Young People Lead the Way in Tough Conversations
by Miranda Hovemeyer
There’s a photo that I keep seeing posted on social media. I can’t find the original source, but it’s a photo of what appears to be a page from a book. On the page is written, “Being taught to avoid talking about politics and religion has led to a lack of understanding of politics and religion. What we should have been taught is how to have a civil conversation about a difficult topic.”
I’ve been thinking about this exact subject a lot lately, and reflecting on my own experiences surrounding difficult conversation topics. I don’t remember being taught by my parents that there were certain “taboo” subjects that were best to avoid in conversation, but I do remember learning this from American society and cultural norms. I felt like these norms were especially concrete when it came to religion. It was just something we didn’t talk about, especially if we weren’t Christian, or we were struggling with our sense of place in Christian dominated society.
When I was in middle and high school, I had a few friends that were strong Evangelical Christians. One day in a social studies class at my public high school, our teacher mentioned how Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all shared Abrahamic roots. One of my Christian friends began shouting at the teacher, saying that this couldn’t possibly be true, and was so upset by the idea that she started crying and shaking and finally had to be excused from class. I remember being confused and surprised that she didn’t know this, and even more so that she wasn’t alone; that most people in the class were unaware of this fact. My teacher let the matter go, but I remember wondering why nobody in my class seemed to know much about religion and why it was never discussed in an objective manner.
Flash forward to the future. I’m in my early thirties, have a Master’s degree in religion, and am doing interfaith peace-building work. The more I get involved with the interfaith movement, the more I’m noticing that the young people are really leading the way. Further, they’re finding new and innovative ways to do the work. I can’t help but think that they’re building the movement by doing exactly what they were told not to do as children; specifically, they’re talking about politics and religion. They’re wrestling with the tough questions.
I think this new youth-driven sector of interfaith work is in some ways more honest, raw, and difficult than what us millennials often call “our grandparent’s interfaith.”
Back when I was starting college and seeking out new ways to get involved in interfaith work, what I came across was mostly interfaith dialogue that was, essentially, two older men sitting next to each other on a stage taking turns stating facts about what their specific faith traditions agreed and disagreed upon. These were hardly ever actual conversations, and never did they address anything that would be considered difficult or controversial. For all intents and purposes, they were upholding the old taboo of not talking about religion, even though they were talking about religion.
Today’s youth-led interfaith movement is unique because it’s gotten past those taboos. Today’s young interfaith leaders know that this work is difficult, and that it must include conversations on topics that make people uncomfortable. I love this, and I love the people doing the work.
Some of my closest friends in the interfaith movement are other young people from faith traditions that are very different than mine. Our friendship has grown because we’ve been able to have difficult discussions, rather than just skirt the issues by assuming we know what the other person believes and the best thing to do is not bring up our differences.
One day a dear friend of mine, who is Catholic, and I spent an entire afternoon talking about our beliefs related to abortion. My beliefs as a secular humanist are very different from his as a Catholic. We were able to have a conversation where we hit all the “taboos” and yet still come out as friends in the end, and I believe we are better friends now because of having that discussion.
Thomas Jefferson said, “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.” I think this sentiment is something that young interfaith leaders have taken to heart. The old “taboos” never did anyone any good, and for interfaith work to thrive, they must be thrown out. It’s time for tomorrow’s leaders to start having the tough conversations about religion and politics. I for one, am excited to see what happens.