The Future of Religious Diversity In The Workplace

Pope & POTUS

PhotoCredit: MAD Magazine


Though many a workplace has been found wanting in gender and racial diversity, there may well be no workplace that is lacking in and/or unaffected by religious diversity. Even in workplaces where most might be members of the same religion, each will approach their form of worship in unique and deeply personal ways. The inconceivable number of interacting permutations in “religious diversity” cannot help but play out in the workplace in complicated ways.

The global challenges with managing religious “differences” are reflected in every way imaginable, ranging from insensitive management-sanctioned religious holiday celebrations at work and satirical relief in popular literature, to less than civil debates over religious garb, to violent Middle East geopolitical conflict centered on the establishment of a new Islamic religious state in Iraq/Syria, to a Muslim-Hindu partitioning of India and Pakistan, to the hotly debated two-state solution in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It gets intense.

Such conflicts over religious differences, especially those centered on dramatic human rights violations, civil wars and strategic international territorial disputes, tend to sharpen the contrast between the United States and much of the world.


Globally pervasive religion ensures the powerful presence of religious belief, and globalism ensures increasing religious diversity in the workplace. By world population, religions currently rank as follows:  #1 Christianity (31.5%), #2 Muslim, #4 Hindu (15%), #5 Buddhism (7.1%), #5 Folk Religions (5.9%), #6 “Other” (.8%), #7 Jews (.2%).

Ironically, the answer to the question is “less than ever,” depending on how it’s measured. The “unaffiliated” are now the third largest category at 16.3% of those surveyed about religion in the Pew 2015 survey of “The Global Religious Landscape.” The growing ranks of the irreligious are no longer merely those who have walked away or stayed away from religious engagement, but are trending toward proactive proselytizing (a.k.a., “Outreach“) for an antithetical “Freedom From Religion” philosophy as a societal counterweight to traditional Constitutional rights and freedoms. It is an attitude and philosophy more openly represented in the workplace, as intense as any religious fervor.

These days the workplace can also be in the home, with disruptive religious “diversity” even there.  The American Religious Identification Survey of 2001 calculated that people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages. Both telecommuters and traditional employees are affected by the resulting religious tensions.

Often with little conscious cognizance, employees, customers, contractors/suppliers will perform their duties in accordance with fundamental values/mores, choices based on the prodding of religiously trained conscience or even what are perceived as behavioral commandments.

Churches and nonprofit employers may have deeply religious organizational roots while employing people of varying religions and using volunteers of almost any religious persuasion. Restaurant servers may stand politely by as patrons finish praying out loud at the beginning of a meal. Schools as workplaces have become obligated to curtail certain religious activities, including audible prayer, but recognize the limitations as increasing cultural diversity brings greater conflict with religion.

Even seemingly secular corporate policies and cultures may be inadvertently built on religious values, e.g., a “Protestant Work Ethic.”  Workplace holidays and observances may be established by reflex around those of a nationally dominant religion. Government employers may increasingly find conflict between religious beliefs and employee duties and responsibilities. Even countries that reject religion other than Leader Worship find themselves at odds with faith that conflicts with government policy.

Over the decades, even America’s top job has suffered hot debate over whether Catholics, Jews, Mormons or Muslims could hold the Office of the POTUS. Of late, local religious-cultural conflict even attracted attention from as high as the Papacy.

Adding to the complexity, “American civil religion is a sociological theory that there exists a nonsectarian quasi-religious faith in the United States with sacred symbols drawn from national history. Scholars have portrayed it as a cohesive force, a common set of values that foster social and cultural integration.” Said another way, civil norms, standards and values may be separate but are equivalent to those of religion in powerfully apparent ways.

The border between culture and religion is fading, even as the conflicts between them continue to make headlines globally. Though many assert that discussing religion or politics in the workplace is a taboo, the two seem inextricably bound these days, virtually inescapable topics in the news we receive each day. From immigration to refugee migrations as economic and political upheavals render national borders moot from a religious standpoint, it will inevitably cascade into the workplace over the next few generations.

Understanding the difference between religion and culture is crucial for recognizing what principled thinking and behaviors can sustain a workplace culture amenable to the ensuing burgeoning religious multiplicity.


Over a century ago, Emile Durkheim observed, “What basic difference is there between Christians’ celebrating the principal dates of Christ’s life, Jews’ celebrating the exodus from Egypt or the promulgation of the Decalogue, and a citizen’s meeting commemorating the advent of a new charter or some other great event of national life?” (“Emile Durkheim: Sociologist of Modernity,” edited by Mustafa Emirbayer, p. 119)

In light of that, how does one define and distinguish between “religion” and “culture” for the purposes of the workplace?  The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution may hold a key.  It prominently mentions “religion,” but doesn’t define it.  There is no mention of “culture” at all in The Constitution.

