Religion Quiz: So you think you know
Evolving interfaith movement faces new challenges

by David Briggs

August 28, 2017

It’s nice to think we can all get along.

But who would not have some degree of despair about the future of religious pluralism in the United States at this moment in history. The nation has just finished an election where the winning candidate proposed banning all Muslim immigrants, and his opponent called half of Donald Trump’s supporters “a basket of deplorables.”

In a June social media blast, a first-term U.S. congressman declared “all of Christendom... is at war with Islamic horror.” He proposed this solution for anyone suspected of being an “Islamic radical” – “Kill them all.”

Yet, when it comes to the interfaith movement in the U.S., it may help to take two steps looking back to observe the major step forward in religious diversity in the United States.

And to consider why Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, would say the reality is that “there has never at any point in human history” been such positive developments in interreligious relations.

Many Americans today could not imagine the nation in the 1950s, when Protestants and Catholics would not dream of entering one another’s churches, much less a synagogue or a mosque.

Mixed marriages back then were considered unions between a Lutheran and a Presbyterian, or an Italian Catholic and an Irish Catholic. Today, the nation has been transformed by a long list of milestones fostering diversity, including the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Groundbreaking theological agreements have addressed historic religious conflicts.

Mosques, synagogues, Hindu and Buddhist temples can be found throughout the nation. A common sight in many cities and towns is an interfaith alliance that works not only on social projects, but offers rotating community prayer services in one another’s sanctuaries. In the long view of U.S. history, the changes have been remarkable.


  • After centuries of bitter anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic prejudice, several national studies show the two religious groups Americans have the warmest feelings toward today are Catholics and Jews.

  • Democrats welcomed the political support of Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith until he decided to run for president himself. Not long after, on June 27, 1844, he was killed by a mob in Carthage, Ill. In 2012, Republicans nominated Mitt Romney of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be their standard bearer.

  • Sixteen years after Sen. Joseph Lieberman became the first Jewish vice-presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders last year was the leading challenger to Hillary Clinton.

  • Younger people appear particularly open to non-Christian religions. In a Pew Research Center poll early this year, adults age 18 to 29 held Buddhists in the highest regard, with Hindus and Catholics in a tie for second. They also were significantly more likely than other age groups to have warm feelings toward Muslims.

That does not mean there are not challenges.

For example, hate crimes against Muslims jumped by two-thirds in 2015, the FBI reported.

Trumps’ intemperate rhetoric and a rise in nationalist movements here and in many places in the world present a significant challenge to religious freedom and a source of suffering for many minorities.

But what gives hope is that there are now structural foundations in place from interfaith groups to the widespread geographic distribution of religious minorities that provide important sources of personal contact.

Several research studies suggest the more people build relationships with people of different beliefs, the more accepting they are of other faiths. In their Faith Matters Surveys, Robert Putnam of Harvard University and David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame also found strong evidence of a spillover effect, that “as people build more religious bridges they become warmer toward people of many different religions, not just those religions represented within their social network.”

While faith is often blamed for being the source of conflict, some new research indicates the more religious one is, the more they can be part of the solution in building a civil society.

For example, a study of 13 European countries found that supporters of populist radical right parties were relatively non-religious.

And researchers analyzing data from a major New Zealand survey found prejudice decreased the more people were committed to their faith.

Religious tolerance cannot be taken for granted.

But if they are able to cast out fear, members of the major world religions are in a position to act on religious teachings and texts that overwhelmingly promote peace, compassion and forgiveness, research indicates.

It seems we can get along if we try to love our neighbor as ourselves.


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