Working for workplace religious diversity, equity & inclusion


Religious Diversity is NOT About “Melting Pot” Uniformity

3 Jul, 2021

by Kent Johnson, J.D., Senior Corporate Advisor, Religious Freedom & Business Foundation

Part of the blog series, Authenticity & Connection

The most common concern I hear about the religious diversity movement is this: “Will I be pushed to compromise my core beliefs? Will I need to agree that everyone’s spiritual truth claims are equally valid?”

On this, some helpful lessons can be gleaned from the cultural melting pot in the US.

The “melting pot” was at high boil when my father’s parents emigrated from Norway. Within one generation, they had changed our name to the Americanized “Johnson,” learned English, formed societies to help later-arriving Norwegian immigrants “fit in,” started playing baseball, moved out of the tight Norwegian community on Staten Island, saw their children marry into families that had come to this land on the Mayflower, and fought for the US in a World War.

But it wasn’t all about conformity to US norms. One of the key principles that Dad’s parents adopted – indeed, one of the prime reasons they chose to leave their native country for the US – was that of freedom: freedom to advance through hard work and industry beyond the social and economic class to which they were born; freedom to worship and live in accordance with their conscience; in short, freedom to build a new future in the New World.

It wasn’t easy (though many will rightly point out that assimilation was far harder – often impossible – for immigrants who weren’t European. Also, for many blacks, emigration wasn’t voluntary, and it certainly wasn’t undertaken to advance their freedom).

Looking back, it seems to me that the melting pot of the 19th and early 20th centuries was unproductively constraining, even for Europeans. The richness and wisdom of many cultures was lost. The values of freedom were unnecessarily compromised.

The issues presented by growing diversity remain significant today, especially in our workplaces. My chosen residence is Houston; a metro area that has surpassed New York City and Los Angeles as the nation’s most diverse. More than 142 languages are spoken here. Fully one quarter of Houstonians are foreign-born. It’s not just Houston. Workplaces are becoming even more diverse, as suppliers, customers, and “friends” all over the world are increasingly dealing with one another.

The fact of growing religious diversity in particular requires that we find additional ways to address the tension between freedom to be different on the one hand and the need for trusting engagement in our workplaces on the other. Many faiths embrace exclusive truth claims about things that really matter. These inconsistent propositions cannot all be true in the same sense, at the same time. For instance, the Muslim and the Christian have fundamentally different views of the nature of man’s relationship with the divine, and the practical implications of that relationship in their everyday work life. Views of ultimate truth differ widely among atheists, agnostics and people of various faiths.

One theoretical response is to limit engagement among different faiths. To stay in our respective corners. But the option of living cloistered existences, engaging exclusively with those whose faith doctrines precisely match our own, is unrealistic at best. And the option of prohibiting faith-oriented communications fosters resentment, distrust, judgmentalism, discord and fear.

Thankfully, as I’ve pointed out in an earlier post, there are significant shared values on which to build deep connections among people of varied beliefs, without compromise. A set of agreed, common principles can help companies develop a form of diversity and inclusion that respects differences; one that doesn’t force the worst, most intrusive and narrowing conformity like a big indiscriminate melting pot.

In the next two blog installments I’ll reflect more on lessons we can glean from the best and the worst of the “melting pot” experiences in the US. I’ll flesh out implications of a form of “Covenantal Pluralism” [advocated by Chris Seiple and others]. The idea is to seek personal agreement – or “covenant” – around general principles that clear the way for authentic and positive connection while doing no damage to employees’ consciences and core beliefs.

In 1896 my grandparents made a covenant with the US: They would come and work hard and honestly. They’d learn the English language and gradually give up some of their native culture, in order to gain the benefits that would come from US citizenship. But they would NOT give up their core beliefs. In fact, the covenant included assurance from the US that they’d remain free to bring their core beliefs into this new land, and to practice those beliefs. Similar freedoms – and I’d argue more – should be accorded to our employees today as they enter this new land of diversity at work.

I hope you’ll join us as we unpack this further in coming weeks.