After Donald Trump’s loss on November 3rd, 2020, alt-right crowds came together in rallies, shouting familiar slogans: “stolen election,” “Trump is my president,” and other polemic phrases. One notable figure was Nick Fuentes, who held one of these rallies during election season. Attendees at his rally shouted “Christ is King,” followed with “King Trump!” This mantra is not surprising, considering Fuentes and his followers belong to a group of the religious alt-right who preach agendas against non-Christians, immigration, and LGBT rights through the lens of their “Christianity.” Fuentes has advocated for a white-led Catholic theocracy, and he often uses his traditional Catholic values to justify his openly anti-Semitic and fascist ideals.
Fuentes is often criticized by conservative commentators and was banned off various social media platforms for his extreme views. We like to think he is the very small minority and that the Notre Dame community is not representative of this rhetoric. But Notre Dame, too, is not exempt from this ignorance within its student community. Recently, student-associated Instagram pages like @AmericafirstND and @Proud.conservative.catholic touted the same agendas against socialism, homosexuality and “globalists” (anti-Semitic slur) in the name of Christianity. Some conservative Notre Dame students have attempted to call their party “the new Jew,” which not only ignores the nuances and trauma of anti-Semitism but also patronizes Notre Dame’s own Jewish students. The various conservative Catholic accounts that comment on Notre Dame’s official posts or Notre Dame-related posts spout vehement anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, painting Muslims as evil Arabs and terrorists and “praying” for their conversion. And much like Fuentes, they remain “proud and defiant” that they do this in the name of Christianity.
Yet, on the other side of this same religion are people who bring out its faith. Notre Dame’s BetterTogether program brings together students across campus to engage in constructive and positive interfaith dialogue. The Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion constantly works on programs that introduce students to religious peacebuilding, interfaith literacy and cultural immersion, like the Holy Crossroads course that took its students to Oman. My personal experiences are at odds with the intolerance preached by those in my own religious community. I am in a deeply interfaith relationship; I have learned more about love from my Muslim partner than I ever have in my years of existing within a Christian space.
How can there be such a stark difference on the same campus, with one side proclaiming hate in the name of religion and another searching for peace and knowledge in the name of religion?
For one, there is a lack of campus-wide institutional commitment to critical anti-racist and decolonial frameworks, which go hand in hand with a commitment towards religious pluralism. In the Moreau First Year experience class, there is no critical examination of our history and of the Pokagon Potawatomi land we live and study on. And it wasn’t until last August that the University administration finally decided to cover up the Columbus murals, but only after a whole year of controversy and after an entire Columbus Mural committee was established. While there are institutions on campus like Ansari and BetterTogether, the Notre Dame administration has for so long crafted policies made for privileged white students, and concerns of these policies raised by minority students are often met with skepticism. In this sense, other faiths and voices are silenced in the larger community discourse.
There is also an importance in diversifying education and who students surround themselves with. In his book Acts of Faith, Eboo Patel says: “There is a strong connection between finding a sense of inner coherence and developing a commitment to pluralism. And that has everything to do with who meets you at the crossroads.”
At the crossroads, will you engage with “the other” in humility and humanity, or will you see “the other” through the dichotomy of civilized and uncivilized? When I read into the lives of pluralist leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi, I see leaders who fully engaged with diversity and found principles of peace and restraint beyond their own religious and ethnic spaces. For Gandhi, it was linguistic and religious pluralism that drove his movement for Indian independence. In Surah Ar-Rum (30:20-22), the Quran itself reads, “And of His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colours. Indeed there are Signs in this for the wise.”
Do we marvel in the diversity that is given to us, or do we enclose ourselves within our own arbitrary borders? On campus, how many conservative Catholic white students do I see hanging out with those who look different from them? For that matter, how many Notre Dame students actively seek to diversify their groups and open themselves to different experiences?
What I appreciate about interfaith spaces is that they are often diverse and progressive spaces, filled with something many other leftist spaces seem to lack: a commitment to love. When we work to decolonize the spaces and institutions where ignorance and racism fester, we are committing, unconditionally, to love. When we work to educate others on the lived experiences of “the other,” we are committing to love. When we actively engage in empathy, tolerance, and radical compassion, we are living the mission of religious pluralism.
Pluralism is difficult and radical. It is about confronting the limits of paradigms, of embracing differences we may not like while still being affirmed in our own respective beliefs. It is an effort to humble yourself in your own faith, to say your tradition is not the only tradition. Rather, it is understanding there is no true Christianity, no true Islam, no true Judaism. It is, as Gandhi once preached, opening the windows of your home tradition so that other traditions can bring in their unique oxygen.
It’s the commitment to this path that I believe will determine the trajectory of our campus. How do we exist in a world where our traditions continually confront each other? Will we, like Fuentes, actively spew divisive rhetoric and promote hatred? Or will we work towards systematic change and embrace diversity for all its differences? We cannot wait on Notre Dame to make inclusive policies for us. Positive change can only be made by challenging the narratives taught to us, conservative and progressive alike. In an increasingly interconnected world, the greatest opportunity for humanity is to learn from each other’s stories.