Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Politician's Religious Affiliation: No Es Importante!

by Victoria Rehr, Resource Development Intern for Project Interfaith

Absence makes the heart grow fonder; or so I’m frequently told whenever I complain about missing something from the United States. Living in Ecuador for a year on study abroad has changed my perspective on quite a few things in life, but my consideration of religion in public life has been altered quite drastically.

Ecuador is (obviously) a different ballgame than the United States; salsa music blares on death-defying bus rides, hot empanada stands are as prevalent as Starbucks, and I get frantic emails every month or so from the Department of State telling me which volcanoes are erupting and the best evacuation routes. But beneath these obvious contrasts lies a more complex issue: a culture that has a fundamentally different worldview.

This diversity of perspective most certainly extends to religion. Like most Latin American countries, Ecuador has a strong Catholic majority and a growing presence of Evangelical groups, with a smattering here and there of other faiths. Most Ecuadorians clarify that they are not catholic, but Catholic, devoted to the worship and traditions in a way not commonly seen throughout modern North America and Europe. The relationship of Catholicism with Latin America is complex, given that it is in all actuality the religion of the conqueror. But Christianity, and especially Catholicism, has become an integral part of Ecuadorian culture, shaping everything from family bonds to government.

The United States presents a markedly different picture. Despite claims to the contrary that we are a “Christian nation,” diverse traditions and faith practices are one of our defining characteristics. Although this patchwork of creeds can make for contentious discussion (War on Christmas, anyone?) the freedom and variety of religion is part of our national identity.

Differences in religious dialogue are perhaps most evident during election season. The heightened tension of the 2012 presidential election is still probably fresh in the mind of most Americans (or "United Statesians", as the politically correct say in South America). From Mormon to Muslim, faith was a central issue in last year’s election. It came up in all the debates and at the national conventions, and many swing issues for voters were based on religious differences.

Although it probably didn’t make headlines, Ecuador had its presidential elections this February. Incumbent Raphael Correa was re-elected by a heavy majority in a surprisingly predictable election, given that Ecuador has had eight presidents in fifteen years. But noticeably absent from the election rhetoric was any extensive discussion of faith. Here and there Correa’s reputation as “a good Catholic man” was mentioned, but the election was largely focused on pressing economic issues and international disputes.

This comparison seems a little counter-intuitive: wouldn’t the more conventionally religious nation have more recognition of faith in its presidential elections? If “Jesus Saves” is printed on the side of most major bus companies, shouldn’t different conceptions of God be at the forefront of every debate?

These questions have no easy answers, but I think that the solution lies within the religious diversity of the United States. Our faith traditions are different, but so are our ideas about the role of religion in the public sphere and its influence on major issues. The controversies between groups are more divisive and difficult. Interfaith dialogue becomes an important tool for building bridges in tolerance, but also with creating productive solutions to problems facing our communities and nation. 

This is not to say that interfaith work has no place in Ecuador or other nations dominated by one faith tradition. Rather, it is to point out the opportunity and importance of interfaith dialogue in the United States. We may tire of hearing the constant back and forth of debate about “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance or the President’s secret religious identity, but with so many faith traditions co-existing relatively peacefully in one country, it is only to be expected. Finding common ground between these groups can be difficult, but is also a valuable and unique aspect of our national identity.

There are some things that I miss very much about the United States, and some things that I could forget about for another year. The divisive debates centered on religion used to be a constant headache for me, but I’ve come to see them as another characteristic of the rich tapestry of faiths in our nation. I count myself lucky to be both an interfaith activities and United Statesian.

Tori Rehr is the Spring 2013 Resource Development intern for ProjecInterfaith. She is a junior majoring in Psychology and Spanish at Juniata College, and is studying in Quito, Ecuador for the academic year. Tori previously worked as research assistant to the Psychology Department at Juniata, investigating cognitive effects of language learning and the political implications of multiculturiasm. She became passionate about interfaith while volunteering with Juniata’s Planting Seeds organization, and is excited to learn more about the non-profit world with Project Interfaith. Tori enjoys reading, playing the flute, learning new languages, and traveling.

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