Washington — People who attended a recent forum sponsored by the White House ignored the old adage not to speak about religion or politics in public.
They were members of a variety of faiths, or no faith at all, focused not so much on own their own religious beliefs but on how to get rid of misconceptions around religion that cause divisions, religious discrimination and even violence.
Melissa Rogers, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, stressed that the timing to promote religious pluralism was especially right in light of recent waves of anti-Muslim rhetoric.
She also said the aim of the White House effort was not to just to urge people to tolerate those with different beliefs or to blend faith traditions together, but instead to "bring our various particularities and beliefs to the table of conversation."
At the Dec. 17 forum, "Celebrating and Protecting America's Tradition of Religious Pluralism," Rogers pointed out that pluralism "is about participation and engagement with one another across our differences, not simply coexisting beside one another."
Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, said that in upcoming months, her office will partner with federal agencies to host a series of community roundtables and discussions in an effort to overcome religious discrimination.
"Combating discrimination based on one's religion remains fundamental not only to protecting our values but also to defending our freedom," Gupta said.
From where she sits, this is no easy task and will likely take a number of discussions to make some inroads, but it is a start.
As she pointed out during the Washington gathering: "Hate-motivated violence and discrimination deserve no place in civilized society."
She also noted that after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, there had been an increase in the number of hate-related incidents targeting Muslim Americans, as well as those perceived to be Muslim.
Gupta said her office is investigating reports of criminal threats and violence against mosques and Muslim children and adults, but she also noted that this "discriminatory backlash" not only threatens U.S. Muslims but impacts our society as a whole.
She said it will take more than just the work of her office to combat this kind of discrimination, and she applauded the efforts of nonprofit groups and religious organizations taking part in the "Know Your Neighbor" campaign designed to let people know about different faith traditions.
This campaign was described at the White House event in a panel discussion led by Jesuit Father Tom Reese, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, who was appointed to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2014.
Gurwin Singh Ahuja, a Sikh who founded the campaign, said: "We are a nation of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, non-religious people and more. We live and work together and we need to have faith in each other."
He pointed out that he personally fears religious discrimination and he hopes that simple dialogue between neighbors of different religious backgrounds will put a stop to this.
The website, knowyourneighbor.us, includes a pledge to get to know people of other faiths and ideas about how to do so, including a group dinner with suggested conversation topics.
Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, stressed the importance of gaining more understanding of other faiths by pointing out, "Familiarity breeds tolerance and even acceptance. Negative attitudes tend to decline as people interact more with members of lesser-known religions."
He also said the nation's religious landscape is becoming more diverse, noting that about two-thirds of Americans older than 65 are white and Christian compared with 3 in 10 Americans under the age of 30.
"That's a really big sea change," he said.
Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of Interfaith Alliance based in Washington, wrote in a Huffington Post column that the White House effort to encourage religious pluralism is "heartening," but he said this work "cannot be only a top-down phenomenon."
That's where the Know Your Neighbor campaign comes in, he said, adding that learning about others' religious beliefs also means being willing to talk about your own.
The rabbi, who attended the meeting, said religious pluralism is "only possible on the bedrock of religious freedom."
At the White House gathering, he said human rights proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and religious freedom spelled out in the First Amendment "have stood us in good stead for well over 225 years and will continue to do so as long as our common faith is in them."
The White House meeting, he wrote, "was a great reminder of that truth."