Religious Tolerance Making in Families and the Role of Power

Dr. Pamela Prickett

Post-Doctoral Student, Rice University Department of Sociology

If we want to foster religious tolerance, responsibility to accept difference lies primarily in the hands of a society’s religious majority. Religious minorities can do their best to act as ambassadors of a faith, sharing with others narratives about belief and practice. However, social cohesion will only occur if those on the other side—in the US, the Christian majority—are willing to accept religious differences as legitimate and make efforts to help bridge existing religious divides.

This is the conclusion I have reached after nearly a decade of studying African American Muslims and their families. I have spent the bulk of this time observing and participating in a community of Muslims who worships at a mosque in a low-income urban neighborhood in Los Angeles. With the aid of a research grant from the Boniuk Institute at Rice University, I recently extended this ethnographic research to include a more focused examination of how members of the mosque interact with their Christian family members. Most African American Muslims are converts to Islam, having come to Islam as former Christians. Meanwhile, the vast majority of their family members remain Christian and, if like three-quarters of African Americans overall, consider religion important (Pew Research Center 2014). I wanted to understand how members of a family who differ in their religious identification work through differences in the course of everyday life and during major life events, such as birth and death. The Muslim women and men I studied have regular, ongoing social connections with Christian family members. In some cases, they live under the same roofs, forced to work out differences in the course of everyday life. This makes them an ideal case to identify specific ways in which interfaith families foster social cohesion as well as possible barriers to inclusion. Understanding religious tolerance at this micro-level enables us to theorize new ways of expanding tolerance at a larger societal level. In the following short research brief, I summarize key findings from my in-progress study as they pertain to the Boniuk institute’s emphasis on advancement of religious tolerance, with the hope that it can contribute to efforts to build better bridges between different religious traditions in the United States.

Key finding #1: Religious minorities the of faith ambassadors.

The first finding I uncovered is that members of the mosque act as faith ambassadors, performing cultural work to explain and (sometimes) justify their Islamic beliefs and practices to people unfamiliar with the minority religion. This creates a pressure that members of a majority faith do not necessarily feel. As one Muslim respondent told me, African Americans must “represent Islam” to their families, and they feel a tremendous pressure to represent it well. Their families look at that one person and measure all of Islam. None of the Christian family members I spoke with expressed a similar feeling or pressure.

Key finding #2: Religious majorities to be willing accept differences in faith adjust behaviors.

The second finding I uncovered is that in order for tolerance to develop into something tangible, members of a religious majority have to be willing to accept a religious minority’s differences as legitimate and then adjust behaviors to demonstrate this acceptance. It isn’t enough just to give lip service to religious difference; people have to take action. In the interfaith families I studied one of the ways this manifested most visibly in daily life was over food. All of the Muslim family members I interviewed avoided pork. This is consistent with conventional interpretations of pork as haram (forbidden) in Islam. But pork is present in many soul food dishes consumed by African Americans, and it limited what the Muslim family members I spoke with could eat at large family functions. One respondent, a middle-aged salesman, said that it took his aunt “maybe 10 or 15 years to really, you know, to be conscious of it [putting pork in food].” And she was “the first one that really was conscientious about what she cooked.” It was not until his aunt was willing to accept her nephew’s dietary choices and to adjust her behavior that tolerance over food could occur.

Key findings #3: Religious majorities greater power making religious tolerance happen a greater social obligation.

As we see with the above example on food, power is at work in even the smallest interactions. That it took my respondent’s aunt so long to make alternative dishes without pork speaks to the ability of a religious majority in a family to resist change. This is true in other institutions, as well. Asked where African American Muslims in the sample sense resistance from family members, another respondent said it was “most definitely in African American churches.” He explained that when black churches promote Jesus as the only way, it makes Christian family members more resistant to accepting Islam. This is an area where future research could develop, studying the ways that majority faith institutions create barriers to tolerance. Simply put, if family members who identify with a society’s dominant faith tradition do not want to learn, they do not have to. Members who identify with a minority faith, like Islam in the US, have less power to ignore. Thus, for religious tolerance-making to happen, there must be an effort on the part of members of the majority religion to want to try to understand religious differences. It really can’t happen if this dominant power-holding group refuses to acquiesce, at least a little, to the social obligation to attempt acceptance. This is true at the family level as well as the larger societal level.


Pew Research Center. 2014. Religious Landscape Study (RLS-II). Washington D.C.