAMO and Finance in the David Eccles School of Business. He has been involved in Student Government since high school and has loved the U ever since he can remember. Taylor has been involved in the MUSS board, management consulting club, greek life, and the LDSSA. Taylor grew up in Holladay, Utah and was raised a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He served a two-year, volunteer mission for The Church in southern Brazil prior to attending college. He plans to pursue a career in consulting in Chicago with his fiancée after graduating this spring.


Becca Hartman-Pickerill: My organization, Interfaith America, is located in Chicago, but we work nationally with about 650 colleges and universities, dozens of higher ed associations, and increasingly with communities and corporations. So I bring greetings from Dr. Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith America and the author of this. His most recent book, “We Need to Build,” which will frame most of my opening brief remarks.

I also bring greetings from Dr. Janett Cordovés, who was a part of the inspiration for today’s conversation. So Interfaith America is about 20 years old. We were founded on the belief that US religious diversity is a strength, US religious diversity is a strength. So we exist to inspire, connect, equip individuals like yourselves and institutions like this, and all of the institutions represented here to make good on the promise of a healthy, religiously diverse democracy where people can thrive.

I know this is a high achieving community, but I’m going to invite you to focus on three F’s today. That was a mom joke. The three F’s: for, fellowship, and flourish. These are based on a couple of chapters from from Dr. Patel’s book. So the first is for. If you’ll indulge me, close your eyes for just 20 seconds. And whatever position you’re in, whatever your role, imagine the world when you’ve achieved whatever the work is that you are trying to do. What are you working toward?

You can open your eyes. Now, if we had whiteboards around, I would invite everyone to come up and draw your own vision because that’s incredibly inspiring. For now, just sit with that. There might be time later to share some of those out with me. Now, you don’t even have to close your eyes. Think of the barriers, the challenges, the dysfunctions, and the systems that you live in right now that will be make it harder to achieve that vision. Just list them in your brain. I’m interested in a show of hands. For whom did you have a pretty clear vision? Like, “here’s what I’m working toward. I know what it will look like when I see it.” And for whom was it pretty easy to come up with the challenges, the barriers, the dysfunctions in the systems that you see right now?

So both are really important. We have to know what’s wrong, why we got here, how we got here in order to address it. And if my articulation of the problem is more profound than my articulation of the vision. I have a problem. And so both are incredibly important. Critique and challenge. Understanding what’s wrong is how we get to something better. And if you don’t have a flourishing vision of what you want to be creating in the world, this is an invitation to really start thinking about that. All of the leaders who are here are building have built our leading institutions. The title of this book, “We Need to Build,” stems from recognizing that there are many challenges in our communities.

We think of that as an invitation we need to build. Can you tell me what you’re for, not what you are against? I think about Interfaith America alum Jen Bailey. Reverend Jen Bailey, who saw a lot of movements that she cared a lot about, where leaders were getting burnt out, right? She saw the challenge. She created her own organization, The Faith Matters Network, which have movement chaplaincies to support the people who are doing that work that burns them out so regularly, right? She saw a shared vision and intervened in a way that she could address that need. I think about Kashif Shaikh. So shameless plug; Interfaith America has a new podcast, Interfaith America with Eboo Patel. And just last week, Kashif Shaikh was the interviewee. He’s the founder, he’s the head of the Pillars Fund out of Chicago. So Muslim funds for flourishing Muslim life, leadership, talent, and narrative. He saw a single story, if it was mentioned at all about what it means to be Muslim in America. And he said, “I’m not happy with that.” And he helped to create a vision and build an institution that helped the complexity of that story for more people to see himself represented in the world. He had a vision for something. He knew what was wrong and started to build something different.

Now, one of the questions that we often ask ourselves is, “but why religion? How does religion play into this?” I wonder if somebody could would be brave, bold enough to shout out what percentage of the world identifies with a religion. Any estimates?

Audience Member: 80

Becca Hartman-Pickerill: 80, 40, 85, 90? 85, according to Pew, globally. What percentage of Americans identify that religion is very important to them?

And think in your head.

Audience Member: Over 70.

Becca Hartman-Pickerill: Okay. So the answer is, it depends. It just depends who you’re talking about in the US. Right. So among African-Americans, 75% say religion is very important to them. Among Latino/e/x population, 59%. Multiple racial identities, 54%. White Americans, 49%. Asian-Americans, 36%. If you say very or somewhat important, we get to 91, 84, 79, 75, 66. People will define that really differently. And that’s great. That’s okay. We’re not here to have one definition about what it means to be anything, any kind of religious. And we find so often that in institutions, in public conversations, people don’t feel like they’re equipped to engage that particular aspect of identity. So who are we serving? If important, vast members of our community say religion is important to them and it doesn’t show up in our public conversations and our policies and our ways of addressing social needs.

I’m way over time, so I’m going to just keep going here. Anybody remember the first F?

Audience Member: For.

Becca Hartman-Pickerill: For. Thank you. Yes. All right. Second F? Fellowship. Fellowship when it all falls apart. So in Chapter 11, “Embracing Diversity: Even the Differences You Don’t Like,” Dr. Patel invites us to think about not just those differences that we agree with, right? So we’ll discuss more in the panel, the differences that we fundamentally, how foundational challenges with, right, and that we should expect. In interfaith work we say, “come expecting that difference in disagreement.” It’s in the definition of the work we do — “inter” — we are bringing together difference. So I won’t, I won’t focus on the differences we don’t like, but just invite you to think about do you have relationships across difference, right? Because when flashpoints happen, when things fall apart, and they do. There are tragedies to rife to mention. If we don’t have relationships with people who identify differently than us, then either we don’t hear the information that we need. We’re not there to reach out and support them.

