Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
With God on All SidesLeadership in a Devout and Diverse America$

Douglas A. Hicks

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780195337174

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2009

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195337174.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 21 January 2019

Crossing Paths

Crossing Paths

(p.79) 6 Crossing Paths
With God on All Sides

Douglas A Hicks (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The notion of convivencia, or cultures living alongside one another, arose from scholarship on religious diversity in medieval Spain. This concept can add to a vision of leadership in which diverse groups live in mutual respect. It encourages a public life that is more colorful and even more cacophonous than that in the other visions. It promises a framework for a peaceable democratic society that embraces the rich variety of the U.S. population. Yet the challenge is not simply to create communalism or multiculturalism — if understood as “identity groups” remaining apart from each other — but to forge respectful, mutual interaction when Americans' paths cross in public life. The vision describes leadership as building social crossroads and connectors. It draws on Kwame Anthony Appiah, Howard Gardner, and James MacGregor Burns to offer a vision that views “crossing paths” with religiously diverse people not as a matter of fleeting transactions, but as an opportunity for transforming leadership.

Keywords:   Kwame Anthony Appiah, James MacGregor Burns, communalism, connectors, convivencia, crossing paths, crossroads, Howard Gardner, multiculturalism, religious diversity, transforming leadership

  • When anyone of them prayed in Hebrew, he was unable adequately to express his needs or recount the praises of God, without mixing Hebrew with other languages.
  • —Maimonides

Mixing Metaphors, Mixing People

COMPETING VISIONS OF AMERICAN IDENTITY SWIRL AROUND OUR POLITICS. IDEAS like the Christian nation, the clash of civilizations, blue-versus-red America, and the culture wars keep us thinking narrowly about American public life. Visions of a secular society and generic spirituality appeal to a broader but shallower America. The notions of cultural pluralism and the melting pot emphasize, respectively, the many identities of Americans and the one, unified nation that should arise if diverse citizens come together. And an American symphony sounds quite different depending on whether the composer is the melting-pot visionary Israel Zangwill or the cultural pluralist Horace Kallen.

The fundamental issue, in the end, is not the mixing of metaphors but the mixing of people: people of diverse experiences and complex identities; people who cannot easily be labeled by a single tradition, attribute, or affiliation; people whose commitments shape their choice to dress, act, or serve differently than others do; people who have the capacity to do good as well as ill — to themselves, loved ones, fellow citizens, and outsiders.

(p.80) The competing and mixed metaphors result from our struggle, then, to find language adequate to the task of understanding the complexities of American identity in a devout and diverse nation. How can we create a more inclusive America? What kind of leadership is needed in an increasingly varied country? These questions are by no means new, as I have shown via the ideas of Jefferson and Tocqueville, Zangwill and Kallen, Herberg and Johnson, Huntington and Eck. Yet the realities of a post-9/11 globalizing world have raised the stakes of identity politics, and our changed context demands that we think in new ways about our leadership.

Into the mix of battle cries, melting pots, and musical scores I want to add a few ideas. We should engage each other not in a politics of fear but of convivencia. We should view the American terrain with a wide-angled lens to include the array of people that inhabit it. And we should recognize the depth of religious and moral expressions. Only then can we appeal, as Lincoln said, to each other’s better angels, not to our worst instincts.

Americans are living “on common ground,” to use the title of an important reference work about religious pluralism in America.1 Despite the shared landscape, however, different individuals and communities are following their respective religious pathways. For most Americans, this is a figurative journey, though there are also those from a variety of spiritual traditions who embark on literal pilgrimages. Whether symbolic or geographic, do those paths remain largely divergent — or even protected against interlopers? What happens when the paths inevitably cross?

Spanish Lessons

On the main highway south from Madrid to the Mediterranean coast, drivers see evidence of a changing Spain. The road signs to Almería, a coastal province, and to Algeciras, a gateway city to Africa, are written in both Spanish and Arabic. This is just one of the many indicators of the influx of immigrants from el Magreb, as the Spanish call it, or northern Africa. Estimates place this predominantly Arab population in Spain at between five hundred thousand and one million people. The rate of immigration into Spain, dominated by people from Arab countries (alongside Latin Americans), has increased fourfold since 1998.2 The number of Islamic communities registered with Spain’s Ministry of Justice has similarly vaulted upward over the past decade, from 74 to 406.3

Like their American counterparts, Spaniards are engaged in a vibrant, sometimes noisy public discussion over their national identity, especially as it (p.81) relates to religious and cultural differences. After the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, Spaniards opted for a democratic federalism that granted a great deal of authority to the aptly named “autonomous regions.” Spaniards in regions like Galicia and Catalonia are accustomed to seeing street signs in two languages — Castilian Spanish and the regional language. Nonetheless, the appearance of signs in Arabic indicates a new reality, a different degree of cross-cultural experience — with echoes not from the post-Franco democratic transition but rather from medieval, Moorish Spain.

Notably, the Basque region in Spain has experienced the debate over identity through the lens of a violent struggle by a minority group of Basque separatists who continue to support the terrorist group ETA. Indeed, all discussions of cultural diversity in Spain are significantly colored by the enduring problem of ETA violence.

It is not surprising that the ETA was blamed when, just prior to the 2004 Spanish national election, terrorists bombed trains in and near Madrid’s historic Atocha rail station, killing 191 people. The Popular Party (PP), then in power under Prime Minister José María Aznar, attempted to blame the ETA for these bombings. Why? The PP, which had cooperated with the Bush administration on Iraq, did not want to be seen by the electorate as having provoked an al Qaeda attack on the Spanish people. The attempted deflection of blame to the ETA was a stunning political failure, and the leftist coalition led by the Socialist party (PSOE) regained national power. As Spaniards consistently name terrorism as one of the top two national issues — along with the economy — they are sweeping together the ETA and al Qaeda as threats to their security.4

Spain is a gateway for Muslim Arabs from north Africa into the European Union. It is the most geographically convenient entrance point (at the straits of Gibraltar, Morocco and Spain are fewer than ten miles apart). Just as important, the millennium-old history of Muslims in Iberia endures in the spirit of “al Andalus,” or medieval Islamic Spain, which makes the country a relatively familiar and welcoming place for Muslims.

