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Shana Sippy & Michael McNally, Co-directors

ReligionsMN brings together scholars specialized in a range of religious traditions with Minnesota’s communities and professional organizations to help Minnesotans navigate challenges, promote greater religious literacy, foster nuanced and informed public conversation about and across religious difference, and provide publicly accessible web-based local resources to support that effort. Rather than keep the rich knowledge and wealth of research within the confines of the academy, this project seeks to promote collaborations with community partners to help Minnesota communities access and leverage scholarly resources for public good.

Recent elections are reminders that Minnesota is no outlier to the divisions in America. Donald Trump was elected to White House, but two years later, Ilhan Omar became the first Somali, the first refugee, and one of the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress. Just two days before his 2016 victories, Trump spoke to a large crowd at the MSP airport, saying: “Here in Minnesota, you’ve seen firsthand the problems caused with faulty refugee vetting, with large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state…without your support…with some of them…joining ISIS and spreading their extremist views all over our country….” These sentiments, which found enthusiastic supporters among some in the state, reveal the wide-range of perspectives about immigrants in Minnesota. Like Americans generally, Minnesotans find themselves neighbors with people they not only don’t know, but feel they can never understand.

The divides are racial, ethnic, economic, generational and geographical in nature, but they are increasingly and crucially religious. Talk of registering Muslim neighbors simply because of their religion has found disturbing traction in the mainstream of public discourse.  By turns, evangelical Christians of a wide array of political, social, and theological positions are lumped together as though they think and act as a single entity. The particular circumstances, histories, and nuanced perspectives that shape Minnesota's diverse communities are often lost in a sea of generalization. 

At the same time as Minnesota is not unlike other states, it has enjoyed a reputation for social capital and civic capacity to address these challenges. To be sure, the murder of George Floyd in 2020 at the hands of Minneapolis Police and of Philando Castille in 2016 by a police officer from St. Anthony laid bare what the state's people of color have known all along: that what was once dubbed the "Minnesota Miracle" is belied by some of America's worst racial gaps in educational and economic achievement, social well being, and safety. Still, whether measured by electoral participation, volunteerism, charitable giving, or refugee resettlement Minnesota has a capacity for civic engagement and an ethos of neighborliness that, fragile and limited as it is, can be commended and drawn upon as a powerful resource for healing divisions in the current climate.

ReligionsMN aspires to address some of the challenges of religious difference by tapping into this ethos of neighborliness and nurturing it through accessible public scholarship that helps Minnesotans understand one another’s religious and cultural commitments in all their difference and commonality. We believe this endeavor to be all the more important as we continue to see profound changes in Minnesota’s religious landscape coupled with an increasingly charged political climate over religious and ethnic difference.

The visibility and pace of these changes have generated enormous tensions in civic life, as workplaces, public spaces, schoolrooms, hospitals, and courtrooms contend with new realities and unexamined assumptions. Minnesota’s religious and ethnic communities have found themselves, often for the first time, in the position of having to educate others about their religious beliefs and practices. Navigating cultural and religious difference presents ongoing and ever-shifting challenges and we hope this project helps, in some small way, to address them. 

History of the Project

This project began at Carleton College in Northfield, MN, in the winter of 2010. Students in two Religion Department classes, taught by Professor Shana Sippy, Encountering Islam: Dialogue and Difference and Modern Hinduism, began to do research on a number of current issues facing contemporary Muslim and Hindu communities within Minnesota. As an outgrowth of those projects, Professor Sippy began to offer the course, Seeing is Believing: Global Religions in Minnesota annually from 2011-2016. In addition, a course on Native American Religious Freedom, taught by Professor Michael McNally, which had been offered for many years, started to include a public scholarship component in conjunction with the project. These courses are connected to Carleton's Center for Community and Civic Engagement, which is committed to advancing faculty research and student learning that extends beyond the traditional classroom, working in partnership with local communities to make academic endeavors relevant, applicable, and accessible to larger audiences in the practice of Public Scholarship. In 2020, with the support from  the Mellon Foundation's Public Work Grant and the Minnesota Humanities Center, in collaboration with Twin Cities Public Television and our community partners, we created a series of four documentary shorts, Sacred Minnesota, and we have convened different community members to screen and dialogue about the projects. We hope to develop more documentary shorts with other community partners in the next few years. 

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