Many of our campus partners after the Tree of Life shooting in Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania, just over four years ago, reached out to us and said, “when this attack happened, when this massacre happened, people reached out to the heads of Jewish life on campus, and they felt incredibly supported. They felt buoyed and seen and understood. And people asked, ‘what do you need?'” But those heads of Jewish life on campus said their students were silence. Nobody reached out to those students, their classmates, their peers, their professors, the folks that they interact with every day. And I don’t know if folks didn’t know that they were Jewish, that it was important to them, didn’t know what to say. Didn’t know what was appropriate. Didn’t want to, to further bring pain to someone. But those students felt so isolated. So how are we building relationships? And before we even get to the differences we like and don’t like, expecting that that’s true. How are we building relationships across deep difference?

All right. So the first F, for, the second F? Fellowship. Yeah. And fellowship when it all falls apart. The third F, and then we’ll move on to our conversation: flourish. It is our goal, right? It is our goal. What brings me to this work is the idea as a, as a Christian of the beloved community, a place where all can flourish and thrive. That’s what the institution is trying to establish. It’s what the division is seeking to instantiate in this community. So Interfaith America with the Ohio State University and North Carolina State University created the first longitudinal study, the largest of its kind on religious identity, diversity, and engagement ideals. So 20,000 students fall and spring of their first year and then spring of their fourth year at 122 institutions were part of this study.

Among the things we found was that the sense of belonging connection, which of course we know also connects to things like retention and success at the institution, we’re pretty small symbols of acceptance and welcome. So institutions would have fish on Fridays during Lent. Students who are Catholic might need that. There was a table card at the at the lunch counter that said, why we’re doing this? Even if only a few Catholic students participated and practiced in that way during Lent. They found it meaningful that this is a place for them. This is a place that was built for them. Importantly, the students who are not Catholic or are Catholic and don’t practice that way during Lent found that they saw that religious diversity was valued by the institution and that they should care about it too. Right? Alternate hours during Ramadan for eating. Even if it’s not something that I need, I see that my institution cares about it.

Space that’s available for people to use — from atheist to Zoroastrian — a place to come connect, be safe, find my people. The fact that there are policies at the top of my syllabus about when I might need to leave because of religious accommodation are really important symbols that tell me I’m welcome here. And even if that policy isn’t for me, it tells me it’s important as someone who leads in a diverse world that I pay attention to, care about, and know about that. So we want to invite people to think about what does it mean to welcome, to belong here.

At North Park University, an Evangelical Covenant Church that has a very racially and religiously diverse population, they now host a lot of their first-year health and sexual health conversations and trainings with options for single-sex conversations. What does it mean for you to really feel like you belong here, to get what you need here. At North Carolina State University, the Chancellor’s Creating Community Award recognizes excellence in diversity, and one award is named around religious diversity. We care about this, and it’s important here. At Virginia Tech, there’s a range of interfaith initiatives that address the range of student activities. A lot focused on dialogs similar to today, helping students to understand both for their own, thriving at the institution and their leadership in the world outside, why this matters.

So the third, the third F: flourish, for fellowship flourish. In chapter 18 of “We Need to Build,” Dr. Patel frames this as standing on the balcony and thinking like a hedgehog. Really, it is, wherever you are in your work. How do you expand that and impact more people? So whether it’s as the leader of a student organization, a faculty member who’s teaching, an administrator at this institution, or community leader, how are we taking what we’ve learned and expanding it to more people?

At Interfaith America, we like to use the potluck metaphor; that the nation is a potluck, it’s a place where you bring your best. You bring your best, most delicious dish, and you think about who else is going to be there. You hope to accommodate for what they need. And together we feast. We don’t all need to bring the same thing. If I know somebody has a peanut allergy. I’m not going to bring that, right? If I know there’s a large population that doesn’t eat meat. I’m going to focus on vegetarian food. Not everyone has to. We have to know our community. We have to know who comes. We see who comes week after week. But the invitation is for each of us from our own particularity, to bring our best in order to flourish together as a community.

And I am thrilled to be in conversation with these incredible six leaders from your community and to dig into some of these questions and their implications. So I will give a very, very brief introduction since we have so many folks. You can find fuller bios on the website. I will work in order here.

Reverend Robert Merrills is the pastor of Baseline Christian Fellowship, a congregation located downtown Salt Lake City. Wonderful to have you here. Luna Banuri is co-founder and executive director of the Utah Muslim Civic League, which she helped establish as a network to amplify Muslim voices across the state in public policy and understanding. Wonderful to have you. Reverend Monica Dobbins is a minister at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, a graduate of the University of Alabama and the Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, Illinois. I just had to get in Chicago there. It’s wonderful to have you. Rabbi David Levinsky currently serves Temple Har Shalom in Park City. After rabbinic ordination at Hebrew Union College, he received a Ph.D. in religious studies at Stanford University. Wonderful to have you. Taylor VanderToolen is a senior studying QAMO and finance at the David Eccles School of Business. Taylor has been involved in the MUSS board management consulting club, Greek Life, the LDSSA, and is the student body president. Professor … looking at … Brandon Peterson, excuse me, is associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at this institution where he teaches primary topics in religious studies. Wonderful to have you.

So let’s start with our first question, and if we just go down the line and then we’ll switch it up after that. So again, drawing on Dr. Patel’s book, “We Need to Build,” the first sort of F that I shared — for — comes from a chapter called “Be Guided by a Vision for Not in Anger Against.” Chapter ten. Of course, in our traditions, anger is powerful and there’s a place for it. And there are other tools that are needed to build the world that we, that we seek. So tell us why religious, spiritual worldview, identity matters to you and what is your vision for your community? How would you define that?

Robert Merrills: Wow, state that one more time.

Becca Hartman-Pickerill: What is your vision for your community? I’ll stop there.

