Over the past week, celebrities and public figures like George W. Bush, Ellen DeGeneres, Elton John, and Mark Ruffalo have been embroiled in a prolonged public controversy over, of all things, friendship.
While the headlines and memes continue to spread in the wake of former conservative President George W. Bush’s and lesbian icon Ellen DeGeneres’s joint outing to last Sunday’s Cowboys-Packers game, a new report has been released detailing some of the impacts of having diverse friendships.
The Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) followed a cohort of American college students at over 122 diverse colleges and universities between 2015 and 2019. It tracked trends in college student friendships, taking particular note of friendships across religious and political ideological differences. The new report (Friendships Matter: The Role of Peer Relationships in Interfaith Learning and Development) found that college students are better prepared for living in our diverse society when they have interworldview friendships across religious, non-religious, spiritual, and ideological differences. In fact, evidence from IDEALS shows that friendship matters over and above conditions and experiences such as a welcoming campus climate, support to freely express one’s worldview, and meaningful yet challenging encounters with diverse peers.
According to the IDEALS findings, in some cases, gaining a close interworldview friend doubles the percentage of first-year students who are highly appreciative of the worldview of their new friend. What’s more, researchers discovered an intriguing pattern in which students in interworldview friendships also generally developed positive attitudes toward others of all worldviews, not just the ones held by their friends. For example, making a close Muslim friend encourages students to become generally more appreciative of other worldviews at the same time, such as Evangelical Christians, atheists, Hindus, Jews, Latter-day Saints, and Buddhists.
Colleges, though often characterized as hotbeds of polarization and political tribalism, seem to be an ideal setting for forging these diverse, interworldview friendships: 64% of the students who reported initially having no interworldview friendships when they started college reported making at least one within their first year. Interestingly, 20% among this group reported making five or more friends across worldview differences in that time.
Earlier this year, noted public intellectual and democratic socialist Dr. Cornel West spoke alongside conservative legal scholar and philosopher Dr. Robert George–a man he considers a friend, despite their significant differences–at a Duke University event entitled Conversation on Friendship and Faith Across Political Difference. At one point during the event, Dr. West noted:
Love is never reducible to politics. Just like friendship is never reducible to political agreement. You learn how to revel in somebody’s humanity.
Based on the latest findings from IDEALS, it would seem that there is much to gain from “reveling in the humanity” of our religiously and politically diverse peers.
Gordon Maples is a PhD student in Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at North Carolina State University, where he serves as a Research Associate for IDEALS (@GordonMaples)
Kevin Singer is a PhD student in Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at North Carolina State University, where he serves as a Research Associate for IDEALS (@kevinsinger0)
Alyssa Rockenbach is a Professor of Higher Education at North Carolina State University and Co-Principal Investigator on IDEALS (@ANRockenbach)
Tara Hudson is Assistant Professor of Higher Education Administration at Kent State University (@tarahudsonphd)
Matthew Mayhew is the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor of Educational Administration at The Ohio State University and Co-Principal Investigator on IDEALS (@MattJMayhewPhD)