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January 19th, 2009
09:21 AM ET

Religious diversity: King's Dream and Obama's Challenge

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/POLITICS/01/19/king.poll/art.king.wpoll.gi.jpg caption="Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963."]

Eboo Patel and Samantha Kirby
Interfaith YouthCore

As we honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. today, we look forward to tomorrow's historic inauguration. And as this inauguration realizes an important dimension of King's dream about racial diversity and equality, it is another dimension of America's multiculturalism that has caused the most controversy for the Obama team: religion.

Americans may be surprised to learn that, just as King's dream has guided Obama regarding matters of race, so has his vision provided a great deal of inspiration regarding religious diversity.

The frenzy surrounding prayer at President Obama's inauguration events doesn't surprise us. At last count, an openly gay Bishop, a prominent Evangelical preacher, a white female Muslim, and three Rabbis from different branches of Judaism will each be offering prayers over the next few days.

Through these choices, Obama points out a simple fact: America is a religiously diverse nation. What's more, he is intent on embracing and engaging this diversity in a new way even if this means gathering some folks in a room together that may not agree on what to do in Israel-Palestine or about the nuptial rights of gays and lesbians.

Since the civil rights movement, Americans have been talking about diversity. We engage in discussion about race, gender, class and sexuality - but at these tables, religious diversity is too often neglected. Obama takes up this challenge at his inauguration.

In doing so, he follows the lead of Rev. King, who marched in Selma side by side with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; Rev. King, who spoke of non-violent action inspired by the "satyagraha" taught by Mahatma Gandhi.

King's ultimate vision was not just about race or nation, but new relationships – between people from different backgrounds, between America and the world, and between humanity and God.

Half a century ago, when we talked about diversity, race was the most pressing issue at hand. Race-based post-colonial movements were rising everywhere. Today, when we talk about diversity, we must address faith. The evening news too often feels like a series of murders committed to the soundtrack of prayer.

America - the most religiously diverse nation in the world and the most religiously devout nation in the West - can find its own diverse religious communities falling into the clash of civilizations paradigm, or choose to embrace and model interfaith cooperation.

At the root of King's spirit was the motivation to bring diverse people together on common ground. President Obama is carrying on that theme with the diverse religious leaders featured at his inauguration. But Presidents aren't the only people who can bring diverse faiths together, and inaugurations aren't the only example of common ground.

Today, more than 200 volunteers of diverse faiths have gathered on the banks of the Anacostia River, the "forgotten river" of Washington DC. They work side by side to plant trees, clean the polluted water, and engage in interfaith dialogue, asking one another, "What from your faith tradition calls you to serve today? Tell me the story of social action that inspires you, so that it may inspire me as well. "

These volunteers honor and claim Dr. King not only as a leader of the civil rights movement, but as a faith hero who built bridges between religious communities through common social action. The project's organizers reflect the diversity of the young people they bring together: Earth Conservation Corps, Unity Walk, the Points of Light Institute, Interfaith Works and the Institute for Faith and Service.

As conflict continues overseas, today provides a picture of the best America has to offer: citizens from different backgrounds coming together to create common action for the common good.

This is precisely what Martin Luther King Jr. would have wanted. And it's precisely the America that President Obama is imagining.

Editor's note: Eboo Patel is founder and Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core (www.ifyc.org) and author of "Acts of Faith." Samantha Kirby is a Public Interest Program Fellow at the Interfaith Youth Core.

soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. brandi and miranda

    Hi CNN.my name is Miranda and I am 12 years old and I am a student who attends DeRidder,La. I just wantes to write this to CNN to tell the world a little about how things have changed so far in a short period of time.Now that the transition of our whole world is about to become before us.Our lives have changed a lot since the early 1900s.In the 1900s theres were integration in the USA.When Martin Luther King Jr. gave his protest and was marching for segragation. I think what he did was great thing.Now that segragation is here ,now we have a better life style.This will be exciting to have the first african american preident tobe sworn in.This weekend I read a book called "This Generation of Americans " this book is telling how there were integration and segragation going on in the early 1900s.This book tells about a little boy in 6th grade just like me who his brother was going to a college and he joinedc a clubb at his school in the south called SNCC and they wanted to stop integration. I think that this book by Fredrick L. McKissack,Jr.is a great book to read.So thank you CNN for reading my story.