Robert Merrills: Okay, a vision for the community. So, first of all, as I think of this, this, you know, “for” concept and the anger piece, I think that we should always be focused and conscious of a couple of of words. For me, it’s construct, it’s destruct, it’s instruct. In our anger, we can always figure out ways to deconstruct things, to tear things down. The real challenge and the real test and the real, I think, articulation of who you are, is and what you choose to construct, what are you building? And so as we think about that, what are you building in terms of relationships with others, whether it’s family, whether it’s in your community? And along the way, the way you’re going to do that and the way you’re going to elicit support from others and gain support from others is the instruct piece. So being willing to instruct when you can, lend what you know to the process, but also being willing to be instructed. So I don’t know everything. I don’t know how to get there. But together we can figure out how to do that. But there’s got to be that openness. But I’m going to take the chance on my end to create that that opportunity and ask others to join me. And so that community is anyone who wants to get involved. It’s not Black, it’s not White. It’s not Baptist or Christian. It’s not non-Christian. It is whoever wants to be involved trying to solve a common problem…

Luna Banuri: Well. So just to preface and say I am a practitioner. I am a community builder, consensus builder, and so a lot of my work is informed by my faith. And then what makes my community. A lot of times I get asked this question of why my organization name is Utah Muslim Civic League. So the question is, do you just serve Muslims in the state of Utah? And it kind of takes me back to the fact that my vision to create this organization really was to have an infrastructure where the social justice pillars of Islam can be used to build the community. It is not to just serve Muslims, but also to make, ensure that as my faith tells me, how to build a community, how to deal with different issues that come across, that I rely on those principles.

And having three teenage kids who are just about one year apart from each other, I was tested again and again in this space, and it made me look at religion or faith values in a very different way. So, I mean, right now, when we talk about the crisis around mental health in our youth, when we think about, you know, hate speech, when we talk about, you know, all the other different challenges around racial equity and everything, it has made me turn towards my faith and those principles. And I find them very practical, like in case of we were, you know, mentioning, let’s say, anger management or if you were talking about, you know, paying attention to your neighbors. In Islam, we are told that you cannot go to sleep at night if 40 households to your right, to your left, to your center and to your back, if any one of them goes to sleep hungry, it is on you. So now those 40 homes historically, you know, would mean something else. But in today’s context, it does come to individual action. It does come to what do you do yourself to be able to implement those different principles? And at your own personal level, what do you do to help your community or to support or to be among them? And I’ll let Monica go, and perhaps we can come back to this question.

Monica Dobbins: Thank you. So Unitarian Universalist communities such as the one that I serve are intentionally multi-faith communities. We came out of two Christian religions, Unitarianism and Universalism, and as they sort of drifted away from Christianity, they drifted toward each other and merged in the sixties to become a new phase. And this faith attracts people from other religious traditions or from no religious tradition. So we’re really sort of a microcosm in a way. Now, people who are attracted to our faith from other faiths often either come wanting because they, some other or some other identity that they hold was rejected by their previous faith, either their racial, ethnic, their gender or sexual identity, their political identity, or because their conscience was injured by another faith. So people sometimes come to us with wounds, right? And we’re creating this diverse community of conscience out of all of these different pieces right now. My vision of it is that dominant culture in our nation wants to sort of deal with diversity by flattening it, right, that we we reduce it down to what do we all have in common?

And in Unitarian Universalism, we try to take another approach, which is that what you bring with you, all of that, all of those identities are sacred and important, and we want to value what makes you an individual and and bring it all together. If it sounds like a challenge, it totally is. It’s really hard to do because there’s pain involved in protecting our identities, in understanding our identities, and then in negotiating how we create this space of multiple and conflicting identities. But it’s a really beautiful process. And it’s it also becomes sort of a laboratory for living in society where that mix of identities is present all around us. So I love it as a laboratory for living in the world.

David Levinsky: There are different ways to go about doing this type of conversation. And, you know, sort of by definition, most of the people up here are going to be bridge builders because you called them and they said, “yes.” So but so I’m going to emphasize a different piece, which I think is really just as necessary. You called it the deconstructive piece, which I think particularly in the Utah setting, where there is, you know, a dominant religion that holds a tremendous amount of power and is very much married to the political system. There is more of a need for deconstruction here than like when I was when I was in Chicago, and that wasn’t the case. So I find myself more often taking on strategically that deconstructive role in this setting. If I take on that deconstructive role, there are two things that I really need. One is that I need partners who are being diplomatic and are bridge builders to work with, right? You know, those two things really need to go together. And I in no way I’m dismissing it. It’s absolutely necessary. But strategically, I tend to take on the other role. The other thing that I really need for that — you bring up anger — is really consistently asking the question of at what point is anger productive and destructive, right? Or I could even say destructive in productive ways, right?

And so I tend to use Moses Maimonides, an 11th century rabbi, for the guide on that one. He essentially says he recognizes that anger can be incredibly destructive. You know, that, that said, there are sort of two qualifiers that make anger okay to use. The one is that our intellect needs to be able to stand over our emotions and make judgments about that, right? So if you’re acting from the anger is probably going to make a mess, and a mess that’s going to be really difficult to clean up. But if you’re making a strategic choice to use anger, that’s a very different thing, right? So that’s the first observation that he makes. The other that he essentially makes is you have to firmly believe, of course, being humble and knowing you may be wrong, that that anger is going to make an individual or your community better. And if you don’t think that that’s the case, then you shouldn’t act on it. Classic example would be admonishing somebody individually. Are they just going to shut down and it’s going to go nowhere? Well, then, don’t use the anger. Use a different technique, right? But there are people who really need to be woken up, and anger is a really effective tool for waking them up and forcing them to think differently or even getting them on the back foot. So then the diplomats can come in and get something done, right? You know, you need both of those, right?

Robert Merrills: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, you needed all.

David Levinsky: Exactly.

Monica Dobbins: Yes. Yes.

David Levinsky: You needed both. You needed King and X. Absolutely. Absolutely. Although towards the end, from the little I know, King was moving more towards X. [Laughs] … So I’ll just, I’ll just leave it at that.

Taylor VanderToolen: Um, so I think the reason that I was called to be a part of this panel is, is I’m here to represent students. And as student body president, but also for many that know me, I’m also an actively worshiping member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. And, and so I guess, my community constitutes both members of my faith, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, but also students in our community, students at the university. And for me, that’s representing students that are members of my faith, as well as students that aren’t religious at all. And, you know, and everywhere in between, right? And I think for me, what I envision for my community is I grew up in Utah and I went to a high school that was predominantly members of my faith.