The Islamic community in Spain calls the southern city of Granada “the Islamic capital of Europe.”5 In 1492 the Moors were expelled from their Granada stronghold by Isabel and Ferdinand, but the cultural contributions remain an integral part of al Andalus, particularly in the southern region of Andalusia. The new Mosque of Granada sits in the middle of the city’s old Moorish quarter, the Albaicín, and it offers a striking view of the Alhambra, the great architectural and cultural emblem of Moorish Spain. Now Muslims are flocking to Granada, many buying or renting property in the Albaicín. Indeed, the Mediterranean coast and the capital, Madrid, have developed significant Islamic populations.

(p.82) At the national and the local levels, the Muslim communities are extremely diverse, even fragmented. As one example, the mid-sized city of Granada contains five or six different Muslim communities characterized by mixed levels of communication and cooperation. In addition to immigrants from north Africa, Granada is home to a distinct Muslim community composed largely of Senegalese and others from sub-Saharan Africa. Yet another is made up of Palestinians.6 At the national level, there are at least two major organizations, which confederated in 1992 only in order to negotiate an accord with the national government.

Headlines in Spain devote a great deal of attention to issues of immigration, both along the Mediterranean coast and in the Canary Islands, a Spanish autonomous region off the west coast of Africa. Debate about Muslims pervades the national immigration conversation. In addition, the March 11, 2004, Madrid bombings receive news coverage roughly parallel to the enduring references to September 11, 2001, in the United States. Indeed, while Americans use “9/11” as shorthand for those events, Spaniards refer to “11-M.” The perpetrators of the attacks (some of whom committed suicide; others were convicted by a special tribunal) are either Muslims from north African countries or Arab immigrants who had resided in Spain. Even after the 2008 national elections, which kept the Socialists in power, accusations about Spain’s vulnerability to both al Qaeda and ETA terrorism continue to fly between the two major national political parties.

Given the high-profile attention these issues have received, observers might expect more anti-immigrant or anti-Islamic violence to have occurred in Spain since the Madrid bombings. Although incidents of vandalism and hate against mosques and individuals have taken place, Spain has not experienced the type of widespread violence that, say, France experienced among Muslim and other immigrant youths across the country in 2005. Similarly, Spain has not endured the type of emergency tensions that occurred in the Netherlands in late 2004, when an extremist who called himself a Muslim murdered filmmaker Theo Van Gogh — an incident that led to a backlash of violence against Muslims, including the burning of a Muslim elementary school.

What factors have helped enable Spain thus far to avoid substantial violence against or from the Islamic community? Scholars and political leaders point to the Spaniards’ self-understanding as a culture of mutual tolerance. As one professor at the University of Granada, also a native of the city, views it, Spain is a land through which many peoples have passed: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Moors, the French, and so on. Spain is a cultural mixture.7 The intercultural confrontations have often been bloody, but the cultural (p.83) contributions live on. Modern-day Spanish identity is widely dependent, in particular, on Moorish influences.

However, the more recent, twentieth-century struggles also contribute to the present-day spirit or ethos of tolerance. As various scholars and leaders express it, Spaniards endured five decades of dictatorship following a tragic civil war. The transition after Franco could easily have been a violent one, but thanks to the leadership and unexpected democratic leanings of King Juan Carlos, as well as the calmness of the people, Spain secured a democratic state through its 1978 constitution.

That constitution guarantees, in article XV, religious freedom for all citizens. It declares Spain’s official position of disestablishment from the Catholic Church. Yet, unlike the laicist (or secular) tradition of France, the article also allows for appropriate “cooperation with the Catholic Church and the other confessions.” Spain’s constitutional guarantee of religious freedom is a fundamental part of its modern-day democracy. A series of government accords signed in 1992 with the Jewish, Protestant, and Muslim communities attempted to extend the vision of appropriate cooperation to these groups.

As another Spanish academic says of the civil war and the Franco era, “We know where polarization and violent confrontation can lead us.”8 The Spaniards bent over backward to accommodate individuals and regions in the creation of its modern-day democracy. While there is significant public anxiety about immigration and a visible degree of anti-Islamic rhetoric in political life, Spain also exhibits a remarkable degree of tolerance toward the Muslim communities. Whether this situation will change (if immigrant numbers increase and if the economy tightens), remains to be seen. For now, the Spanish cultural reality of mutual tolerance offers at least some lessons for America.

Imagining Convivencia

Spaniards employ an evocative word for cross-cultural encounter and engagement: convivencia. Although it has no direct translation into English, literally interpreted it means the “state of living together.” The word’s narrow, technical meaning relates to medieval Spain’s interactions among Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities under the Moorish rule of al Andalus. Convivencia remains important in the ongoing scholarship on the cross-cultural and interreligious interactions that characterized the different ruling periods during eight centuries of Moorish rule. Scholars vigorously debate the degree of tolerance afforded by the various Muslim caliphates toward dhimmis, or non-Muslim (p.84) subjects, whom the rulers protected. Although many scholars argue that significant coexistence and interaction occurred, they also debate the degree and duration of that convivencia.9

The term also has a second usage, one that relates not to medieval times but to the present. It refers to the current reality of diverse people living, working, and going to school together. Convivencia in this sense is about the mundane encounters that Spanish residents experience with their neighbors. Where do people eat, what do they eat, and at what times of the day? In public schools, do Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish students receive education about their faith when the Catholic children hear lessons about Catholicism? Are children (whether from majority Catholic or minority faiths) able to pray during the school day?

