For centuries, a diverse and evolving mix of culture, food, faith, art and political opinions has been a constant characteristic of American society. As commentator David Brooks observed, “We are trying to do something that has never been done before … we are trying to build the first mass multicultural democracy.” Yet, amid that difference and diversity, we appear to be having an increasingly difficult time achieving social harmony through mutual respect and dignity. And that struggle is particularly apparent for religious pluralism in one of our core American institutions: higher education.

If the public didn’t know before about the depth and breadth of antisemitism in America, the troubling scenes on college campuses since the October 7 Hamas attacks and Israel’s response have been eye-opening. The Anti-Defamation League reports that 73 percent of Jewish students have experienced or witnessed harassment this school year. Public shock over this situation was exacerbated in early December when the presidents of Harvard, Penn and MIT failed to definitively declare before a congressional panel that “calling for the genocide of Jews” constitutes bullying and harassment on their campuses.

Unfortunately, antisemitism is not the only form of religious bigotry at American universities and in the broader populace. Prior to October 7, over half of Muslim students reported experiencing negative comments about Islam from peers and more than a third were subjected to such comments by professors. Since the Hamas attacks, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has found a 216 percent increase in reports of anti-Muslim bias. Beyond antisemitism and Islamophobia, surveys show that nearly half of Protestant Christians and over one-third of Hindus feel unsafe expressing their worldviews on campus. Clearly, despite an abundance of religious diversity in America and a rich heritage of religion influencing higher education, anti-religious attitudes are prevailing on our college campuses and in our larger social dialogue.

Ironically, as many university environments have grown more hostile to faith and religion, initiatives around diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, have become more influential, especially since the intense period of racial reckoning in the summer of 2020. The basic intent of diversity and inclusion initiatives is noble: to end discrimination and create climates where students of all backgrounds can thrive. Nevertheless, DEI has met significant public backlash for promoting policies and practices that introduce new forms of discrimination and advance radical agendas of separatism and tribalism. As a result, state lawmakers have proposed or passed bills to scale back DEI at public universities to the point that it could soon be on life support. Some have advocated for pulling the plug altogether, like Elon Musk, who posted on that “DEI must DIE.”

It’s hard not to agree with the concerns of lawmakers and citizens over flawed DEI initiatives. Unfortunately, the oppressor-victim framework guiding recent diversity efforts has not only created broad resentment, but, paradoxically, has made it more difficult for higher education institutions and the society they serve to achieve the supposedly unifying objectives of DEI.

However, as we look to the future, we also reject the false dichotomy of either keeping DEI as-is or leveling it to the ground. In our view, the quest for inclusion in our increasingly diverse world should begin in and be a vital function of higher education. Yet, diversity and inclusion initiatives clearly need a renovation, starting at the foundation. To begin, we need to move away from the zero-sum perspective of oppressors and victims and move toward a loftier and more nuanced framework of pluralism. In doing so, diversity efforts must also focus on promoting the inclusion of all people rather than having a singular focus on only certain identities.

“Religion is not like a coat and hat that one puts on and takes off — it seeps into people’s lives, leaving an indelible mark on their attitudes and behaviors.”

This is where religious inclusion comes into the picture. The recent examples of antisemitism and Islamophobia on campuses have exposed a giant weakness in DEI efforts: a stubborn refusal to meaningfully engage with faith. In higher education, a recent study shows that most universities do little to accommodate, let alone legitimize and empower, individual religious expression. However, there have always been good reasons for making religious inclusion part and parcel with diversity initiatives. As one scholar observed, “religion is not like a coat and hat that one puts on and takes off — it seeps into people’s lives, leaving an indelible mark on their attitudes and behaviors.” In fact, for some students, learning is seen as a divine mission and religious endeavor, even when the subject is secular. Furthermore, some university faculty and administrators, including us, felt a spiritual call to serve in the academy. Thus, ignoring religion is tantamount to discounting individual identity, which flies in the face of every conceivable diversity and inclusion goal.

To be clear, by calling for more religious inclusion in American higher education, we are not making a call for more identity-based separatism — there is already more than enough of that in our society. Rather, we are calling for an acknowledgement of faith as a core element of the human experience that, if not legitimized by our institutions of higher learning, will result in even greater exclusion and discrimination — the very things diversity and inclusion initiatives attempt to eliminate. Indeed, religious pluralism not only prepares students to be future leaders in a diverse and globally connected world, but it enables them to build skills in listening and civility — much-needed skills in today’s diverse communities and workforces.

Why, then, have universities, as a reflection of broader society, overlooked religion as an element of relevant diversity? We do not pretend to know all the reasons, and our purpose is not to dissect those reasons. Rather, our point is that religious inclusion can be the start of a much-needed DEI renovation based on a pluralist philosophy and an overarching goal of inclusion for all people. Furthermore, even though religious inclusion should have always been part of diversity initiatives and perspectives, we argue that it may even be the key to saving and restoring their original intent of bringing greater harmony and understanding to our social and civic engagement. Here is why:

First, religious inclusion can help a wider swath of people to see themselves as beneficiaries of diversity work, including its most vocal critics. For example, a pair of surveys by Pew Research Center show that while only 30 percent of Republicans (versus 78 percent of Democrats) think DEI is a good thing, religion and spirituality are overwhelmingly more important to Republicans. Moreover, as noted earlier, conservative Christian groups generally feel unsafe expressing their worldviews in public settings, including college campuses. What would happen if due to religious inclusion efforts, conservative religionists believed that their worldviews could be safely expressed in both private and public forums? We predict that rather than feeling like victims of diversity initiatives, they could become allies of diversity and inclusion because they would feel both included in and protected by such efforts. This is one reason why research in corporate settings shows that when religion is valued as much as any other element of diversity, it is often the rising tide that lifts all boats. In other words, when institutions, including universities, create faith-friendly environments, they widen the scope of inclusion and end up benefiting people of all backgrounds and identities, not just those of religious faith.