Why not?

In 1889, well after the framers of the Constitution legislated an American approach to the challenges of religious pluralism while at the same time avoiding a definition of religion, Anthropologist Edward B. Tylor noted:

…“ [c]ulture has also been described as ‘one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.

In the 1700s, the term “culture” as it is used in sociology barely existed in English. The word applied primarily to farming. Even today, despite what we know as cultural pluralism in a globalized society and workplace, the definition of culture remains elusive and much debated.  No less so for the term “religion,” the U.S. Supreme Court has as yet declared no singular definition of it (and will not), and recognizes multiple approaches to religion for the purposes of jurisprudence.

In any case, it seems not to be a great chasm between religion and culture from the standpoint of their structure. Both religion and untethered secular culture share many, but at least these inherent structural components:

  • Set of beliefs, norms and values shared by a group.
  • Practices, traditions, observances, rituals, codes.
  • Exercise of conscience in conscious decisions about how members behave and/or interact with others (members and non-members) in matters of morals and ethics.
  • Expected degrees of loyalty, devotion, standards of adherence that may affect the view of the group as to an individual’s membership, or the legitimacy of a subgroup’s affiliation.
  • Inherent philosophies that govern how members perceive and engage in human affairs and the conduct thereof.
  • Way(s) of life that can be transmitted person to person, across group boundaries and from one generation to another.

The structural similarity may well be a function of the reality that for most of mankind’s history, religion and culture were inextricably intertwined. Most often religion was not only inseparable from government, but was the very basis of it. That is still true in many countries around the globe. The historically unique and arguably successful American Constitutional construct rending religion from state and then religion from culture was at first a geographically isolated world view.

Compare the following lists of terms. Though the applications differ, are the meanings very different?

Good Soldier……………………Devout

No one has to wonder about the contexts in which terms are usually used.  They describe group behaviors, but the underlying common structure makes the terms interchangeable. Virtually synonymous with respect to meanings, behaviors and relationships to the common structure and the people [group] subscribing to it, they are only different in their primary context of either religious (spiritual) or secular (temporal).


Are religion and culture truly two entirely different things? Durkheim argued that they are not. Others similarly argue that they are becoming more alike than different.

Can the two ever be completely decoupled and operate in a way that is truly independent of the other? Are they somehow separate but equal? Or are they just different sides of the same coin, facets of the same diamond of human activity? Most importantly, can legal freedoms for one exist and thrive apart from legal freedoms for the other?

“Free exercise adjudication has shifted from churches to religion and then to the broadly but vaguely sacred. Can the same shift be far behind for the Establishment Clause? If there is a danger that the state may become controlled or controlling on behalf of a dominant religious interest, does not the same danger exist for other cultural interests?” (“The Oxford Handbook of Church and State in the United States,” edited by Derek H. Davis, p. 471)

The struggle to judicially deal with the complexities of comprehensive philosophical belief systems presents a conundrum under the First Amendment. A judge cannot decide what is “religious” without first defining “religion.” No such definition exists in law, and the First Amendment specifically prohibits such a determination.  Similarly, “culture” lacks a sufficiently universal definition with such specificity so as to differentiate it entirely from religion…but the work of  one Paul Tillich helped to greatly clarify the issue in American legal thinking.

The context, Tillich argued, is merely the differing object of what he termed “ultimate concern” to the humans subscribing and adhering to the structure of either religion or culture, which would include Civil Religion. (“Paul Tillich and the Supreme Court: Tillich’s “Ultimate Concern” as a Standard in Judicial Interpretation, Journal of Church and State (1988) 30 (2): 245-272)

Rather than attempting to catalog and classify the nature of every belief, and conduct endless diversity seminars on resolving those differences, Tillich distilled it down to the function of beliefs in the life of the believer as a suitable test of what is religious vs. mere religiosity, what one takes most seriously, without reservation.  In time, though, that distillation escaped the bounds of that either-or binary.  In U.S. v Welsch, the court granted conscientious objector status to one who rejected labeling his motivation as “religious,” thus giving secular “sincerity” the same legal weight as religious sincerity in the matter of conscientious objector status.

The functional view espoused by Tillich generated an evidence-based means of assessing sincerity, along with other positives. It also affirmed the mirroring natures of religion and culture, and illuminated the mutual difficulty in defining them, as well as the increasing difficulty in telling them apart in terms of functionality on both macro and micro scales.

What does this portend for the workplace?