And for me, when I was deciding on which college I wanted to go to within Utah and applying to different colleges, something that was important to me was being able to branch out and kind of getting outside of my bubble, I guess, and being able to create friendships. I do value my friendships with people that have the same values and beliefs as myself, but also I’ve, I’ve been able to find friendships with people that don’t have my same beliefs and be able to value those as well. And I guess for my community as members, you know, members of my faith who might decide to maybe go to a university that isn’t quite as religiously diverse as University of Utah, my hope is that they’ll have the opportunities as well to meet other people and to engage in discussion and dialog like this and with, you know, their, with, with their friends and, and be able to to learn more outside of their community.

And it always makes me happy to see people from my high school. There are a couple of people here I know from high school when they’ve made the decision to come to the University of Utah and to be able to have similar experiences to what I’ve had, and being able to make friendships with people who grew up and, you know, in a different community than myself. And I think for my community, as the University of Utah and students as the University of Utah, I think what’s so important is to find, is for students to find those spaces that they can feel safe. So I know for many members of the Church, for many Latter-Day Saints, it’s it’s our Institute. And then I know we have our InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. We have Hillel. There are so many different religious student organizations and places for students to find across campus. But ultimately, what we as a student government try to do is provide safe spaces and advocate for those students, but then also to be able to create events where everybody, you know, regardless of their background, is able to come regardless of their beliefs.

And it’s been an incredible challenge. And it’s been great for me to learn and for my student government to learn about how we can engage our students. So, for example, when we have a concert, you know, we’re planning a concert during Ramadan. And so we’ve had to really think about and speak to students that identify as Muslim and talk to them about what could what would make it possible for them to be able to attend this concert and to really bring everybody in. And I think that’s just been an incredible experience for me, you know, and how I identify and coming to the university to be able to to meet different students and to be able to think not just about, you know, people that are exactly for my community or where I grew up. But then also to really try to branch out and try to understand and have empathy for everyone else. So I guess that’s my vision.

Becca Hartman-Pickerill: Thank you.

Brandon Peterson: Great. So I want to say a couple of things about religious identity before I get to the vision component of this. So I teach a world religions class here pretty much every semester. And one of the things I do on that first day where we meet is I have my students look at this article in The Washington Post from 2015 that tells the story of a woman in San Antonio, Joan Cheever, who was fined $2,000 for distributing food from her food truck to the local homeless population.

And so she tells a story in this article about being approached by a couple of police officers. And they gave her the citation and she protested and said, “you know, you’re preventing me from practicing my religious beliefs here, from my religious practice. I’m obligated to do this.” And the police officer said to her, “’you think I’m infringing upon your right to practice your religion?’ Then he said, ‘Lady, if you want to pray, go to church.’ And I said, ‘This is how I pray. I pray when I cook, I pray when I serve.’” She goes on in the article to say, “The Bible says, ‘When I was hungry, you fed me.’ And I take that seriously. This is the way I pray.” So the reason I bring this up in that world religions class isn’t so much to establish how religious freedom ought to operate in the United States or to address, you know, what’s the best way forward with homelessness. I mean, these are both really complex questions, but the reason I bring it up is to point out the way that religion functions, that religion functions not simply as something you do once a week for a lot of people or it’s not simply a set of abstract beliefs that you hold or something like that. Religion is deeper than that. It’s an identity.

This is, you know, the lenses through which so many people see the world. It’s the hands through which they work in the world. So throughout the semester, I’ll often get comments from students as they interview other people, or they go to a site visit or they research more about some religious leader and they’ll make comments in some of their papers that “over “oh, this person,” you know, “Buddhism isn’t so much a religion as it is a way of life” or, you know, “Islam isn’t so much a religion as it is a way of life.” And I remind them you don’t have to have an either/or. They’re you know, for a lot of people, you know, religion is a way of life. And I want them to take that not away from the class. So religion has to do with identity. And so I guess as far as my vision, you said define community however you want. I’m a practicing Catholic, but I mean in addition to being part of the wider Catholic community, I’m a member of the University of Utah community. And so one of my hopes for the University of Utah community is that everybody is able to sort of be themselves, to have that sort of identity, to to practice their religion in a in an open sort of way that they’re included and don’t feel the need to sort of suppress that or flatten it into a, you know, greatest common denominator to use Monica’s, you know, way of of putting it here. So I suppose that’s one of my big, big goals.

Becca Hartman-Pickerill: Thank you so much. I’ll pose one more question and then we do want to get to your questions. So be thinking about those; have those ready here and online. They will start from the other side, if that’s okay, Professor, and come on back here. So here’s the question. Religious identity, religious spiritual worldview identity is complex, right? At Interfaith America, about a third of our staff identify as humanist, atheist, agnostic, not religious right. It’s a growing number, although too often it put in one bucket with lots of internal complexity. And for any of us that have that label in any particular way, there’s a lot of complexity there, and there’s not one way to do this, right? So how do we help our students to feel like they can flourish and live their full lives? How do we help our communities stay connected to the needs of their own, of their own community? Inherently, there is tension and difference and disagreement here. If we get to the difference in disagreement before there is a relationship, too often we walk away thinking the same thing we came in with.

And the goal isn’t to change our minds, but it is to listen. And it’s hard to listen if we have our barriers up. But I also want to normalize difference and disagreement and challenge and maintaining relationship in the midst of that challenge. So I would love for you to share a time when you had a deep disagreement with someone. It could be around worldview identity. If it’s not, that’s fine. Tell us a little bit, as appropriate, about what that disagreement was and how it shapes how you think about the work you do.

Brandon Peterson: All right. So I think disagreement can function in a couple of different ways. And I’ve experienced both of them at the University of Utah. On the one hand, disagreement can be something that is productive. So last fall, I co-taught a course with one of my colleagues here in the English department, Maeera Schreiber, on Jewish-Christian relations and it was a really fun course, but a really challenging course to teach because we made it sort of a rule from the beginning. We were each going to be who we were, you know, and sort of, you know, own up to that. And there is content that we went through where we’re both working with a similar sort of biblical tradition, a lot of the same texts. And, and so we looked at different interpretations and there were certainly differences there, but we worked through them and said, okay, well, I learned a ton from her about different ways I could interpret some texts that belong to my own tradition and vice versa. So there’s healthy disagreements that can that can function as long as you have certain ground rules in place.