Second, there is a history of religion championing social justice and human dignity, which inform diversity and inclusion efforts. For example, historian Taylor Branch observed that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “fused the political promise of equal votes with the spiritual doctrine of equal souls.” In contrast, recent DEI-related efforts have largely been removed from religion in favor of secular rhetoric and frameworks, even though all major religious traditions hold beliefs about loving all people and caring for marginalized groups. This is validated by dozens of studies showing that religiously involved individuals give far more time and money to charity organizations, including secular charities. As such, religionists have more in common with secularist champions of diversity and inclusion — particularly in serving the underprivileged — than either group may think. This realization should spur institutional leaders to see faith and religion as allies of diversity and inclusion rather than obstacles.

The struggle for harmony is particularly apparent on the issue of religious pluralism in one of our core American institutions: higher education.

Third, given religion’s history of promoting human rights, universities and other social institutions can borrow from religion’s playbook for affecting change. For example, the Rev. King not only saw the need for social justice through a religious prism, but he also adopted a peacemaking approach toward achieving that goal that was directly tied to his Christian faith. Fortunately, peacemaking is a part of most major religions’ teachings and beliefs. This is not to suggest that people of faith have always lived up to this ideal — history certainly suggests otherwise — but as demonstrated by the Rev. King, Mahatma Gandhi and others, the probability of ending discrimination and fostering belonging improves significantly when those advocating for change do so through peaceful rather than divisive means. This is one reason why in our own faith tradition, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been implored by President Russell M. Nelson to “abandon attitudes of prejudice against any group of God’s children” while managing “honest differences of opinion with mutual respect and dignified dialogue,” with the goal “to be ... peacemaker(s) now and always.” In that sense, it is possible for the best parts of diversity, inclusion and religion to come together in unity to reshape our vital social institutions, including higher education, into bastions of civility, dialogue and belonging.

Fourth, many religious groups in America, such as Muslims, Catholics and Latter-day Saints (to name just a few) have a history of experiencing political and social oppression, which puts them in a unique position to champion diversity and inclusion efforts. This is not because the experiences of these groups always match or even rival those of other marginalized groups. Rather, it is because these groups can empathize with historically marginalized groups, and empathy is the beginning of allyship. Empathy can also motivate groups that have been in conflict to partner in advocating for one another. For example, during the Israel-Hamas conflict, Jewish and Muslim groups have partnered to jointly combat antisemitism and Islamophobia. Our own faith tradition has worked to heal wounds with the LGBTQ community by promoting laws that strengthen the rights of same-sex couples while protecting religious freedom.

Finally, religion has large numbers of people who can amplify the message of diversity and inclusion. Although religious affiliation has declined recently in the United States, nearly 50 percent of Americans still consider themselves religious. This could translate into millions of people supporting diversity and inclusion efforts from a faith-based perspective. Moreover, despite a decline in religious affiliation, religious diversity is increasing. Thus, voices of support for inclusive practices can come not just from one faith tradition, but many. In short, there is strength in numbers as the tent of diversity is broadened to include religion, particularly with a foundation of respectful pluralism.

We predict that conservative religionists could become allies of diversity and inclusion because they will feel both included in and protected by such efforts.

As vital social institutions that develop our future leaders, how should universities foster greater religious pluralism and inclusion? One approach is to enlist the help of groups such as Interfaith America, which works with universities to create respectful dialogue between religious groups as well as with nonreligious populations. Campuses can also learn from the INSPIRES Index, which tracks faith friendliness on American college campuses. Universities can also promote scholarship around religious diversity, as the University of Michigan is doing with a recently announced multidisciplinary religious diversity research center.

Additionally, religious pluralism can also be built into curricular activities. For example, at the University of Arkansas a class is taught for business students in which religiously diverse speakers are brought in to share how they live and express their faith at work. Similarly, Brigham Young University hosts a case competition for graduate students across the country that is focused on dealing with issues of faith and belief in the workplace.

Regardless of the specific activities undertaken by university, community or civic leaders to foster religious pluralism, they should focus simultaneously on combating religious discrimination while promoting constructive and civil dialogue between religious and nonreligious groups. Once again, this ensures that the process of renovating diversity and inclusion initiatives through religious pluralism is about peacemaking, dignity and civility, not division, identity politics and coercion.

Higher education, as with broader society, is at a crossroads. In the grand American experiment of building history’s most diverse and democratic civilization, our institutions of higher learning must not only be centers of excellence, but also models of respectful pluralism and civil dialogue. Unfortunately, a lack of attention to religious inclusion at American universities has hurt their credibility in that regard among public observers and lawmakers across the political aisle. Religious pluralism will not only redeem diversity and inclusion efforts in higher education and help universities regain the public’s trust, but it will also help secure a more peaceful, dignified and hopeful world.

Stephen Courtright is a professor of management at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, where he studies how family, faith and recreation enrich work. Paul Lambert is the director of the Religion and Human Flourishing Initiative at Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institute and an expert in religious pluralism in society.

This story appears in the April 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.