Under God: How Religious Differences Can Bring Us Together
Photo by Josh Thompson
One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
All across the states, children recite these words at ungodly hours, counting down each tick of the clock and hoping for the respite of lunch or recess.
These unifying ideals teach tolerance to children in their most malleable state, but in perilous political times these elementary ideals seem to escape adults. In a nation founded on freedom and immigrants, Nazi imagery and muslim bans plague the country, making indivisibility seem like a distant dream.
So whose God are we really under?
I sat down with women of three different faiths during the most trying of times—exam week—to discuss how Christianity, Judaism and Islam fit their lasting religious institutions into a modern, collegiate environment.
“Oh… Ok… So I guess I’m a Christian now.”
Third-year USC student Christy Conlon invited me into her home to discuss her involvement at Midtown Fellowship Church, a Christian organization with a strong presence on campus. We cozied up on her couches as she opened up to me about her journey to faith and how it fits into her world.
She found a relationship with God her freshman year of college after attending three different church services in one day with her roommate. During a service at a gospel church that day, the preacher spoke to her, calling her to come home to God.
“The worst that can happen is that I become a Christian,” Conlon said jokingly as she recounted this defining day in her life.
As a social work major and an active participant in her congregation, she has found ways to serve those who need it most. Through working with the youth programs at church, she created a partnership with Epworth Children’s Home to give disadvantaged youth a safe haven.
“These are the kids that don’t have consistency or understand what it means to have people there for you,” Conlon said. “We try to make it like they’re coming home to spend time with their family. For those of us who are Christians, we do have that family in Christ, and we want to try and share that with them.”
At the end of the day, Conlon’s beliefs and exposure to other cultures shine as she adamantly advocates for the rights of all people, stressing the fact that there should be a clear separation of church and state.
“God’s words are just to love each other,” she said. “By no means would I ever try to force my opinions or political views on anybody. I’m gonna fight so that you can live the best life you can live. Anything else, that’s between you and God, not you and me.”
“In my synagogue, our cantor was gay.”
Jenna Rosen sat down at a small table in Cool Beans, her outgoing presence palpable and inviting. With lavender lemonade in hand and current events on our minds, she left no question unanswered as we traversed topics from latkes to presidential relations with Israel.
Rosen, in her third year here at USC, is the president of Hillel, a Jewish student group on campus that often partners with Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish fraternity on campus.
“What sets Judaism apart from a lot of other religions is it’s more cultural than it is religious,” Rosen said. “We focus on community and just loving our neighbor, loving one another and being open to everyone.”
That universal acceptance and progressive mentality has not been reciprocated of late. About 90 threats have been made to Jewish facilities since the start of the year, including local Jewish community centers. Rosen recounted hearing threats in the form of an automated recording, making vicious statements such as, “The Jews will die a horrible death.”
“The Jewish past is prejudice,” Rosen said. “It’s been since the beginning of time. It’s something that, unfortunately, we’re kind of used to. The Holocaust only happened 80 years ago. It’s frightening, but Jews are extremely resilient. We’ve gone through so many things, so it’s just another hurdle we have to jump.”
While President Trump claims to be the “least anti-Semitic” person, Rosen wishes he would take a stronger stance against threats to the Jewish community. Alongside Mr. President, she wishes that the progressive narrative was more inclusive of the Jewish struggle in America as well. Overall, Rosen just wants and embraces unity.
“It’s a scary time for Jewish people,” she said. “I think we just have to stick together as a community and stay strong.”
“I actually feel empowered when I put it on.”
We sat on the soft, red carpet of the women’s prayer room. Adorned in hijabs, third-year Fatima Askar and first-year Aya Ahmed opened up about what it’s like to be a Muslim woman in a modern society.
“Some people who are more conservative do force their daughters to wear the hijab, but the majority of women who wear it do not wear it because they are forced,” Askar said. “They wear it because they want to. It’s just like a Christian wearing a cross. It’s just a symbol of our religion that we want to show.”
Askar and Ahmed are both members of the Muslim Student Association on campus. College students are often faced with a multitude of important decisions that could impact the rest of their lives. For Ahmed, those choices become much easier with Allah in her heart.
“Being on a public university campus, there is temptation everywhere,” Ahmed said. “Often times, at this age and this day that we’re living in, it’s very easy to fall astray and make the wrong decision that will harm you later on. With Islam, I feel like it guides me to make the right decision in those hard times.”
Although Islam is often portrayed as an oppressive institution, the ideologies of the religion itself are quite progressive. Askar explained that women do not take their husband’s last name because they are “no man’s property.” She also added that husbands are never entitled to their wives’ wealth and that diversity is specifically encouraged by their holy book.
“Your culture or your race has absolutely nothing to do with Islam itself,” Askar said. “There’s a verse in the Quran that says that God purposefully made us from different nations, different cultures, different colored skins so that we can get to know each other, overcome our differences and make us better and stronger.”
With bans targeting majority Muslim countries and propaganda circulating the media, it’s easy to get swept up in preconceived notions. Ahmed and Askar emphatically said that Muslim people would be happy to discuss their lifestyle with anyone. They even laughed that their community leader loves to invite people in for tea.
“Don’t be so quick to listen to what you hear on the media,” Askar said. “Just at least be willing to come and see it for yourself. View it with your own eyes before you make a decision on it.”
Somewhere, Schoolhouse Rock echoes in a silent classroom.
It doesn’t matter where you’re from, or your religion, you jump right into the great American melting pot.
These many differences that make up America are not just some gimmick for a children’s song, but rather a clear reality for many. While these women all worship differently, they all seemed to embody traits of unity and progression in their faith. Through them, liberty and justice for all doesn’t seem that far off after all.