In the 2018 Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country, a controversial guru from India and his followers attempt to build a utopian society in Wasco County, Oregon. The Rajneeshees, as they were called, embraced progressive social and moral ideals. Their guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (or Osho), taught that marriage and sex needed to be loosened from traditional mores. They came to America to enjoy religious liberties they were not afforded in India. In Oregon, they hoped to prove to the world that peace, love, and harmony were possible at a societal level.
Everything seemed to be going according to plan until local residents a town over started getting spooked. You can imagine it: without warning or explanation, tens of thousands of the guru’s followers started rolling through their tiny town of Antelope, Oregon, en route to their new commune. With a population of only 40 people, the residents of Antelope were as one might expect: good Christian folk – the salt of the earth, as they say. Their families had lived in rural Oregon for generations.
For the next four years (1981-1985), tensions between the Rajneeshees and Antelope/Wasco County residents escalated and eventually boiled over. At one point, the Rajneeshees assumed a majority in the Antelope city council, voting to rename the city “Rajneesh.” They attempted to organize a similar effort in Wasco County after sensing that county officials were out for them. Growing increasingly desperate, some of the Rajneesh leaders resorted to violence. They entered local restaurants and poisoned the salad bars with salmonella; 751 people got sick, including an unborn baby. They made plans to murder county and federal officials. The commune finally disbanded in 1985 when the Bhagwan took a plea deal on criminal charges that required him to leave the country.
In the documentary, Antelope residents theorized why they never got along with the Rajneeshees. The overarching theme was that the Rajneeshees perceived the residents of Antelope as backwards, crude, dumb, and unenlightened – everything the Rajneeshees wanted to reform in the human race. One resident described the Rajneeshees’ posture as wanting to “help” them see the error in their ways and come to a liberating knowledge of the truth. There would be no such opportunity, of course. Both groups dug in their heels.
At times, it appeared that the Antelopians were losing the battle; after all, the Rajneeshees outnumbered them both in sheer numbers (10,000 to 40) and financial resources. Yet, the Antelopians ended up being catalytic to the Rajneeshees’ demise and eventual departure from Oregon. They inadvertently exposed the grand irony in the Rajneesh project: though they preached peace, love, and harmony, their actions and behavior suggested anything but. Granted, the most destructive actions were organized by a small group of Rajneesh leaders. Nevertheless, Antelope residents believed that the Rajneeshees would have preferred them to fall off the face of the earth. They were the ones standing in the way of the world that the Rajneeshees came to build.
Trumpers and Everyone Else
Americans are living in an unparalleled time of divisiveness and polarization. Many interfaith groups state explicitly that part of their mission is to tear down walls between religious groups and build bridges in their place; to bring peace, love, and harmony where there was once discord and division. Today, one would be hard pressed to find a more impassioned divide than the one between religious Trumpers and what seems like everybody else. This is a historical moment of great consequence for these interfaith groups; what are they really made of?
I’m not actually saying the Rajneeshees and interfaith organizations are alike. I’ve yet to find an interfaith organization that has been labeled a “sex cult.” I’m also not surmising that every Antelopian would be a Trump supporter. That’s not how metaphors work. Rather, I saw in Oregon both a familiar narrative and a cautionary tale, one that is more relevant now than ever before: the attempt to scale a “peace, love, and harmony” movement without them– people (typically Christians) of a conservative political persuasion. I’m referring to the ones who voted President Trump into office; the ones that aren’t going to suddenly disappear or change their minds, no matter how loud they are shouted down on social media; the ones who presumably need to change their ways if the interfaith movement is to succeed in bringing about the future they want.
If you’ve spent any time in interfaith circles, you’ve heard the classic refrain that the interfaith movement doesn’t receive the same press as other diversity-oriented movements. Bud Heckman, executive director of the Tri-Faith Initiative, recently said it well: “Why isn’t the movement for interfaith cooperation seen and taken as seriously and central in our societies as are other movements for social justice and the common good, such as race, gender, abilities, the environment, and so on?”
