Can religion bring us together?

This past week in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, I was asked the same question three different times, in three different places, in a matter of hours: “Can religion bring us together in public life and politics?” My response: Yes, but many on the right, and now on the left, must change. The questions came amid the recent turmoil here and overseas over the cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. Surely, none of us need to be reminded that religion has been a focal point for social upheaval, war and division from generation to generation. This much we know.

So, what about today – as so many people have retreated from public life and politics – can religion help to bring us together in the U.S.?

Not if so many people insist on using religion as a political weapon. Indeed, for decades now, some people and groups on the religious right have sought to frame public debate in highly divisive, acrimonious ways. They have manufactured “wedge” issues to win political battles at any cost.

Feeling the pressure, many people and groups on the political left have decided to publicly “reclaim” God and religiosity. But take a look at their recent rhetoric and you can see that they, too, have fallen prey to a “win at any cost” approach. They routinely demonize Republicans, conservatives, and the president with such broad strokes and repetitiveness that their arguments can seem divorced from reality. The result: They can seem like the mirror image of their so-called enemies on the far right.

Thus, the right and the left have staked out their paths. I am opposed to both of them – and say we need an alternate path.

First, let me point out, that there will always be matters of religious belief and doctrine about which people disagree. I myself am part of a religious minority in this country. I, like so many Americans, want our religious freedoms protected.

Still, last week, I said as clearly as I could that religion should be a force for good in the public square today. Religion can help call us to a higher ground – for instance, it can probe us to consider what it means to love thy neighbor, to be compassionate, to exercise faith (in this case civic faith), to find humility, to open oneself up to grace. Each and all of these notions are in short supply today.

Religious leaders should make entreaties to us to think about these notions; they should challenge us to look at our words and deeds in relationship to them; they should call us to step forward to engage in something larger than ourselves.

The current tone of derisiveness on both the religious right and left fails us. Based on my own travels across America over the past 20 years, I believe Americans are hungry for us to take a different path in public life and politics.

I have faith we can find a different way. How about you?