There is a fundamental difference in the way America has successfully managed religious differences within its own borders. Or, more accurately, how it has not managed religious differences. The Constitutional laissez-faire approach to religion has achieved a comparatively high level of success defined as social stability up to this point, despite the mind-boggling diversity

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution begins with the declaration that:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”

The comma separates two clauses, the first being generally known as the “Establishment Clause,” and the second, the “Free Exercise Clause.”  These are widely understood to mean that the government will neither prescribe nor proscribe religious beliefs or practices. The right of the individual to believe and behave in accordance with personal choice is limited only by the extent to which such choices interfere with or harm the rights of others. The legal review of religious rights, therefore, has centered primarily on “exercise” of religious belief.

The U.S. Constitution thus dealt with diversity of religious beliefs and related behaviors in a quite ingenious way, a governance principle that precludes action that unduly favors one religion over another, or that unduly prefers religion over non-religion, or non-religion over religion. Emanating from the statement of the principle itself as law, the dominant social attitude transmitted by the clauses is traditionally referred to in two important ways.

The first way was referred to by Thomas Jefferson as a “wall of separation” effectively separating church from state in a legal sense. Those words are not in the Constitution, but reflect a concept widely characterized as a ‘separation of church and state.’

The second way is generally referred to as “religious neutrality.”  The applicable definition of neutrality is “an attitude of impartiality.”  (Robust considerations of the meanings and criticisms abound, including on Wikipedia.)  With that, government and citizenry have adequately (not perfectly) worked it out such that anyone but the government can establish a religion, exercise it freely, and enjoy a measure of government protection.  The government will, to the best of its ability, strive to behave in a neutral manner toward them all, including the government’s legal obligation to provide equal protection.

The “attitude of impartiality” transmitted to “we, the people” by the clauses is reflected in the enjoyment of an unfettered public practice of innumerable forms of worship throughout America.  In most cases, religion and non-religion may be practiced without interference or egregious persecutions.  Civil behavior toward all prevails as a social norm, an expectation among the citizenry often taken for granted. That is the likely the highest order of social success realistically currently attainable in America…or anywhere else.

The first official American political neutrality wasn’t established until 1793.  Yet, any question as to the importance of religious freedoms was effectively dispatched at the outset in the Constitutional Amendments via the provision of neutrality. Centuries later, religious neutrality has proven to be eminently sustainable. Justice Robert Jackson (West Virginia v. Barnette, 1943) made this compelling statement regarding these bedrock clauses:

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”

This two-sided clausal coin of American religious neutrality and religious freedom was, at the time, something quite unique in world history, and remains so in a number of important ways. Despite a revolution that was essentially hostile to religious influence in the affairs of state, France didn’t enact it’s law on secularism (not the same thing as neutrality), their fundamental text of separation of church and state, until 1905.

American religious neutrality continues to evolve as it faces court tests in keeping with a blending and shifting culture. Despite that, the clauses seem to be in no danger of being stricken from the Constitution anytime soon. If that’s the case, is there any advantage in further exploiting them to the benefit of the American cultural landscape, particularly in the workplace?

America’s founders framed the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses evidencing their implicit grasp of the:

A) sociological conflict orientation (paradigm)
B) intrinsic sociopolitical nature and influence of religion
C) inherent diversity of religious thought and behavior
D) role of religion with respect to political and social cohesion vs. polarization
E) historical inevitability of religion and competing religious interests
F) need for managed inclusiveness in socioeconomic 

The American-style domestic principle of neutrality has since proven to be a uniquely cohering force around religion as a sociological phenomenon. Though not without its challenges, it has been a means of establishing internal national equilibrium of religious influences through self-organizing behaviors, all of them declared subordinate to a rubric of democratic governance of The Republic.

Through the Establishment and Exercise clauses, secular governance was uniquely extricated from the constraints of religious law and doctrine. At the same time the clauses allowed for the freedom of the citizenry to choose, organize and exercise religion apart from government, and to do so without legal interference or constraint of discrimination and persecutions.

Could it be that simple for matters of similarly structured culture?  Only if the same management principle is applied. What principle is that?


Few would argue that religious neutrality as reflected in U.S. domestic policy and that the body of law buttressing neutrality has largely succeeded in America, in spite of its complexities, hiccups and critics. Naturally, it has not done so perfectly in the sense of having achieved any Utopian ideal.  To be perfectly honest, humans do nothing perfectly.

However, as intersections of cultures and the politics of immigration come to bear massively on economic and nationalistic interests on a global level, it is also clarifying the modern day legal application of Constitutional neutrality in the United States. This is especially so with respect to the inseparability of some immigrant cultures from their religions.