Consider the burying of the dead. Death is perhaps a peculiar example of everyday life, but individuals and communities struggle over how to treat appropriately the bodies of loved ones who have died. In cities and small towns, Muslims have appealed to the national government’s 1992 accord with the Islamic community in their struggle to secure local Islamic cemeteries. For instance, in 2007 the town of Órgiva, in the mountains of Andalusia, secured such a burial ground for members of its 100-member Muslim community. As one local Muslim leader said, “All of us have to die, some sooner and some later, and we wish to be buried here [in Órgiva] … and, logically, to be buried in a site that conforms to our religion.”10

To take yet another example related to the human body, restaurants significantly shape the everyday environment in which we live. In major cities across Spain, a steadily growing number of teterías (tea houses) and kebab shops reflects the increasing diversity of residents. Moorish dishes have long shaped Spanish cuisine, but recent decades have witnessed a more direct shift in eating habits toward largely immigrant-run establishments featuring halal meats and Moroccan teas.

Or consider a more visible and controversial question: Will the local ayuntamiento (city hall) permit a mosque to be built in town? The zoning questions and permit processes for new religious buildings, especially for minority communities, have parallels in Spain and the United States. Will citizens welcome the sound of the Islamic call to worship five times a day by the local muezzin from the minaret? Can this become a part of the “urban soundscape,” like church bells and motorcycle engines? In this way Muslims can become a visible and an audible presence in the landscape of cities and towns.

Convivencia helps deal with these kinds of issues, those that concern the various activities of embodied living (and dying) in a civic community. Who are my neighbors, and how do they affect my daily life? Will people of different (p.85) backgrounds merely live apart? Or will they interact with each other in ways that offer chances for mutual learning — and mutual changes in attitudes and behaviors? These are not abstract, interfaith dialogues; they are decisions about everyday matters that leaders and citizens have to figure out in practical terms.

Convivencia is sometimes translated as “coexistence.” (It has also been translated as “cohabitation,” a better literal interpretation but one that has other implications in English.) However, existence has a passive connotation, suggesting merely a detached acknowledgment of others’ presence. Convivencia has the more active meaning of mutual encounter, if not reciprocal engagement. People who have to eat, work, shop, and ride the bus together must develop norms and routines of interaction that are more than simply acknowledging each others’ existence.

Like many of the other terms that we use to describe our diverse public life — such as pluralism, melting pot, or Christian nation — the word convivencia can be either descriptive or normative. On one hand, it can merely name the reality that different people live and interact with one another. In this descriptive sense, no value judgment is made about whether such living together is a good or a bad thing. On the other hand, convivencia can also suggest how diverse people should live together. From this normative perspective, the word expresses a valuing of active interactions among people from many backgrounds.

This normative meaning of convivencia adds to our vision of leadership. Spanish public discussion employs convivencia in this aspirational sense. For example, in Madrid, the Foundation for Pluralism and Convivencia is a quasi-governmental organization that supports minority religious communities and promotes public understanding. This foundation was established in 2004 as a joint effort of the national Ministry of Justice and leaders of the country’s religious communities. This organization’s name communicates a vision of what it aims to accomplish in Spanish civil society.11

The foundation’s director, Dr. José María Contreras, explains that both pluralism and convivencia are visions of what Spain seeks to achieve. They are consistent with the spirit of mutual tolerance that helped to achieve the post-Franco transition to democracy. Nonetheless, the ideals are not yet fully realized, especially vis-à-vis minority religious communities.12

Contreras sees the notion of convivencia as a “second step” in the process of developing a better civil society in Spain. Spaniards, he maintains, are willing to speak a great deal about the “integration” of minorities into civic life. Although this is better than exclusion, integration in this sense means the assimilation of minorities into the predominant culture.13 Such integration, in (p.86) the Spanish context, would not question the cultural (and financial) privilege accorded to the Catholic Church. Convivencia, living together on equal terms as neighbors, Contreras maintains, is a further step toward the reality of full citizenship for people of religious minority backgrounds and toward a more just society.14

It is helpful to put this in more concrete terms. Suppose an apartment building in Valencia has residents who are Catholic, Jewish, atheist, Protestant, and Muslim. Residents regularly pass one another in the hallways. The first step in living together successfully is to develop a basic live-and-let-live attitude toward one another. They might say a polite hello or simply walk silently past one another. This situation is already remarkable because people of different backgrounds are living together peaceably and without fanfare or rancor. We could easily imagine a different scenario, in which a few residents develop a deep suspicion of some of their neighbors; they might glare at one another in the hallway — or worse. So the basic level of coexistence — or what Contreras describes as integration — achieves no earth-shattering ends but does establish some minimal conditions of mutual respect. The next step — of convivencia in its fuller sense — involves more neighborly encounters and relationships among the residents. They might ask each other about their holidays, their attire, or their beliefs. They might share drinks or meals or activities together. They might work together on projects to improve their building or their neighborhood. And in the process, they might change and be changed.