There’s a great I can talk more about this later, perhaps if we come back to it in the Q&A. But there’s a great sort of introductory chapter by Rabbi David Novak about ground rules for Jewish-Christian dialog that set some things to avoid. So things like syncretism or disputation, proselytizing, this sort of stuff, as long as those ground rules are in place, difference can be healthy.

I’ve also experienced differences here at the U that aren’t so healthy, that are rooted in, I think, religious illiteracy and often hostility, which is is way too frequent. So there was a survey that was done by the student newspaper here, The Daily Utah Chronicle in 2019, I believe. And the survey found from one of the questions that they asked that 17% of the campus community does not feel welcome here on account of their religious identity, which is one out of every six people, which is a really disturbing number to me. And there are things that I’ve, the stories I’ve heard, you know, as a professor of religious studies, I hear students tell stories in office hours, in their papers. I’ve even experienced some myself that sort of illustrate why this might be the case. And I think those are important to recognize. I totally agree with your dual way of acknowledging problems, but then looking at a vision for the future.

So some of the problems that — I might just tell a couple of stories here — that addressed this. So in 2016, there were posters around campus, some of which were just like right outside of the hallway where I teach world religions that were advertising a an event. Duke scholar Omid Safi was coming to talk about Islamophobia. These posters were vandalized with all sorts of hateful messages. “Islam means Death to the West” was one of the things scrawled across this poster in Sharpie. So that was a pretty disturbing thing that hit very close to home. I mean, right outside my classroom, I was teaching.

I have, I’ve heard stories from students about professors not making accommodations for the High Holy Days. And there was a Jewish student who was not excused or had any extensions, which is a policy on campus. But I think we need to do a better job of educating faculty in that regard.

I myself received an email from another faculty member here after he learned of my own Catholic identity. Part of the email said that “Catholicism is an intellectual and ethical embarrassment in civilized society.” There are a disturbing number of these sorts of incidents that happen.

I had a student that came in to my office hours that said that her own sort of family, you know, advice was “you ought to be careful going to the U. If you want to go to the U don’t expect to be able to practice your religion there. You go to the U to lose your faith.” And that broke my heart as somebody who teaches here because that’s not the U that I want to be, that some people experience. That is a difficult sort of sort of thing. So the way that I tried to counter this in my own work is education and encounter, trying to facilitate situations where people can have interactions with each other that are more productive, where difference can be aired but respected rather than as a an instance for denigration, which does happen too often.

Becca Hartman-Pickerill: Thank you. So the question is, what’s a difference, a disagreement, a conversation that you had that has stuck with you, let’s say?

Taylor VanderToolen: Um, I mean, coming from a student perspective, I guess, you know, I should maybe talk about a classroom scenario. And that’s a what immediately comes to mind for me. And it wasn’t so much a disagreement, but like Professor Peterson said just around maybe like there being a taboo around talking about religion in a lot of classes. I, I was in a class saying — I’m a QAMO major, so it’s business economics — I was in a stakeholder economics class and we were talking about a case on religious freedom and and how, you know, a business owner and the courts should rule, and as the discussion — it’s a very discussion-based class — and as the discussion kept going on how everyone would make decisions for this specific case, it kind of felt like we were skirting around the topic of religion a little bit. And and for me, I know for my choices and in what I hope to do in business one day is everything is rooted around my foundation of religion and my beliefs, and so for me to kind of keep trying to skirt around the topic was was pretty difficult. So when I actually spoke about religion, it wasn’t actually met with any disagreement or pushback, which is what I feared and what a lot of students feared in the class.

But the professor was able to lead a really respectful conversation around it. There were things, you know, that he would push back on. And, you know, some people might have gotten offended on certain things for getting pushback on their beliefs, but just being able to discuss that and to be able to see how religion really impacted the values that people had in their decisions really helped. Everyone in the class, I think, was enlightened on what is an appropriate way to to move forward with with a business problem or with a problem they were facing and I think that was a great opportunity for me. And I know that maybe not all students have that same opportunity or have that same feeling when discussing religion in their class. And I think for me and for my other student leaders and what I’ve talked about with the administration is if there are students, you know, like you said, the alarming statistic of one sixth don’t feel comfortable or feel safe. That’s really what we’re hoping to do is to create a safe space on campus for them, but then also to be able to advocate for them and to find the resources that they need in order to feel safe anywhere on campus.

David Levinsky: So I’m not going to answer the question. So I’ll say that right off the bat. I’m not interested in sharing a personal story, but I’ll address it in a sort of bigger way, which you did as well. And because I think really the root of most religious disagreement in America really gets down to what I call the epistemological problem. It gets down to a theory of knowledge where orthodoxies have a theory of knowledge. And by orthodoxies, I should say that not everybody who’s an inheritor of an orthodoxy does so in an orthodox way. Right? So Orthodox, these would be Orthodox Judaism, Catholicism, the LDS Church, Evangelical Christianity, and they hold an epistemology where there’s a singular truth that is divine with a capital T. This idea gets back to the sixth century Greeks. Right?

And then there are other religious commitments which have how could I put it a little bit more of an epistemological humility and say that essentially humans are making those choices are going to be faulted. Truth resides in the divine. What we’re doing here religiously, the best we can get is maybe truth with a small “t,” and that’s probably going to be a mess, too. Right? And those two fundamental approaches to religion are fundamentally irreconcilable, right? And it creates a tremendous amount of problem as far as religious conversation, I don’t have an answer to this one.

