Doug Hartmann: There are at least two facets of religion in America that stand out to sociologists. First, Americans have long been among the most religious people in the developed world. Religion has been a foundation of community, connection, and citizenship throughout this country’s history. Second, there is a remarkable diversity and pluralism of religious belief and practice in the United States, documented most recently and famously by Diana Eck‘s religious pluralism project at Harvard.

Few nations can claim this unique combination; typically, religious devotion goes hand in hand with religious conflict (or worse). Indeed, it is precisely because of this harmonious combination of devotion and diversity that noted political scientist Robert Putnam (he of Bowling Alone fame) titled his recent book on American religion American Grace.

For a sociologist, this unique, almost paradoxical combination of devotion and diversity raises questions about solidarities and boundaries. These kinds of questions inspired me to undertake a research project with some of my students almost a decade ago on the idea of America as a Judeo-Christian (rather than Christian) country. Without going into the details, we found that over the course of less than 50 years, the term “Judeo-Christian” went from being either a cultural curiosity or political provocation to a bipartisan, mainstream touchstone supposedly signaling the historic culture of the nation.

As Wing Young Huie and I started talking about religion and society, I remembered this paper and sent it along. Wing is not particularly religious, though he was for some time, and I don’t know how closely he read my paper or what he thought of it, but this is the photograph and commentary he sent in return.

Muslim Men by Wing
Roosevelt High School Students, Minneapolis, MN. From Lake Street USA (1997-2000). © Wing Young Huie.

Wing Young Huie: When I took this photograph in 1998, nearly half of the student population at Roosevelt High School, located in the urban core of South Minneapolis, was Somali. Perhaps school district officials thought it best to keep all of the refugees together; that’s what they’d done with Southeast Asians in the mid-‘70s, too.

All of the students pictured here are Muslim and, as required by their faith, pray five times a day. This could be problematic during school hours, and they’d pray as discreetly as they could under stairwells or in bathrooms. Whether it was the separation of church and state that legally prohibits prayer in schools or the distinctly not Christian spectacle of prostrated Islamic worship, the Somali students banded together to find an alternative place to pray. Racial tensions flared between these students and both white and other black students at Roosevelt.

Ironically, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church (across the street from the school) became the safe haven for these kids. Every Friday during their lunch hour, Somali students transformed the basement of Our Redeemer into a mosque. First the boys prayed, then the girls.

Fourteen years later, I wondered if a Muslim prayer group still meets. I was surprised to see that the church marquee now reads: Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church. The cultural cross-pollination continues: the Oromo, ethnic refugees from Ethiopia, now occupy the sanctuary and hold services in both Oromo and English (for the young Oromos who don’t speak the mother tongue). The Roosevelt Muslim student group is still going strong and has moved its services several doors down to the YMCA. One school administrator told me that they are now joined by a significant African American contingent that has converted to Islam.

Doug Hartmann: At first, I was surprised by Wing’s choice of an image. But as I started thinking it through, I came to see Wing’s representation of Muslim men as a wonderful commentary on the ongoing changes, challenges, and complexities of the cultural-religious core of American cultural life. The photo and Wing’s commentary underscore both how open and tolerant Americans can be of religious differences, as well as of how much work we still have to do in terms of acknowledging, accepting, and incorporating these different communities of believers. I mean, on the one hand, if there is some big, cultural consensus about America being a Judeo-Christian nation, where does this leave Muslim Americans? Apparently, sometimes in stairwells and basements. I’m quite sure that this is why some conservatives are so obsessed with the belief that our President, whom they cannot stand, is secretly Muslim.

More interestingly, I went back and reviewed my original paper. There I was equally surprised (and a bit embarrassed) to be reminded that we had actually found that Muslims and Islam were at that time emerging as a major point of discussion and controversy in the context of references to Judeo-Christian culture. I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten this thread and needed Wing to help me rediscover it! Now I’m thinking it might be time to update this research, originally undertaken early in the new millennium, when the after-effects of 9/11 and its implications for Arabs and Muslims and Islam were only beginning to be felt.