Interreligious Dialogue, Community Cohesion, and Global Citizenship: The Role of a Religion Program in a Rural, Land-Grant University: Do Rural Areas Need Interreligious Dialogue?

By Bahr, Ann Marie B. | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Interreligious Dialogue, Community Cohesion, and Global Citizenship: The Role of a Religion Program in a Rural, Land-Grant University: Do Rural Areas Need Interreligious Dialogue?


Bahr, Ann Marie B., Journal of Ecumenical Studies


The need for interreligious and intercultural dialogue in cosmopolitan cities is obvious: The mix of languages, clothing styles, ethnic holidays, and religious buildings necessitates dialogue to create a sense of community in the midst of diversity. Rural areas are usually more homogenous. Such is the case in South Dakota, where 88% of the population is white. American Indians, at 8% of the total population, constitute the largest ethnic minority. With 78% of the population self-identifying as Christian, (1) South Dakota is also religiously homogenous. Along with neighboring Minnesota and North Dakota, South Dakota ranks in the top ten most-Christian states in the United States. (2)

However, even rural populations are diversifying. Today, refugees from Sudan, Iraq, and other global trouble spots are often settled in rural areas. Professionals and professors from around the world work in corporations and universities in rural areas. Furthermore, people from rural South Dakota travel to other countries as employees of global corporations, as members of the armed forces, or as volunteers in charitable organizations. Even those who do not leave South Dakota are active participants in the global flow of information made possible through modern communications systems. South Dakota youth are as likely as youth anywhere else to have perceptions of religious and cultural "others" and to carry these perceptions with them when they vote; decide whether to buy a house near a synagogue, temple, or mosque; decide whether to entrust their health to a doctor from a non-Western country; or consider anti-shari'ah bills as a legislator. Rural areas are not immune to the impacts of globalization.

The lack of dialogue with religious "others" also impacts minority or alternative religions. For example, while anecdotal evidence attests to the presence of many Wiccans in eastern South Dakota, fear of harassment makes it impossible to attain accurate statistics. The extremely low profile of alternative religions robs public decision-making of their insights and robs their practitioners of public acceptance for their religious identity.

Because South Dakota is lacking in institutions granting graduate degrees in religion, (3) dialogue here must necessarily be sustained at the grassroots level. Ordinary citizens and local religious leaders, not theologians, engaged in the first formal interreligious dialogues in South Dakota (held in 2009 and 2010), and this pattern is expected to continue in the foreseeable future.

The People of South Dakota

With a population of a little over 800,000, South Dakota ranks fifth lowest in the nation in both population and population density. The populace is 88% white, 8% American Indian, 2% Hispanic, 1% African American, and 0.9% Asian American. Forty percent of South Dakotans are of German ancestry, 16% of Scandinavian, and 10% of Irish. The Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota peoples ("Sioux") (4) comprise the 8% of the state that is American Indian. (5) There are nine reservations in the state (Standing Rock straddles the border between North Dakota and South Dakota, so lies only partially in the state). South Dakota has the nation's largest population of Hutterites, a communal Anabaptist group living on approximately sixty colonies in the state. The Hutterites resemble the Amish in many ways, but they allow the use of modern farming equipment and automobiles.

South Dakota falls within one of three belts of U.S. counties in which religious adherents number more than 75% of all residents, (6) since 78% of South Dakotans self-identify as Christian. Four percent belong to other religions, and 12% are not religious. (7)

Native Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota traditions have been revitalized in recent decades. In the nineteenth century, the U.S. government assigned Episcopalian and Catholic missionaries to South Dakota's reservations. Following a century of attempted elimination of Native American religion by these churches, a change of policy occurred; Episcopalian and Catholic Indians now blend Christian and Native practices.

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