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Several hundred people march past the gates of Harvard Yard at Harvard University while protesting the travel ban, March 2017. Charles Krupa

'Religious identities, or any identity, should never be reduced to a violent caricature'

Our societies are at their best when the diversity of our worldviews are ethically celebrated, writes Jacob J Erickson.

THEOLOGY ISN’T going anywhere any time soon. Theological and religious imaginations inform our daily personal and communal lives together.

And those imaginations matter for the materiality of our bodies, our politics, our arts, our understanding of a meaningful life, and how we live in the world.

Whether you’re religious, nonreligious, spiritual, atheist or agnostic, stories of religious worldviews have an unruly way of getting loose in the world and reconfiguring our common terrains, politics, and practices.

Religion allows us interrogate our lives

Religion haunts us in diverse and conflicting locales: in violent histories, stories of civil rights, in grief, in wonder, in histories of oppression, in histories of liberation from oppression, and in ways both beautiful and terrible in our human conditions.

Religion matters for the ethical interrogation of our lives for the visions and interpretations of our histories and futures, whether we like that influence or not.

As a theologian, it’s often my job to slow down and ask what those stories look like. What theological language is being used in the public sphere, and for what ends? What understandings of religion are shaping our political discourse in the present moment?

What stories, known or unknown, do politicians or others tell of faith and what importance do they hold for us today?

Earlier this week, a number of humanities scholars affiliated with the Trinity Long Room Hub spoke on a “Behind the Headlines”-style panel on “Trump’s America: 60 Days In.”

We discussed the histories of political populist movements, of legal challenges and constitutional questions, education and immigration, and stories of everyday people trying to make a way through the muddy quagmire of contemporary global politics.

Trump’s first 60 days

The Trump Administration’s first sixty days in office tell stories of religion, too. And one can be particularly concerned over the way the administration tells them.

Early statements in the campaign whipped up a fury of Islamophobic rhetoric, fear of Muslims. Islamophobic hate groups grew radically in the United States in 2016, a number of organisations reported, including the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The President and his advisors constantly refer to “Radical Islamic Terrorism”, and have, on occasion, refused to state that Islam is a legitimate world religion. The President and his advisors began construction on what they referred to as a “Muslim Ban”, to discourage refugees and immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries from coming to the United States.

Both executive orders trying to accomplish this “ban” targeted Muslim-majority countries. And the courts halted both orders precisely because of the religious animus they contained.

Distorting Islam as a perceived enemy

All of these statements and activities caricature a religion of over 1.5 billion people worldwide.

When the first form of the executive order became public, the Board of Directors of the American Academy of Religion issued an executive statement, arguing that the “ban poisons the public’s understanding of Islam in particular and religion in general.”

Not only do the politics of the Trump Administration distort Islam to construct a perceived enemy, but these religious politics also fail to help our public understanding of religion in general.

Religious experience is complex, diverse, contradictory, and varied from context to context. Religious worldviews can hinder or encourage human flourishing, and so to interrogate our context with thoughtfulness, respect, and hospitality matters.

Identities should never be reduced to caricature

I write these observations as a lay Christian theologian, convicted and convinced that religious identities, or any identity for that matter, should never be warped out of fear or reduced to a violent caricature.

I do so because, on the face of it, my own tradition calls me to “love my neighbour as myself” and to love and seek justice.

I believe that command extends the poetry of its language into loving my neighbours of different religious and nonreligious traditions as well. That command demands religious literacy and interreligious dialogue.

It demands solidarities, patience, and attention across lines of difference. And it demands working with others to celebrate religious and nonreligious pluralism.

Our societies are at their best when the diversity of our worldviews are ethically celebrated for the sake of the common good.

Jacob J Erickson is Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics in the Loyola Institute, School of Religions, Peace Studies and Theology, at Trinity College Dublin. Earlier this week, he was a panellist on the Trinity Long Room Hub’s “Behind the Headlines” series on “Trump’s America: 60 Days In.”

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