Religion: The Unspoken American Shibboleth

No candidate in the recent era has become a serious contender for the Oval Office without uttering, in one way or another, “I am a person of faith.” While America has no state religion, 86.8 percent of Americans self-identify as religious. Identifying as a person of faith is a de facto American political shibboleth. Faith clearly matters in modern America. With this premise, it seems prudent for institutions of higher learning to address the role faith plays in our lives. Some of the 5Cs have begun to address this issue. For example, last year Christopher Hitchens spoke at Pitzer and Ayaan Hirsi Ali spoke at Scripps. However, Pomona is noticeably absent from this public forum.

Pomona has a Religious Studies department, and faith is constantly discussed in the humanities and social science classes. Yet it is significant that questions of faith are not explored in a public forum. With the exception of the Religious Studies department, these outlets generally treat faith as an historical condition, not a present reality. If we want to explore and understand the role of faith in our lives, it must be a part of our public discourse.

Race, gender, sexuality, class and politics are all recurrent topics among public speakers at Pomona. These are all vital issues to understand in our society, but so is faith. Why does faith, an issue that is as universally relevant as those more popular topics, receive far less attention? It is possible that Pomona simply avoids faith in an attempt to provide a “safe space” for non-believers or agnostics. I think this fails to explain the lack of dialogue at Pomona. Even given the ridiculously untrue premise that all Pomona students are atheists, it is still a scholar’s mission to understand alternate views. Faith may have a larger impact on Pomona’s atheist students than one might assume.

As a progressive person of faith, I would point out to my fellow Sagehens and friends on the left that faith is not foreign to the current Democratic Party or President Barack Obama. In fact, Obama stated in The Audacity of Hope that he “felt God’s spirit beckoning” him. Obama’s words could have come from the mouth of Sen. John Edwards, Obama’s notably religious challenger in the primary, or almost any other major political figure. Apprently, his unabashed Christianity did not stop Pomona students from mobilizing for Obama. I know progressives have qualms about Obama, but I never heard anyone identifying his embracing faith as a reason to temper their support for him. If active young progressives can countenance a candidate of faith, surely we can have an open public discourse on faith. Such discourse must not have an unspoken agreement to dance around the edge of issues of faith. Rather, we must be able to discuss faith with the same intellectual vigor and mutual respect as the other crucial issues of our time.

Today about 13.2 percent of Americans self-identify as secular or non-religious. Our national principles demand that we protect the rights of the non-religious just as much as the religious. Nonetheless, faith is still an essential shibboleth in American politics. The ancient Israelites used the word “shibboleth” to identify their foes because their enemies could not pronounce it. A public discussion of faith at Pomona would not be for the purpose of distinguishing the “loyal” faithful from the “enemy” unfaithful. Allowing tensions of faith to go unexplored is not tolerance, but is at best tacit disinterest, at worst a muted sense of pluralism. Conservatives do not have a monopoly on the right to speak about faith. In Claremont, the problem is not the repression of liberal voices, but their silence. Progressives and progressive institutions must be willing to speak about faith. We must be willing to speak about the American shibboleth, even if we speak wrongly in the view of some.

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