    January 19, 2009 at 12:42 pm |
  2. JC- Los Angeles

    Inauguration day will be the start of a new dawn in America for those people that choose to embrace it.

    Tomorrow is not about black and white but rather about the multi-colored, multi-cultural tapestry that makes America so vibrant.

    The Bush regime started with a failure to separate church and state and went downhill from there.

    With America comprised of all races, religions and creeds, here's hoping Obama's cabinet equally represents our nation's proud diversity.

    January 19, 2009 at 11:47 am |
  3. frieda

    “Responsibility” is a great theme for the Inaugural Address. But how does that apply to Tim Geithner? To Charlie Rangel and Chris Dodd?

    Once you set down the marker for a new standard of conduct people my expect you to live up to it.

    January 19, 2009 at 11:30 am |
  4. Pam Castle

    regarding MLK abbreviation. I think it is horrific, that they would reduce the mans name to an abbreviation, if you feel the need to shorten his name Dr. King is much more appropriate. For a man who has inspired a nation over decades WHY do you feel the need to reduce the mans name to MLK. I get a sick feeling inside everytime I hear it. I can imagine a child asking a parent , what is MLK ?and because of the popularity of the commercial for milk, the parents totally miss an opportunity tell what they know about a great leader of the people, who sacrificed everything for his belief. WHY ARE REDUCING THE MAN TO AN ABBREVIATION! THINK ABOUT IT. WHY? I would hope the King family would speak out. Perhaps it would be a good idea to ask them what they think about reducing their, husband, father, mentor, to MLK. WHY do you find this necessary to tag him with an abbreviation not unlike some rap star. WHY. To say the least it is disrespectful! I call him by his rightful name Dr. Martin Luther King.

    January 19, 2009 at 10:43 am |
  5. ashok choudhury

    One hopes,the transformational vision of the new president Obama may really transform America to begin with and then the world. Who knows, his could be the first 'millenium mission' ,if I can say so,
    that will guide the 'world's mind' to think in a new way and may be from that will emerge a 'new world order' that the world aspires but could'nt achieve yet.
    Turning the world into a warless planet of understanding, mutual respect, coexistence, friendship, progress and prosperity would be the biggest gift America can ever present to the world . Not only,this will firmly re-establish its universal leadership but also ,history will record it as the first enlightened country to have effectively guided the entire humanity for better.
    It may really all start with the 'we can' attitude of Obama ,the new president and the new hope .
    After all, we are still seeing ' almost the same traits 'of the old , bygone millenium reflected everywhere, though we have already completed 'almost a decade' of the new one.
    Its time some,new ,'millenium thinking be tried out to 'guide and create a new world order. Who knows ,'what we have been missing'?

    January 19, 2009 at 10:29 am |
  6. Cindy

    The U.S. is definitely very diverse in it's religious beliefs! It is going to make it extremely hard for Obama to lead and not make any of these groups mad at his actions as he wants to try to please everyone and bring them all together.

    He might be able to get them to talk but you won't get them to change their positions on certain issues that they may deem as wrong such as the gay issues. It's great of him to try though.

    One thing though that Dr. King was trying to make better also was the U.S. taking care of it's own and not putting our poor last on the things to do list. That to me has always been a huge issue! That we send millions of dollars overseas to help others yet we have people here living on the streets and we do nothing about it! I hope that Obama can change that! I agree we do need to help the third world countries but after we take care of our own first!

    Cindy...Ga.

    January 19, 2009 at 9:34 am |