All right. So this perception that this student had, “oh, you go to the U to lose your religion,” well you go to the U to encounter an approach to religion that is not orthodox. And that can be really shock to someone who’s coming from an orthodox tradition, right? They’re not losing religion, gaining a different approach to it, right? So I’ll just raise that because I think that’s really what’s at the key. You know, at the core of most religious, most religious disagreements is that whether we’re aware of it or not and important to ask yourself, you know, if you are religious, where do you stand on that question is really important as far as talking to other people who are religious and sussing out where they stand on that question, that’s really core. We’re good at that.

Monica Dobbins: I agree with all of that. And like Rabbi Levinsky, I’m also not going to directly answer the question, but I will talk about what has served me and what continues to serve me when I’m in religious, religiously-based conflict or disagreement. Two things that really stand out for me. One is just religious literacy, which I feel like is a part of being a citizen in a democratic society, that if we’re going to live successfully in a multi-faith society, then we have an obligation, learn about other religions, and to learn not just what’s different, but what are the best things of each religion.

What are the core values that lift up the best in humanity? That’s an important part of our education. And I think that our society is struggling with this right now, that there’s a feeling in some quarters that if we learn about other religions, we might forget our own. I don’t think that that’s what shooting for. Rather, when we learn about other religions, we are actually able to root down deeper into our own tradition. We learn more about other people then it gives us a window on ourselves. What is my religious tradition? What’s important about it? What does it say about me? It’s a way of nurturing our conscience, right?

The other part that I think gets missed a lot is emotional literacy. And this is something that’s that I think is pretty new in science, in religion, in sort of these multidisciplinary ways of thinking. But we understand that any identity marker that we carry, anything that we consider a part of our identity is connected to an emotional layer of life where we need to know how we feel. We need to understand where our feelings are coming from. And people who experience trauma through their identity also have layers of emotions that may not be apparent. So when I’m having a conversation with someone of a different religion and we’re clashing over an issue, what I want to know is not just the facts of the issue, which is important for me to know. I need to know what is actually happening, what’s the history of this issue? How what’s what are the details? But also, how is it making people feel?

Because before we can process information up here in our prefrontal, right, we’ve got to get through the emotional layer. It hits our bodies right? And we can’t get to here until we’ve gone through here. That’s the way I think about it. So how does this issue affect you on a body level? How does it affect you on a heart level? How is your community processing the emotions? So when we hear about to make it specific, when we hear about violence toward religious minority communities, that trauma gets passed down generation to generation and they continue to live with that trauma and may be afraid when they it isn’t even happening to them, right? So how can I learn to recognize the signs of that, even when it’s not being expressed in words? And how can I sort of bow down at the shrine of other people’s feelings and emotions and the community’s emotions? That’s something that’s really important for me in interfaith work right now.

Luna Banuri: I want to answer the question directly, but I’m having trouble, so I’m going to just say whatever is coming to my mind and some of the things that hit me personally around, you know, contradictions in understanding of faith are different things was most of them those experiences were through my children, you know, my child being called out in a class and saying, “your people cut off hands, you know, to achieve justice,” you know? And then when we questioned those remarks, the school district coming back, trying to basically not understand our perspective or, you know, my child being picked out from a line of White kids as a perpetrator of violence when there was no evidence. But the response to these questions, you know, does for myself, does merit a bigger sort of ideology.

You know, the national research, for example, shows I’m quoting from Institute of Social Policy and Understanding that one in every eight Muslim children are bullied in this country. Currently. And out of those that are bullied, 70, 60 to 70% are by the school administration or the teachers. What is the result of that right now out of Stanford, the research shows that one in every three Muslim kids has attempted suicide or has committed suicide. One in three. I mean, these numbers are not, they’re very sobering. And the issue with religious identity is that students, folks who face this also realize when you’re talking about intergenerational trauma, you can change your appearances, but you cannot change your faith. So when something, when you’re bullied because of or you’re targeted because of your faith, it has a very deep impact.

Now, as a parent, as a community “diplomat” (which is a complement) or a bridge builder or just an organizer, how do we go around trying to address these issues? Because they are personal, but it’s also I have the opportunity of addressing them in ways where it can probably make systemic change. One of the examples I — two examples — that I will very quickly provide is we, I work on policies, different policies. So last year we were going over let’s say when we talk about Muslim mental health, I was looking at numbers. I believe there is not one Muslim woman athlete in any of the colleges in state of Utah. From what I my research shows and this is in obviously very basic research and we were trying to look into why is that happening. If you don’t participate in you know, these healthy activities and so on, it has an impact. So wearing a hijab or wearing modest clothes became one of the major issues of why, you know, girls from our community were not participating. So we had conversation with one of the legislators and had the opportunity to actually do a bill around it that you could modify your athletic uniform according to your modesty standards.

And it was very easy win for us to just ask for it for our community. But we took the time to think through this and made it into an interfaith or inter, you know, community bill, where any Sikh student, any, you know, Catholic and anybody which they have, their modesty standards did not have to go through the process of waiver to change their uniforms and be able to practice whatever sports they’re playing. So that was one policy that we were able to pass. The other is also quickly trying to organize our faith leaders. There is a lot of, let’s say, binaries within the faith leaders system around Shiism or Sunnism and so on. And, you know, the idea of Islamic jihadists and violence across the world and so on. But how in terms of your own local communities, do you bring them together to perform for the community? So what our organization or I have been trying to do is bring them on issues such as family violence or mental health and providing them resources through the faith lens of saying, “do you stand against domestic violence because your faith does demand it?” So finding those common places and once again trying to change the trajectory of our responses to these issues, that’s the way we are, you know, trying to bring about change.

I still would go back to that piece where I kind of not disagree with the Eboo Patel’s, you know, analogy of being on the balcony, but more of saying that we as individual create the base of a baton. You know, we are the center of the circle. It is us that it starts with. There are patterns that are picked up by the world or the universe, but it starts with one person, one, you know, circle and so on. So I’m that’s what I’m trying to practice. Thank you. It was a long answer.

Becca Hartman-Pickerill: Thank you.

Robert Merrills: We have time?

Becca Hartman-Pickerill: Yes, please. Yes, I recognize we’re at the top of the hour. So if folks need to leave, we understand, but I’ll provide a few more remarks after yours.