Sociologist Cecilia Hita Alonso emphasizes the importance of the mixing of peoples through everyday encounters. Indeed, although Hita Alonso is a supporter of Spain’s political Left, she criticizes the notion of “multiculturalism,” as this idea tends to assume that cultures are fixed entities that do not change. In contrast, convivencia suggests that individuals do not necessarily prioritize any one aspect of identity (e.g., religious, cultural, political), and these dimensions surely overlap. Especially in European discussions, Hita Alonso maintains, multiculturalism encompasses defending the rights of each group to exist and to hold fast to an identity alongside other groups with their respective and respected identities. In this reading of multiculturalism, various ethnic, national, and religious enclaves live alongside one another but remain culturally apart. Such multiculturalism does not include the fuller dimensions of mixing across groups, of learning from each other, and of transforming people and groups.15

How far could a vision of protecting distinctive religious or cultural communities go? Consider India, which is one of the most religiously diverse and complicated nations in the world. The historical and political factors that led to Indian independence and the partition with Pakistan in 1947 created a legacy of (p.87) religious “communalism” in India.16 The country’s enduring tensions between Hindus and Muslims in particular sustain the division along these lines. In India, as religion scholar William J. Everett states, “‘Religion’ does not really attach to an individual but to a ‘community’ which embraces economic, familial, social, and cultural aspects of life.”17 Policies address the welfare of communities, not individuals. For example, India has separate civil codes (governing noncriminal questions such as domestic-family and property issues) for distinct religious communities. As one result of these multiple civil law systems, Hindu and Christian men may have only one legal wife, whereas Muslim men are legally permitted to have as many as four wives. India’s constitution states as a goal that “the state shall endeavor to secure for its citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India.”18 However, more than five decades later that goal of the same civil law for all Indian citizens remains unrealized.

The Indian reality of communalism was surprisingly absent from public discourse in Britain when Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, suggested in 2008 that the United Kingdom consider making public space for what he called “plural jurisdiction.” Specifically, he asserted that if Britain were serious about welcoming people of all religious backgrounds, then its universal secular law would need to find ways to accommodate religious law in some contexts. Anticipating a certain degree of criticism, the archbishop was clear in stating that “If any kind of plural jurisdiction is recognised, it would presumably have to be under the rubric that no ‘supplementary’ jurisdiction [i.e., based on religious law] could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights.”19 The universal legal system would thus provide a minimum guarantee for all people, and religious law would open “additional choices” only for fully consenting religious citizens. He noted that the option to refer cases to Jewish law or Anglican ecclesiastical law has long been operative in the current system. However, in many Britons’ eyes he had raised the spectre of Shariah law as a parallel legal system — as exists in India’s multiple civil legal codes.

Archbishop Williams had tried to emphasize the supplemental, consent-based, constrained elements of his suggestion in a sixty-two-hundred-word address. Yet as one of Britain’s most visible figures and one of the highest-profile leaders in Christianity anywhere, he should have seen the negative reaction coming. Williams was criticized by figures throughout the church and by former archbishop of Canterbury George Carey and Prime Minister Gordon Brown for his self-confessed “clumsily” delivered words. Indeed, it briefly appeared that his position was in jeopardy, but the Anglican Church’s general synod strongly supported him, as did Carey and Brown.20 Still, the visceral reaction to the suggestion of “plural jurisdiction” gives a clear signal of how (p.88) strongly Britons reject any notion of communal autonomy that might trump a uniform legal system. There is little reason to believe American citizens would respond more positively.

Communalism, even when not extending to the law, is morally undesirable because it cannot generate the social cohesion necessary to hold a diverse population together. Yet, as philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah suggests, advocates of cultural autonomy are right to raise concerns about the kind of mutual encounter that I have been describing as convivencia. Individuals from (and advocates for) minority communities have reason to fear that their identity will be washed away or at least diluted in open encounter with larger or more powerful communities. In many cases, no level playing field of cross-cultural encounter exists in which the ideas and practices of various religious and cultural groups have equal influence on each other. Marginalized communities, then, sometimes seek to remain apart so as to preserve their sense of identity.

Appiah uses the provocative term contamination to describe the loss of cultural identity. For minority groups, contamination happens because they lack the power to hold on to their collective identity. For their part, majority communities also fear that their own identity might be “contaminated” by the blood and genes (or the practices and beliefs) of minority groups. These views of cultural preservation are predicated on the view that cultures are pure. This viewpoint can also involve the belief that cultures do not change. Both ideas are wrong.

All of this leads Appiah to turn the pejorative term contamination into a desirable thing. He labels it a “counterideal” to purity. In his important book Cosmopolitanism, Appiah calls for the mutual interaction of individuals from various cultural backgrounds in order to build up, over time, a sense of world community. Indeed, his excerpted cover essay in the New York Times Magazine ran with the title “The Case for Contamination.”21 It is in the contamination, the path crossing, and the everyday interactions of diverse people — what I am calling crossroads and connectors — that we find hope for a more respectful and peaceable society.

Appiah makes the crucial point that we will not become a more harmonious world by arguing over values. Working through the challenges of our diverse identities is not principally a matter of public discourse or of rational deliberation. As I suggest in the previous chapter, Rawls’s public reason may be the best account we have of how to conduct civil discourse, but that alone will not help us to get along with our neighbors. Rather, Appiah argues that we need to “get used to one another.” Interaction will breed understanding. Fellow residents of an apartment complex do not need to have formal interfaith dialogue or even stage a political debate; instead, they need to keep living together with (p.89) a willingness to engage one another. Only this could lead to genuine coalitions to work for more significant social transformation.

Appiah believes this mutual daily engagement and exposure will allow us to get used to one another — and social changes will follow. Robert Putnam, however, has argued that this is very taxing work. Returning to the image of the apartment complex, the more diverse a building becomes, the more likely the residents will shut themselves away in their own apartment. They will actively seek to avoid crossing paths with anyone. Putnam presents data from multiple studies that suggest that the more heterogeneous a neighborhood or locality, the less likely are citizens to engage one another. Not only are people in diverse areas less connected — compared to those in homogeneous areas — to neighbors who are different from them, but they are also less involved with people who are similar to them: “Diversity seems to trigger not in-group/out-group division, but anomie or social isolation. In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’— that is, to pull in like a turtle.”22 Putnam argues, then, that in the near term, diversity hurts solidarity and social capital.