I would contend this is because the interfaith movement struggles to mediate religious divisions of serious consequence in American society. Sure, many interfaith groups are renegotiating boundaries between some progressive-leaning groups. But should they receive points for this? This is akin to mediating between two friends – certainly not the kind of radical reconciliation between storied enemies they say they’re in the business of. The question I’ve been asking lately is this: if the interfaith movement isn’t working to address the religious Trumpers vs. everybody else divide that is conjuring up vitriol and violence in American society, then what are they doing? Whatever it is, it will likely not convince everyday Americans that interfaith is an indispensable social good worthy of their time and resources. Rather, it will ensure that they remain in the category of “progressive niche interest,” as they have been placed historically.
An Alternate Approach
I recently encountered a very different kind of interfaith organization, one that has seen success among conservative constituencies. The One America Movement began after the 2016 presidential election and has grown rapidly ever sense. They don’t actually call themselves an “interfaith” organization, though they often find themselves working with religious communities of varying traditions. They organize short and long-term projects in consultation with communities in a particular region, to meet shared goals each community supports. These might include service projects, or simply sharing a meal and conversation.
This, of course, sounds like conventional interfaith stuff. What makes their approach unique is that they don’t tell anyone, including conservatives, how they ought to behave or speak. Christian conservatives are allowed to share their message and pray as they desire, but they must expect others will do the same. They also provide an opportunity for participants to write down hard questions and hear them get answered. They have found that in these settings, both conservatives and progressives are willing to speak honestly about their questions and struggles, and even change their minds about one another.
When I asked Andrew Hanauer, director of the Movement, what inspires them to take this posture, he explained:
It's who we are. From our leadership to our grassroots members, we have the full spectrum. We see a broken and divisive political system and we refuse to accept that this is how it has to be. We know we can do better. So while we have left and right, we also work to transcend these stale, polarized narratives that put all of us in neat little boxes. For me personally, I have people of all parts of the spectrum in the very core of my family. Arthur Brooks, the head of the American Enterprise Institute, said this recently and it's true for me too: when somebody attacks people ad hominem in American society, they're probably attacking someone I love and care about (Interview, June 1, 2018).
One America just opened a new regional office in West Virginia, where every county went red in the 2016 presidential election (67.9% voted from Trump). They are building a coalition of communities across religious, racial, and political divides to combat the opioid epidemic. Joel Rainey, an evangelical pastor on the Movement’s leadership team, noted in an interview that “In our area, opioids are killing evangelicals, Muslims, Jews, atheists, Democrats, Republicans, the rich, the poor, all ethnic groups – it’s a plague that has touched us all. Why wouldn’t we fight it together?” If the Movement hopes to have any success, working successfully with conservative communities in rural areas is a must. Fortunately, this is something that they have prepared for, and seem to enjoy doing.
One wonders what might have been different had the Rajneeshees taken a similar posture in Antelope and Wasco County, before cruising through town by the busloads like they owned the place. Maybe it would have been awkward and frustrating nonetheless; but it likely would have prevented some of the chaos and violence that ensued. For starters, maybe 751 people wouldn’t have been poisoned. If you ask me, this is a social good I can get behind.
The Rajneeshees clearly didn’t think the residents of Antelope would be of any great consequence to their efforts. They were wrong. Where the Antelopians lacked in numbers and resources, they made up for it in other ways. Their families had a historical legacy in Oregon; they had allies in the local and federal government; they knew the land and the laws like the back of their hands. The Rajneeshees dismissed all of this, so zealous for what ought to be the case before ever considering what was the case: a small, rural town of “good Christian folk” that was never going to buy into their utopian vision.
In the same way, it is highly unlikely that religious Trumpers will buy into the vision of “peace, love, and harmony” that the mainstream interfaith movement is selling. Still, the movement proceeds as if it can successfully bring about this vision without them. If the metaphor I’ve put forward has any explanatory power, one should not expect it will succeed. Rather, it will continue to wonder why other diversity-oriented movements have left it in the dust. To inspire everyday Americans, the interfaith movement will need to demonstrate that it is prepared to tackle religious divisions of serious consequence in American society. There is none greater right now than the gridlock between religious Trumpers and those who oppose them. Interfaith, it’s time to show the country what you’re made of.
Originally Published in The Interfaith Observer on June 15, 2018.