Robert Merrills: So just before I answer and I will answer the question just in an unexpected way and to say, wow, the ladies doing the interpretation, you guys are working. I see you working. So the disagreement, the setting is a softball field and the participants are myself and a six or seven year old person. Everybody else is out in the field. I’m an extra on the softball team. Somebody has invited me to come play and this young person walks up to me and this isn’t a blast of any particular religious group, and please don’t take it as such. But he walks up to me, he looks at me and he says, “you’re not going to heaven.”

Monica Dobbins: [Gasp]

Robert Merrills: I said, “okay, tell me why.” “You have the mark of Cain.” [Gasps] “Oh, okay.” Well, I am going to heaven, but we’re not going to, I’m not going to argue with the 6/7 year-old person, right? So initially thinking, okay, this young person is more than likely LDS. He’s six or seven. He doesn’t really know a lot. But I’m not going to yell at him or his parents. What it made me do was kind of look at in a bigger sense like, “who am I?” So I felt, okay, and this it’s the scenario. There’s a potential to be an insider or accepted, if you will. There’s a potential be an outsider. So you’re included or you’re excluded. I don’t know enough about the religion at the time to be like I’m either. So my choice is I choose not to identify with how you labeled me. I’m not going to argue with you because we don’t have the intellectual capability to go back and forth. I’m going to crush you. So we’re not going to do that. [Laughter] We’re not going to do that.

But I’m also not going to get upset. So my thought is, as I enter into and this is one of my intros to Utah, I’ve been here now 28 years, had some great conversations over the years. But am I going to let this encounter filter the way I interact with anybody who’s LDS, or am I to get to condemn that church because of this? No, I’m going to continue to be who I am. And part of who I am is, oh, the religious part, it’s always a part of me and so my attempt then and my attempt now is and identify myself as a Christian, I hope is I’m a pastor of a Christian church is I want you to meet Christ before you meet a Christian. And what I mean by that is I want my behavior and how I think about things in my approach to be such that you feel greeted by someone who really cares to you as opposed to you seeing someone and you hearing and seeing a picket sign or you hearing some comments or in an election or whatever. Oh, that’s what a Christian is.

I want you to meet the Christ to hopefully informs the Christian before you meet the Christian who may be mistaken and off-base at times and, so I look at these encounters, and let me throw out one other thing. Disagreement is not necessarily bad disagreement. It’s disagreement. It doesn’t vilify us. It doesn’t make us polar opposites. I believe, and I could be totally wrong and I’m willing to debate with anyone I think it would be healthy, is all disagreements of all of those contentions all boil down to miss, uncommuted expectations, uncommunicated expectations. So you’re failing to meet expectations? I think that’s the root of all conflict. Right. But having said all of that, and this endeavor that we call life, we’re going to bring who we are, which part of this is religious, we’re going to bring that into what we do. But it should be a part of just like anything else, it helps inform but never to set down and never to say, “well, I’m better because of this or I’m worse because of this,” but “how does who I am, add to what we’re trying to do?” And so the disagreement was a disagreement. It was, it is whatever. We’ve moved on and now we’re hopefully solving additional problems. So disagreements may not go away, but I don’t have to stay with the disagreement long term. I can continue, move on, acknowledge it, and continue to be who I am without having it affect me. That make sense?

Becca Hartman-Pickerill: Thank you. Thank you so much. And just let’s give a round of applause to everyone on the conversation today. And I know Dr. Peterson has to go teach another class. I don’twant you to be late. Thank you, folks. Feel free to get up if you need to. I would love if you have five more minutes for us. It’s actually really important to me. It’s very engaging to me to hear the questions that you have. And then we could do a quick one minute, respond to what you hear, pick anything or give some concluding remarks.

David Levinsky: If I may ask, where you guys got the pizza? That’s my plan for later.

Becca Hartman-Pickerill: All right. So folks will stick with us for just a few more minutes. I would love to hear what questions you have. We won’t address them all, but it’s helpful to raise them. And we have a roving mic. Thank you.

Audience Member 1: Hi. So, yeah, this is for anybody. I was just curious if you have any thoughts on who gets to decide legitimacy of religious practices and similarly if you have any thoughts on the role of religion as protest such as with the Satanic Temple?

Becca Hartman-Pickerill: Thank you so much. Before we address, let’s get all the questions in the room. Thank you very much.

Audience Member 2: Yeah. So I guess I’m curious, being formally religious myself, I’m no longer, but just kind of how do you balance between this kind of coalition and community building and trying to find the the connections you all have in being religious? How do you balance that with kind of I guess and you know, this is a very personal experience for me, but kind of this desire to kind of share your own belief and maybe to convert others.

Becca Hartman-Pickerill: Thank you so much for that question. Another question over here.

Audience Member 3: I just I this is going to come with a little bit of foundation. I apologize. I just, every time I try to ask this, I feel like I immediately am required to justify that I’m asking, so some of this may feel familiar to some of you up there. I know it was mentioned, and I’m actually really happy it was mentioned, although I’m sad Professor Peterson left that because I’m about to quote him. It’s like it was mentioned that a religious belief in practice is not. And I honestly think, like more often than people believe, it’s not just a matter of, you know, who you think or is not in the sky and what’s going to happen thereof, or whether you go to a building or a or a tree or a personal shrine and perform some sort of act or any of the things that people like to say as this is the religious practice, that it is the daily things we do and it’s the things maybe we take for granted.

And so being a member of a religious minority in this country, I find it kind of weird hearing people talk about, well, people in the country are less religious than they think. On the topic of deconstruction as construction, I’m wondering how much of getting to the root of inclusion of diversity specifically, and especially in religious ideas are both, you know, here on campus as a kind of a microcosm in the country at large. Do any of you think is going to be primarily rooted in having to acknowledge the deeply religious foundation of society as it stands that people aren’t paying attention to? Like there’s this saying about people in Israel, more often than not, you’re going to hear people saying they don’t belong to any to a given shul, but the shul they don’t belong to is a silently acknowledged as being orthodox.