However, he continues: “In the medium to long run, on the other hand, successful immigrant societies create new forms of social solidarity and dampen the effects of diversity by constructing new, more encompassing identities. Thus, the central challenge for modern, diversifying societies is to create a new, broader sense of ‘we.’”23 Thus, regularly crossing paths with one another —convivencia — is difficult work, but it is essential, Appiah and Putnam concur, because the world is coming to an apartment building near you. Convivencia is in that sense cosmopolitan, even as it is as local and everyday as it can be.24

Choosing a Vision

It is now possible to see and compare six competing visions for leadership in a devout and diverse America (see table 6.1). Each of these approaches provides a distinctive account of the religious, civic, and political landscape. Each suggests how American leaders should frame their work in general and, more specifically, how they should handle religious diversity. Each of these visions is connected to central moral and political values. Of course, each one is a generalization that groups together a range of thoughts and actions under a general heading.25 Any particular leader would, in practice, not fit perfectly into any one category. And the categories, each meant to shed light on different aspects of leadership and society, can overlap, but this overview should clarify similarities and differences in the visions.


Table 6.1. Leadership in a Devout and Diverse America: Six Visions


Overall Approach Approach to Diversity

Moral Value Political Value

Clash of civilizations

We are right; they are wrong.


We protect ourselves from outsiders.


Christian nation

We lead and follow by God’s will.


We correct social evil in God’s name.

national purity


We keep all religion private.


We guard the public square from zealots.



We all believe basically the same thing.


We declare our commonality.



“We” are a set of distinct communities.

communal autonomy

We protect groups from one another.

communal purity

Crossroads and connectors

We promote interaction and linkages.


We draw on moral resources from all.


The first vision, the clash of civilizations, focuses on American identity vis-à-vis the rest of the world. It defines American identity in terms of its conflicts with outsiders. It values security over all other political values and upholds the view that right is on our side. Opponents are wrong or even evil. The clash of civilizations, I have suggested, is the predominant post-9/11 vision of American leadership. It views the world in us-versus-them terms, and leaders perpetuate it by playing on citizens’ fears. It rightly acknowledges the threat of terrorism in the United States and elsewhere, but it too readily fails to distinguish between terrorists and other persons in non-Western “blocs,” especially in the so-called Muslim world. Worse, it may help to create the bloc-based clash that its proponents say already exists. This vision leaves little room for people or groups who straddle civilization-based identities, such as Muslim Americans.26

The vision of America as a Christian nation can complement the civilization-clash vision. It appeals to a historical account of America founded on Christian values. In the domestic context, proponents of this vision easily move from the descriptive reality that roughly four in five Americans identify with Christianity to the normative perspective that the nation should embody Christian values. Leaders who hold to this vision invoke Christian texts and symbols in public life; they submit that the existence of fellow citizens from minority traditions should not deny the majority a special status in public life. Believers (p.91) from those underrepresented traditions are welcome in the country as long as they understand America’s special relationship with Christianity. Proponents of the vision tend to overlook the possible negative effects that a de facto Christian culture can have on those from other backgrounds.

Secularism is a strong response to the Christian nation model. If Christian symbols decorate the public sphere in a Christian nation, secularists, in contrast, would have no problem removing religious symbols altogether from public life. The motivation for this position can be a high moral one — to ensure that all people are able to interact on a free and equal basis. In order to accomplish this, secularism equally and consistently says no to symbols from any religious tradition. Advocates of secularism discount the difficulty of asking religious people to separate their faith-based practices from their public lives.

Proponents of the spirituality vision seek a moderate path. If Christian language is too particular, excluding non-Christian moral and religious expressions, and secularism is too sweeping, excluding all religious expression, this middle position welcomes any spiritual expression — as long as it is generic. Behind this vision is the assumption of a universally shared spiritual dimension to the human personality so that, when the particular trappings of religion are removed, a common spirituality shines through. Yet, this discounts deeply held convictions that are particular and cannot be wished away.

Communalism starts from the standpoint of religious diversity. Proponents of this vision are typically looking out for outsider threats to a group’s collective identity. They pay much less attention to diversity within these tradition-defined groups. To the extent that a national “we” exists, it is in strong tension with these communal identities. At its fullest expression, communalism requires separate legal codes to accommodate religious communities’ diverse practices.

The vision of America as a place of crossroads and connectors welcomes the public presence of religious expression from a broad range of traditions and perspectives. A crossroads is a place where two or more paths come together. A connector joins two otherwise separate paths.

The crossroads metaphor, like the other images we have considered, has both descriptive and normative meanings. Given the number of people and the need to coordinate society, people’s paths intersect. Because of the convergence of various routes, crossroads are promising places to locate restaurants, roadside markets, and inns, but what kind of intersections will we design? Who will build them? Will they be built in ways that can handle the traffic flow while retaining a “human feel” for social interaction? Will they be places of convivencia?

(p.92) “Crossroads” has a rich tradition in religious studies as a site, sometimes seen as sacred, where key life decisions are made and where people’s destinies are determined. Often it carries the sense of being a dangerous place. Perhaps as a result, these intersections are also the sites of certain gods — some of whom are protectors, others of whom have more ambiguous roles.27 In the study of leadership, the concept of the crossroads has been used to suggest moments of opportunity and also the need for multiple perspectives to work together to solve challenging problems.28 Each of these lineages captures something helpful for our purposes. Certainly, America is at a crossroads in terms of how we will live together as diverse citizens and what role religion will play in public life. An understandable response to such moments is fear, for when unfamiliar peoples and worldviews intersect, the possibility of danger arises.

