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New book by Syracuse University's Gustav Niebuhr explores religious cooperation in the United States

June 20, 2008

Rob Enslin
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Rob Enslin

Religious cooperation in the United States is the subject of a powerful new book by R. Gustav Niebuhr, associate professor of religion and the media at Syracuse University and former religion reporter for The New York Times. Niebuhr's book, "Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America" (Viking Penguin, 2008), is a timely antidote to cynicism about the possibilities of cooperation between religions. Using reporting skills he honed during his 20-year career as a journalist, Niebuhr takes readers on a cross-country journey to meet groups who are building bridges to better religious understanding.

"I felt inspired to write the book because, as a journalist working for The New York Times, I became aware of a great deal of interfaith conversation and collaboration going on at the grassroots level, in local communities," says Niebuhr, who spent four years on the project. "It seldom made the news but struck me as an important trend, when taken as a whole, and contrasted with incidents of religious bigotry and violence."

Despite the escalation of religious tensions, the United States remains the most religiously diverse nation in the world and is home to the most religiously diverse collection of people in history. "Beyond Tolerance" looks at the inheritors of this tradition and explores examples of interreligious cooperation going on beyond mere tolerance, from Hindus and Quakers in Queens, N.Y., to Catholics and Jews in Baltimore to Baptists and Catholics in Louisville, Ky., to Catholics and Buddhists in Los Angeles. "The United States has always been religiously diverse in the eyes of its citizens. It's just that the measure of diversity has changed," says Niebuhr, citing the landmark immigration bill of 1965 that permitted a major influx of people from Asia, eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean.

On sale beginning Aug. 4, "Beyond Tolerance" has earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly and drawn praise from scholars. Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel calls the book "remarkable and absorbing ... at a time when religious fanaticism, with its perversion and violence, has emerged as a threat to civilization." Robert Wuthnow, author of "America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity" (Princeton University Press, 2005), says that Niebuhr demonstrates there is more to religious diversity than tolerance: "We can actually learn from one another -- deepen our faith and strengthen our culture. This highly personal, eminently engaging account shows how some Americans are making this happen."

Niebuhr describes "interfaith understanding" as a two-way street, where people of different faiths talk frankly about religious values and convictions. The implication, he says, is not that one religion is as "good" as another or that all religions can be boiled down to a common denominator. "Religious traditions and interfaith conversation are intended to identify similarities and differences in a way that directly and deliberately works against stereotypes and bigotry."

Niebuhr joined SU's College of Arts and Sciences and S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications in 2004, after a two-year fellowship at Princeton University. Prior to The New York Times, he worked for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He publishes in anthologies and magazines and is a frequent commentator on religion for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." His great-uncle was renowned religious thinker Reinhold Niebuhr, and his grandfather was leading theologian H. Richard Niebuhr.

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