I feel like the same is kind of true here. People say they don’t have a — lot of people, I should say, don’t say they have a particular religious bent when they’re saying that. What they’re saying that they’re thinking is Christian usually Protestant. You know, why should a computer not process your bank transaction on a Sunday? You know, why can’t you go to a pharmacy on a Sunday? Why do kids get Valentine’s Day off or participate in Valentine’s Day activities and get Christmas off of school? When I have to constantly explain that Hanukkah isn’t a Jewish Christmas it’s a much broader idea and I’m just … is it just me, or do people who are really examining these things also think maybe the big work we need to do first is acknowledge the myth of secularism in our society so that we can come to an understanding that we all have, to some degree, religious practice, and then we can start acknowledging that they’re all equal?

Becca Hartman-Pickerill: Thank you so much. Any final questions? Okay. Thank you so much. We’ll do one. Did we have another question? Okay. All right. We’ll do one minute of closing remarks and let’s start at the very end. Feel free to respond to any other questions that you feel called to, share your gratitude for today, or anything else.

Taylor VanderToolen: Yeah, I know. Yeah, that, that sounds great. I guess the question that really stuck out to me was maybe how do I — the questions kind of got confused in my mind now — but specifically, how can I like engage with other people that maybe aren’t of my same belief but not try to convert them? Is that was that the main part of the question? So I think for me, I talked about it initially a trying to build a community with people that aren’t of my belief. And, you know, I served as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints where, you know, my purpose was to bring people to Christ. And although I, you know, I still believe, you know, that that is still a part of my purpose as a person, I think it’s been stated a couple of times that really I also see as my purpose of just trying to bring people to Christ and to get people to know Him, right?

Like you said, and I think the best way to do that is just to be kind to people. And then if they express interest or if I have a feeling that, you know, maybe they could be interested in the church or in my own beliefs, then I don’t have the fear of of wanting to share that with that person, but then always being respectful if they don’t. And I’ve had incredible experiences where I have shared that with people that didn’t want to accept it and others that did, and for both, you know, for both people, I’ve always had it in my mind that no matter what, I still want to try to be their friend and to try to bring them to the light of maybe my own beliefs and to be kind and to continue to teach them Christ-like values. And so I think that’s been how I’ve approached that is, is constantly, you know, understanding that these are my beliefs. This is what I believe, but I don’t want to ever try to force that on anybody or … I’ll always be consistent with that person. So I guess that’s kind of how I’ve let it. I know that was over a minute, so.

Becca Hartman-Pickerill: I’ve got to encourage people if we can do it in a minute. I know folks have already stuck with us. Thank you.

David Levinsky: Jews aren’t allowed to proselytize. Nobody should proselytize. So let’s move on. Move on from that. As far as I look, I’m so fascinated by the project of the Church of Satan, because I think what they’re really doing with their deconstructive project is by sort of masquerading as a religion. They’re, you know, sort of their, with their tongue very much in their cheek. They’re revealing that we don’t live in a secular society and to some degree, trying to undermine the way that religion is woven into a seemingly secular society. So I definitely I watch them all the time. It’s incredibly fascinating what their project is doing. I think arguably the most interesting new religion, and I’ll just say it the most, definitely the most interesting new religion in America today, which has nothing to do with Satan, of course. And that’s the joke. And it is a big joke as well. It’s also a very funny religion. So I’ll just, I’ll leave it at that. I had to get the proselytizing thing here. And so it’s please just leave us alone. We don’t want Christ. Now can’t you leave us alone?

Monica Dobbins: Would you remind me the first part of your question?

Audience Member 1: Yeah. It’s about who gets to decide the legitimacy of religion.

Monica Dobbins: Yeah. Oh, I could say a lot about that, but I’ll speak on behalf of my faith. In our faith, we have a lot of folks who don’t believe in God at all. A lot of folks who do believe in God, but maybe not in traditional ways. And, you know, I’ll quote the religious historian Gary Dorrien, who says that “we’re really all agnostic because nobody knows,” right? We might feel like we know. We may have a lot of evidence. But the truth is, we don’t know. So in our faith, authorities with the people and it’s we talk a lot about authority and how it’s granted. But all of my authority to serve as a minister comes from the people who trust me and endow me with that authority. If they don’t trust me anymore, they can take it from me. Right? So I have an obligation to earn their trust. And that for us is the locus of religious authority. And I’d really like to see that become more of a way … I think that’s a gift that we could give the world is what is an understanding of authority and how it’s given and how we ought to use it. And I think that trust and authority we were just talking about this before the panel began, that trust and authority been eroded so much in our society that all kinds of institutions, including religious institutions, have lost authority because they’ve acted in untrustworthy ways. And so any of us who are leading institutions or who are invested in institutions have an obligation to think about this relationship between authority and trust and do good things with it and earn that trust back.

Becca Hartman-Pickerill: Thank you.

Robert Merrills: And I’ll be quick simply to say all the questions that were just asked and even the ones that maybe you’re thinking of, but have not asked, are important questions. Help us to figure out what we do believe, what we don’t believe. Help us to understand what others believe. And I think it’s critical for us, as we think about whether it’s religious practice or any other practice. Questions are important. If I’m not willing to have you ask questions then I’m not really comfortable in what I believe. And so I invite you always to ask questions and there’s maybe a more appropriate way to do it at times. But don’t stop asking questions because that helps lead us to new answers and to new opportunities.

Becca Hartman-Pickerill: Thank you all so much. And thank you to those who had to leave. Thank you all for your time. We know your time is incredibly precious, and I appreciate that you spent it for an hour plus, plus with us here. The invitation really is think about what you’re for as well as not just what you’re against. Find fellowship with people even before things fall apart. And then think about what you need to flourish and help to instantiate the kind of spaces where others can know that worldview identity is probably a piece of that. And the institution is a place where I think we want to have these conversations. So if you have more questions, then keep them keep them coming. But in the meantime, thank you so much for your time and thank you to all the panelists.