Did Ivanka Trump flunk world religion or is she asking a deeper question?

While discussing the father’s recent trip abroad, which she accompanied him on, Ivanka said, “To have covered the three largest world religions over the course of four days, it was deeply meaningful.” While referring to her meetings with religious leaders of Islam, Judaism and Christianity in Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican last month, Ivanka incorrectly labeled Judaism as one of the world’s three largest religions. In fact, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism all have more believers than Judaism.

The show’s hosts did not comment on her gaffe. — Haaretz

Now, I want to be fair to Ivanka and the good folk at Fox and Friends. There are two rather messy questions that need to be answered before we can say what the “three largest world religions” are.

  1. What constitutes a religion?
  2. Who can be counted as a believer?

These sound like simple questions, but there are several complications. Most faith traditions have several schisms. Is mainline Catholicism the same religion as Unitarianism? What about the Eastern orthodox church, or its several variations (Russian, Greek, Syrian, Albanian, etc. etc.).  Did Jesus intend to found a new religion, or was it Paul’s idea? Is Shi’a Islam the same as Sunni Islam, or was there an irrevocable rift at the Battle of Karbala? A handful of extremly hard-line Sunnis would tell you Sh’ia are not Muslim. What about Sufis, or Isma’ilis, or Yazidis? What constitutes mainline Hinduism? What level of adherence to Vedic texts is required, what about the Puranas? Is Shaivism a sect or a different religion? If you accept an agnostic reading of the Nasadiya Suktam, are you still a Hindu? Are Buddhism and Hinduism two separate faiths or are they part of one tradition? What about Jainism? For that matter, are the three major Abrahamic traditions truly distinct? What distinguishes Halakhic (Jewish) law from Sharia (Islamic) law? When thinking of that question and its implications, this twitter thread is excellent:

How do we treat traditions that are syncretic to varying degrees? When considering the blended/syncretic faiths practiced by many indigenous peoples in IndiaAfrica, the Americas and elsewhere, do we count them as Hindu, Christian or Muslim? Or do we give equal weight to their ancient faith traditions? Several traditional faiths have adherents that number in the tens of millions. Traditional Bantu religions might make it into the top five if we counted them as such.

Why do we start with an Abrahamic mindset along with some allowances for large Asian faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism? Is that a Euro-centric view of faith/religion? What would a non-Euro-centric view look like? How do we treat the fact that the spread of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism was, in many cases, associated with colonization, enslavement and conquest? If a person adopts a religion because they are compelled to out of need or pressure, do we count them as a believer/adherent? When we describe a conflict in religious terms (Sunni/Shia, Protestant/Catholic, Hindu/Muslim), is it truly a religious conflict, or is that a convenient way to avoid asking other questions about how political actors rally troops/support by using religion?

These are all really interesting and important questions. But I don’t believe Ivanka was really thinking about them. I think her narrow parochialism led the senior advisor to the president to assume the “three largest world religions” started in the Middle East.

Lastly, as an agnostic, I want to give a shout-out to this NY Times article: Religious Liberals Sat Out of Politics for 40 Years. Now They Want in the Game. I may not believe, but I recognize that when it comes to politics, I am on the same side as many who do, and I am glad to be in their company.