The stakes are thus high at these points of encounter — and thus it is no wonder that, in one tradition, one can make a deal with a god at a crossroads and consequently either get lucky or encounter evil.29 If we fail to pick up the right food or supplies, there may not be another chance to do so for many miles. If we take the wrong path, we will need to backtrack, find another crossroads, or cut a new path. If we provoke the wrong traveler, we can get ourselves killed. On the other hand, at the crossroads we can nourish ourselves and rest. We can pick up directions and advice from others — both travelers and locals. And we can meet people coming from all corners.

Since intersections do not just happen, designing them is a matter of leadership. To be sure, roads come together at natural points, but then they must be designed or redesigned if they are to be sites that encourage human interaction. Cities often take shape at transportation crossroads. Take, for instance, Indianapolis, the capital of Indiana. Because of the state’s network of roads, railroads, and waterways, its official motto is “the crossroads of America.” Three decades ago, Indianapolis was experiencing urban decay due to rust belt economics and white flight to its suburbs. The downtown area was losing its retailers, offices, and pedestrian traffic.

In response, a group of public, civic, and business leaders worked together to design a revitalization plan. City leaders, including Republican mayors William Hudnut and Stephen Goldsmith, based their strategy on strengths of Indianapolis, including the White River and historic canals, its attractive Monument Circle, and a culture of athletics, both professional and amateur. Because of intentional and coordinated leadership — including collaboration by government, business, and nonprofit entities — Indianapolis developed an urban state park, a new convention center, and sports arenas for three professional teams. It opened a large downtown mall and welcomed the headquarters of the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA). Significant (p.93) projects — some in historic areas — have increased the number of people living in or near downtown. Social and economic challenges remain for the city, and the development process produced both winners and losers, but Indianapolis transformed its center, once again, into a crossroads.30

Analogously, political and civic leaders can help the United States develop a public culture of crossroads. Indeed, a positive relationship actually exists between public urban spaces that facilitate citizen interaction and civic engagement.31 Beyond the built environment, leaders help shape the ground rules for public life. In actual crossroads, the flow of traffic is managed by road layouts, street signs, and traffic lights. In the figurative crossroads of society, the flow of diverse people is managed by laws, norms, and customs. In the former, urban planners and civil engineers design systems that move traffic; in the latter, politicians and policymakers create a structure that helps create social harmony.

In neither case, however, are these elements of design enough. Whether driving a car or attending a public meeting, individual citizens must be willing and able to abide by the rules. Red lights mean nothing if drivers do not stop at them. Laws against discrimination mean little if citizens disregard them. In each case a harmonious system requires that citizens show a basic respect for others — and trust that their fellow citizens will do the same.

The very idea of a crossroads suggests that a point of overlap already exists between or among people’s different paths. Connectors, on the other hand, are new roads built to join otherwise disconnected or divergent paths. Unlike crossroads, connectors must be built from scratch and occur only when someone from one or both pathways — or some outside party — takes the initiative. Building connectors may require more work than crossroads — especially if the ground between the paths is rough or overgrown. On the other hand, it may be easier to build something new than to redesign an existing intersection already used by many people who will be inconvenienced by the construction.

Connector also has senses in electronics, mathematics, and other fields. For instance, in his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell uses the term connector to describe those people with the unique capacity to bring diverse individuals together — particularly as conduits for quickly spreading new ideas.32 In my schema, I suggest that if connectors are to be built, say, between dissimilar religious groups, third-party connectors may be significant, but leaders within those groups also need to play key roles in forging the linkages. In terms of people, then, connectors can be politicians or other public figures who bring unlike groups together, or they can be leaders from within those religious, cultural, or civic communities.

Crossroads and connectors are thus two apt metaphors for linking unique paths on common ground. At these points of interaction fellow citizens can (p.94) expand their perspectives or team up with others on political or civic questions. Through their interactions, some might even change their moral or religious directions. Crossroads are active, cacophonous, and sometimes tense because people believe deeply in their causes and their objectives. Leadership “at the crossroads” requires leaders to shape a place in which people from various backgrounds stand on roughly equal footing as they engage each other. The aim is not to deny conflicts when paths cross; on the contrary, it is to create a place where devout and diverse people can address their conflicts honestly, respectfully, and constructively.33

“Never Budge in the Least!”

How do leaders communicate this vision of crossroads and connectors? How do they promote convivencia? Howard Gardner, the wide-ranging Harvard scholar, suggests that leaders succeed when they relate their vision in stories that appeal broadly to the public. In Gardner’s cognitive account of leadership, humans are moved by narratives that mesh with their own lives. Specifically, he asserts that those stories that can reach the mind of a five-year-old are most likely to be effective: “Those who address a more broad-based institution … a large and heterogeneous group like the inhabitants of a nation must at least begin by assuming that most of their audience members have a well-stocked five-year-old mind.”34 Gardner notes that the successful leaders he features have managed to put their message precisely in these terms — in simple, clear, compelling narratives.

