A Laboratory for Interfaith Studies in Pennsylvania Dutch Country

Elizabethtown, Pa. — As a high school student, James Spearman excelled in math and science, and for a hobby at home, he assembled insulation pipes into a model roller coaster looping from floor to ceiling and back. So it was not surprising that he chose engineering as his major when he enrolled here at Elizabethtown College.

Then Mr. Spearman ended up in his second choice for a first-semester seminar, a class titled “Big Theological Questions” that was taught by the college chaplain. Indeed, Mr. Spearman had already been asking himself questions since drifting from his Baptist upbringing toward atheism and trying out meditation.

The clincher came a few weeks into the term, when he heard a guest speaker on campus address the importance of interfaith relations in this age of deep divides not only among religions but also between believers and nonbelievers. Mr. Spearman put aside engineering and changed his major to interfaith leadership studies, a degree that he believes can help him become a political organizer.

Mr. Spearman’s decision reflected a combination of serendipity, personal curiosity and institutional direction, for Elizabethtown College had just begun offering a degree and core courses in interfaith studies. This unassuming dot on the intellectual landscape — 1,800 students on 200 acres in the Pennsylvania Dutch heartland — had become the nation’s beta tester in the emerging academic discipline.

While Elizabethtown is the only college to confer a bachelor’s degree in the field, 16 others around the nation have started minors, certificate programs or course sequences in interfaith or interreligious studies, according to Interfaith Youth Core, a national group promoting the trend. For undergraduates, the potential career paths range from social-justice nonprofit organizations to international business. In addition, many theological seminaries offer master’s degrees involving interfaith ministry or chaplaincy.

Eight Elizabethtown students signed up for the major in the first year, and 750 students have taken at least one related to on the subject. For Mr. Spearman, who had lived entirely within one faith tradition, classes have been augmented by excursions to a Passover Seder, a Catholic Mass on Easter and the Friday Prayer service at a mosque.

“I’d always been to one church, and all of a sudden, I’m experiencing all these religions,” said Mr. Spearman, 18, who is from Stafford, Va. “I’d never really understood the concept of religious pluralism. I didn’t seriously understand how you can appreciate other religions at the same time.”

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For faculty and administrators, the program extends far beyond mutual tolerance and the appreciation of difference. “The stakes were definitely raised after 9/11,” said the Rev. Tracy W. Sadd, the college chaplain and lead instructor in the interfaith major. “What’s called for now is interfaith peacemaking. Every single one of us who is an American citizen has an obligation to do what we can in the place where we are. There’s no technique — political, military or otherwise — that’s going to fix this. We need leadership to help people with the deep work. And we all need to be part of it.”

Admirable as such sentiments are, the place of interfaith study in higher education remains contested. Many professors of religious studies bridle at the new field’s orientation toward real-world application rather than pure scholarship. There is also concern among some members of the American Academy of Religion that professors of interfaith studies hold a positive view of religion in society rather than approaching it with critical, skeptical detachment.

“These questions have long bedeviled our field,” said Gregory B. Johnson, a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “What is our identity vis-à-vis the academy and our own faith traditions? Do we operate from within or without? So I find this kind of development worrisome.”

Partly because of Elizabethtown’s character, the college was well prepared to surmount such concerns. As a college rather than a research university, Elizabethtown operates under a motto of “education for service.” Founded by the Church of the Brethren, one of the so-called peace churches for its pacifist theology, Elizabethtown has long offered courses in what might be called practical idealism, including a major in peace studies.

A faculty member, Jon Rudy, holds the title here of peacemaker-in-residence. (It even says so on his business card.) Dr. Sadd grew up in a rural community near Elizabethtown that, for all its white Christian insularity, made a point of accepting and embracing Vietnamese Buddhist refugees.

“A lot of institutions have seen interfaith studies as a way not to have religious studies ghettoized,” the college president, Carl J. Strikwerda, said. “It keeps our sense of ecumenical diversity. It puts religious diversity right into the heart of what we’re trying to do. And it makes a statement about what a well-educated person in the 21st century should know.”

Even so, Elizabethtown might not have become the early adopter without a coincidental meeting. In early 2012, Dr. Strikwerda bumped into Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, at a convention of independent colleges. Already familiar with Mr. Patel’s work in creating interreligious dialogue on campuses, Dr. Strikwerda invited the group to Elizabethtown to map the religious demography of the student body.

That survey revealed some immediate holes to be filled. The faculty in religious studies needed experts in Islam and African-American Christianity. Secular students at Elizabethtown felt marginalized. Dr. Strikwerda recalled his overarching realization: It was not enough to espouse interfaith engagement as a worthy value; it had to be made part of the college’s curriculum in a meaningful way.

In early 2013, Mr. Patel took his advocacy for interfaith studies to an especially influential pulpit, delivering a lecture at Yale. “Bridges don’t fall from the sky or rise from the ground,” he said then. “People have to build them. And the people who are the vanguard of such work, we call leaders.”

The Teagle Foundation, which supports innovation in liberal arts education, put seed money into Mr. Patel’s vision. In 2014, the foundation invited college and universities to compete for $10,000 grants to start developing interfaith studies programs. Elizabethtown won one of the grants and used existing funds to make new hires in religious studies and to put more of Dr. Sadd’s time into classroom teaching.

The major in interfaith leadership studies has six required courses and five electives, spanning the major religions as well as history, social science, theology, conflict dynamics and even conservation biology. Each student also must design and complete a semester-long practical interfaith project. In Dr. Sadd’s introductory course, the students identified themselves as Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, unaffiliated, Shinto and “fallen-away Eastern Orthodox.”

As a third-year student, Pareesa Zaman was already heading for pre-med when the interfaith major was started. An observant Muslim, she began choosing classes to qualify for the degree, taking courses in comparative theology, social psychology and Dharma traditions — meaning Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh.

“My goal in life is to be in Doctors Without Borders,” said Ms. Zaman, 20. “So, of course, passing the MCAT is the first thing. But interfaith leadership studies is also a step toward it. In Doctors Without Borders, you’re going to encounter patients with all these different religions, different cultures. So having this major, I’m at least going to know what questions to ask.”