Execution of these clauses has not been without detractors. The idea of neutrality has even been deemed by some as hostile to religion in varying ways. That appears to be so because of the challenges related to the inherency of religion in cultures. Steven Smith went so far as to have characterized the pursuit of neutrality as, “despite its understandable appeal, an attempt to grasp an illusion.” (Foreordained Failure: The Quest for a Constitutional Principle of Religious Freedom, Steven D. Smith, 1999: p.99)

That’s hardly a showstopper, as no small number of notables have said the same thing about equality, inclusion and any number of other noble social aspirations.

Despite their criticisms of neutrality, Smith and others acknowledge that its continuing power demands explanation.  The First Amendment’s single specification of neutrality for handling religious differences has done its work well enough to have made the idea of a religious war among Americans a far fetched idea in the centuries following the inception of religious neutrality. (Defending American Religious Neutrality, Andrew Koppelman, 2013)  That, while even now North American jurisdictions struggle over the meaning and application of religious neutrality.

Is America undergoing a separation of culture and state? If so, is a “Cultural Neutrality” a natural fit with the U.S. Constitution? Is the recent SCOTUS decision on gay marriage, for instance, a manifestation of precisely such a culture-neutral approach to policy making? If so, can the workplace keep up, as it has with religious neutrality, and how?

Professor Koppelman makes a compelling argument that, “If the concept of neutrality is properly understood, it can resolve the deepest puzzles in contemporary religion jurisprudence.”

Perhaps that is also so for increasingly complex cultural diversity, socially and in the workplace.


Though it seldom rises to a conscious level, the American workplace bears the weighty cultural influence and effect of a legally enforceable Constitutional religious neutrality. It doesn’t mean that issues of religious conflict do not arise. It does mean that there is a collective consciousness regarding quite specific neutral behavior that generally precludes escalation of religious conflict to stages of conflict that are disruptive to commerce.

Although America’s constitutional structure and resulting social culture was once unique in that respect, the global differentiation isn’t as simple as ‘America’s Workplaces vs. Everywhere Else’s Workplaces.’

It’s more about understanding and differentiating sociopolitical environments relative to the range of international sociopolitical religious policies such as pluralism, exclusivism, ecumenism, toleration, traditionalism, syncretism, etc.  Those are no longer strictly coincident with international borders.

Around the world, regional religious influences result in policies that run the gamut from those of the Taliban to the Unitarians, and from France’s national policy of ‘liberty’ to Iran’s national policy of intolerant purity, to North Korea’s exclusivity of civil religion. Policy crosses borders and blends political interests, as in the case of ISIL and Syria.  Such conflict bears tremendous eventual impact on workplace treatment of religious diversity well beyond national or political jurisdictions.

It is possible for “The Workplace” to be an ideological island, to an extent, relative to its surrounding environment. The capacity to do so, creating a CultureNeutral space in which to work, greatly depends on whether the environmental immune system deals with religious differences as inert or as a dangerously foreign body.

The Charlie Hebdo workplace may be the ultimate example of the environmental intersection of disastrously intractable and mutually intolerant positions relative to conflicting religious vs. secular civil rights. The tragic ending was reflective of the extent to which each side went to exercise what they each saw as their inalienable rights around religious issues.

The future of “religious diversity” in that regard cannot differ greatly from the future of cultural diversity where tensions around culture-based civil/social conflict encroaches on what can (and should) be neutral ground.

Most workplaces can be defended, or at least insulated from the disastrous results of such extremes as the Hebdo incident, whether religious, cultural or both. However, it cannot be completely shielded from the eventuality if those tensions are being promulgated by workplace programs or reach to workplace norms in ways that rouse sensibilities. In the case of religion in particular, the Hebdo incident stands as a warning that the traditional “Diversity” approach is likely over-matched by the powder keg in attempts to teach and ‘manage’ religious differences in the workplace, as opposed to tamer mundane cultural matters.

Charles-Luise de Secondat suggests why that is likely true. “Religious wars are not caused by the fact that there is more than one religion, but by the spirit of intolerance…the spread of which can only be regarded as the total eclipse of human reason.”  Applying 20th century “D&I” approach where human reason most often fails is a high-risk venture for 21st century religious tensions. As well, the challenges associated with religious representation and “inclusion” grow even more complex as the workplace issues work their way through U.S. Constitutional law.

There is a way of managing religious (and cultural) diversity in the workplace that more closely tracks Constitutional paths.

Interestingly, much like religion, politics is a subject also rife with tensions in the extreme, but has a centuries-long well known and relatively successful history of neutrality as a macro strategy for sustaining international commerce and maintaining global international diplomatic relations under great duress.  Learning to operationalize the well-developed principle in organizations as a “quantum neutrality” in intercultural and inter-religious matters makes sense for effectively managing well into the future of workplace diversity.

More on what we mean by “quantum neutrality” in upcoming posts.

Copyright © 2015 – Robert D. Jones – All Rights Reserved

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