Yet in almost all cases, they have stretched the standard or expected story in ways that offer a more inclusive vision. Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to Christian symbols and American values to argue his lead story, which Gardner simplifies as follows: “We must be color blind.” Jean Monnet, pioneer of the European Community, argued that steps toward economic and political union would weave peace into a European story: “Europe must become one society, with close links to America.” And Mohandas K. Gandhi drew on religious and humanist traditions to declare that “We in India are equal in status and worth to all other human beings.”35

If Gardner is correct, then the notion of inclusive leadership amid religious diversity in the United States can draw on the proud tradition of religious freedom in America. The First Amendment and its guarantee of the free exercise of religion is broadly known. Indeed, assuming that leaders draw on this familiar story, the task of leadership of the devout and diverse is a case of innovative leadership in Gardner’s terms. That is, American leaders have the task of “tak[ing] (p.95) a story that has been latent in the population … and bring[ing] new attention or a fresh twist to that story.”36

The American story of religious freedom, however, has its limitations. According to a recent survey by the First Amendment Center, the portion of Americans who believe that the rights of religious freedom extend to all Americans, regardless of their beliefs, stood at just 56 percent. The year before 9/11, that figure was 72 percent.37 If civic and political leaders are to have success in communicating an inclusive vision, they will need to address these public perceptions of the limits of religious freedom. They will also need to move beyond the somewhat abstract nature of religious freedom to appeal to tangible, visual narratives. The basic story is familiar, if abstract; the task is to apply it more universally.

Running into people at the crossroads appeals to the five-year-old mind. Children understand intersecting roads, stop signs, and vehicles of all kinds that must give right of way to others. A Dr. Seuss tale introduces us to the “North-Going Zax” and the “South-Going Zax,” whose paths collide. They refuse to yield: “Never budge in the least! Not an inch to the west! Not an inch to the east!”38 At the story’s end, an array of highways and byways surrounds the two — who are still facing off. “In a couple of years, the new highway came through/And they built it right over those two stubborn Zax/And left them there, standing un-budged in their tracks.”39 Even young children grasp the senselessness of Zax who refuse to give an inch to their fellow travelers.

Transforming Our Leadership

Something more than business as usual is required if we are to avoid these standoffs in our politics. Political scientist James MacGregor Burns developed the concept of transforming leadership in an effort to get both scholars and leaders to think differently about how to achieve beneficial social change.40 Burns argues that leadership is fundamentally a moral process, a relationship among human beings who deserve to be full participants, whether they are formally leaders or followers. In Burns’s normative analysis of leadership, those who merely exploit followers for their own gain and show no regard for the needs or interests of others are not leaders at all. They are merely power wielders.41 This claim can distract us with some fascinating questions, but for our purposes, Burns is making an important point about what leadership should look like.

In other words, for a process to be morally good leadership and not just manipulation by the powerful, leaders and followers must come together as moral equals who all participate freely. This applies to what Burns calls (p.96) transactional leadership, as well as transforming leadership. In the former, engagement may be little more than a market-based exchange whereby different parties come together to trade valued goods for the benefit of each. As Burns puts it, this form of transaction allows people with different needs to make mutually beneficial exchanges.

Transactional leadership corresponds to the coexistence model of society. Diverse citizens interact with one another — on the street, in stores, at work —in ways that resemble the free market in operation. This requires freedom of choice, basic fairness, and other norms of peaceful interaction but does not require any significant investment in shifting from being strangers to being real neighbors.42

Contrast the transactional model with what Burns calls transforming leadership. In this kind of leadership, leaders and followers engage one another in a mutual interaction toward some shared goals. They might enter the relationship with very distinct backgrounds and divergent, even competing, interests. But through the process of repeated interactions, their respective interests and purposes begin to overlap. This process takes time for the building up of trust among the parties.

Burns emphasizes that transforming leadership requires a high level of personal investment, or risk taking, to connect our needs and wants with those of our fellow citizens. This is a lofty vision of mutual engagement through which, Burns asserts, “leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality.”43 In the process, followers and leaders develop a sense of common purpose toward which they strive together.

Enduring social and political transformation requires all of the parties to take risks. Burns, like Gardner, gives the example of Gandhi and the Indian resistance to British rule in India. In that struggle, Gandhi’s followers were not bystanders who assented to high-profile leaders with status and privilege; rather, Gandhi strived to lessen the distance between himself and the people and to urge the followers to act. There were risks and sacrifices that all had to endure.44

Too many leaders fail to achieve greatness because they do not fully invest themselves when bold leadership is required. For instance, in the sharply titled book Dead Center, Burns and coauthor Georgia Sorenson fault President Bill Clinton for settling for transactional dealings with Congress and the American people when the United States needed a transforming vision and follow-through to achieve it.45 Burns and Sorenson are talking about a transactional center that was marked, in their interpretation of the Clinton presidency, by missed opportunities and the president’s unwillingness to take the necessary risks to change our politics.

(p.97) Crossroads can, in fact, be places for mere transactions. People get what they want and move on through. As Burns notes, however, even these transactions need to be undertaken with mutual respect and regard for laws and social norms — or else we have nothing but the machinations of power. At their best, however, crossroads become transforming places. People are willing to linger there to engage and learn from others. Leaders take the initiative to create the public spaces — political, cultural, aesthetic, environmental — in which various parties can participate. Thus, leaders certainly play a key role in shaping the culture toward respect for the wide diversity and deep faith of citizens. The true work of leadership, however, also takes place through the mutual efforts of leaders and average citizens. Risk-taking citizens who dare to engage neighbors who look different from the way they themselves do deserve our praise as surely as does the risk-taking politician who shows up to defend an unpopular group.

In the end, transforming leadership turns followers into leaders, as both are active agents in a process of social or political change. As Gardner might state, through the influence of leaders, citizens will also live out the story of American religious freedom in their respect for citizens very different from themselves. Burns’s and Gardner’s conceptions may sound more idealistic than Appiah’s “getting used to one another” or the Spaniards’ idea of convivencia. Yet, each view infuses a sense of moral purpose into the encounters that occur every day at crossroads across America. (p.98)


(1.) Diana L. Eck and the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, On Common Ground: World Religions in America, CD-ROM (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

(2.) M. R. Sahuquillo “La inmigración cambia el mapa religioso,” El País (Mar. 31, 2007), 33.

(3.) Ibid.

(4.) Ramón Gorriarán, “El terrorismo vuelve a convertirse en la principal preocupación de los españoles,” El Ideal (Granada, Spain) (Feb. 23, 2007), 34.

(5.) Islamic Community in Spain, “Islam in Granada: Welcome to the Islamic Capital of Europe,” pamphlet (Mar. 2007).

(6.) Dr. Javier Jordán, Department of Political Science, University of Granada, Spain, interview by author (Mar. 13, 2007).

(7.) Dr. Cecilia Hita Alonso, Department of Sociology, University of Granada, Spain, interview by author (April 23, 2007).

(8.) Dr. Francisco Carmona, Department of Sociology, University of Granada, Spain, interview by author (Mar. 16, 2007).

(9.) The term was introduced into the medieval context by the academic Américo Castro in the 1940s. Jonathan Ray, “Beyond Tolerance and Persecution: Reassessing Our Approach to Medieval Convivencia,” Jewish Social Studies 11(2) (Winter 2005), 1–18; Ray cites Castro’s España en su historia (Madrid, 1948), 200–209. One book that gives a generally positive account of this period is María Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the West: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (New York: Little, Brown, 2002). Another book on Spain’s al Andalus period that gives centrality of place to convivencia is David Levering Lewis, God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215 (New York: Norton, 2008). Philip Jenkins offers a more chastened reading of the reality of convivencia’s limits in light of the more repressive elements of Islamic rule; see his God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 103–106.

(10.) Rafael Vílchez, “Los musulmanes de Órgiva dispondrán de un cementerio propio en el municipio,” El Ideal (Granada, Spain) (Mar. 15, 2007), 19.

(11.) La Fundación Pluralismo y Convivencia, http://www.pluralismoyconvivencia.es/.

(12.) Dr. José María Contreras, La Fundación Pluralismo y Convivencia, Madrid, interview by author (Mar. 30, 2007).

(13.) Some scholars distinguish between assimilation and integration as two different approaches to dealing with cultural difference. Here I follow Contreras’s usage of integration.

(15.) multiculturalism—Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

(16.) Douglas A. Hicks, Religion and the Workplace: Pluralism, Spirituality, Leadership (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 138–45.

(17.) William Johnson Everett, “Religion and Federal Republicanism: Cases from India’s Struggle,” Journal of Church and State 37 (1995): 67.

(18.) Ralph Buultjens, “India: Religion, Political Legitimacy, and the Secular State,” Annals of the American Academy of PSS 483 (1986): 108.

(20.) John F. Burns, “Top Anglicans Rally to Besieged Bishop,” New York Times (Feb. 12, 2008), A11.

(21.) Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (New York: Norton, 2006); Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Case for Contamination,” New York Times Magazine (Jan. 1, 2006), 30–37, 52.

(22.) Robert Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century—The 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture,” Scandinavian Political Studies 30(2) (2007): 149.

(23.) Ibid., 138–39.

(24.) Robert Pinsky, “Eros against Esperanto,” in For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism, Martha C. Nussbaum with Respondents, ed. Joshua Cohen (Boston: Beacon, 1996), 85–90.

(25.) H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, “Introduction” to From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, trans. and ed. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), 59–60.

(26.) (p.195) Samuel P. Huntington, “Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72(3) (1993): 22–49.

(27.) Two reference essays are George R. Elder, “Crossroads,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Lindsay Jones, vol. 3, 2d ed. (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005), 2070–71, Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://go.galegroup.com/ps/start.do?p=GVRL&u=vic_uor, accessed June 26, 2008; and J. A. MacCullough, “Cross-roads,” in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings, vol. 4 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924), 330–35.

(28.) See Nancy S. Huber and Michael Harvey, eds., Leadership at the Crossroads (College Park, Md.: James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership, 2006); Joanne B. Ciulla, Donelson R. Forsyth, George R. Goethals, Crystal L. Hoyt, Michael A. Genovese, and Lori Cox Han, eds., Leadership at the Crossroads, 3 vols. (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2008).

(29.) Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1983), esp. 18–19.

(30.) Greg Andrews, “City’s Mall Gamble Paid Off: After 10 Years, Circle Centre at Core of Rejuvenated Downtown,” Indianapolis Business Journal (Sept. 5, 2005), 1.

(31.) Thad Williamson, Sprawl, Justice, and Citizenship: The Civic Costs of the American Way of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming); Kevin M. Leyden, “Social Capital and the Built Environment: The Importance of Walkable Neighborhoods,” American Journal of Public Health 93(9) (Sept. 2003): 1546–51.

(32.) Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (New York: Little, Brown, 2000).

(33.) Ronald A. Heifetz in his Leadership without Easy Answers (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1994).

(34.) Howard Gardner, in collaboration with Emma Laskin, Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 28–29.

(35.) Ibid., 316–17

(36.) Ibid., 10–11

(38.) Dr. Seuss, “The Zax,” in “The Sneetches” and Other Stories (New York: Random House, 1961), 25–36, 32.

(39.) Ibid., 35.

(40.) James MacGregor Burns, Leadership (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1978). I have analyzed Burns’s approach in further detail in Douglas A. Hicks, “Public-sector Leadership, Development, and Ethics: The State of the Literature and Central Questions for Future Work,” in World Ethics Forum: Conference Proceedings, ed. Charles Sampford and Carmel Connors (Queensland, Australia: Institute for Ethics, Governance, and Law, 2007).

(41.) Ibid., 17–19.

(42.) Ibid., 19–20.

(43.) Ibid., 20.

(44.) James MacGregor Burns, Transforming Leadership (New York: Grove, 2004).

(45.) James MacGregor Burns and Georgia Sorenson, Dead Center: Clinton-Gore Leadership and the Perils of Moderation (New York: Scribner, 2001).