By Don Frew
For more than 26 years I’ve been doing interfaith work on behalf of Neopagan Witchcraft (often called “Wicca” or “the Craft”). In 1985 I was elected National Public Information Officer for the Covenant of the Goddess (www.cog.org). The job entailed serving as a liaison between CoG and the media, law enforcement, the government, and the interfaith community. I attended my first meeting of the Berkeley Area Interfaith Council, one of the oldest, most diverse interfaith groups in the country, and gradually found myself hooked on interfaith work. Terming out as Public Information Officer, the Covenant created the appointed position of National Interfaith Representative. That has been my role ever since.
A year into my public information work, I saw notice of a conference called “Deception & Discernment: Exposing the Dangers of the Occult.” I thought I should attend and see what ‘the other side’ was up to. The conference was put on by the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, a leading Christian research organization offering an Evangelical Christian response to cults and the occult.
I registered for the conference and got a name-tag with my name and “C.O.G.” Most attendees probably assumed meant “Church of God.” I stayed quiet and took notes through most of the conference until one of the last speakers, Jack Roper, made a number of ridiculous statements about Witchcraft & Neopaganism. I had to stand up during the question and answer period and say something.
Roper was seriously telling people that Witches worship unicorns. And that the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons had been created by Witches as a recruitment tool, since it was “the best introduction to practicing real magic and casting real spells ever written.” After I pointed out the many inaccuracies in his talk, Roper challenged me, asking why anyone should think I knew more about the subject than he.
“Well,” I said, “I do serve on the board of directors of the largest Wiccan religious organization on Earth.” All eyes turned towards me. People sitting near me in the pews edged away. During the break that followed, most avoided me, and a few asked questions. But one came up and introduced himself in a friendly way – Brooks Alexander, one of the founders of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project. Unlike every other presenter at this conference, Brooks’ talk had laid out biblical arguments against Witchcraft without ever misrepresenting what modern Witches actually believe or do.
This commitment to honesty on both our parts became the basis for further conversations and, eventually, a series of ten four-hour dialogues between members of the Covenant of the Goddess and the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, comparing and contrasting Wicca and Christianity on topics like prayer, nature, women, ritual, good and evil. In the end, we made a commercial video together.
That relationship was one of the most significant learning experiences in my Wiccan career. While I stayed in occasional contact with some of the Christians who had been part of those dialogues, Brooks and I remained in closer communication over the years. When he wrote a book on the modern Witchcraft movement for Evangelical Christians, I helped edit it. We have a program that we do together at various conferences called “Wiccan / Christian Dialogue: A 25-year Interfaith Friendship.”
Knowing Brooks and other conservative Evangelical Christians provided the groundwork for what has developed in the past ten years. My interfaith involvement grew into relationships with the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, and the United Religions Initiative (URI). It has included dozens of faith and interfaith conferences all over the world.
The Great Divide
At event after event, I kept hearing non-Christians ask, “Why aren’t the conservative Christians here?” The answer would invariably be: “Because you just can’t talk to those people!” I thought, “Well, I can talk to those people. Why don’t I talk to them about this?” I called up Brooks and suggested that we have some conversations about the pros and cons of interfaith, from a conservative Evangelical Christian perspective.
At about the same time, I met Lee Penn. For those who don’t know him, if you Google “United Religions Initiative” you are as likely to see something by Lee about the evils of URI as by anything URI generates itself. Lee is a leading internet opponent of the interfaith movement in general and URI in particular.
I was working in Shambala Booksellers in Berkeley when someone bought some books on Freemasonry and paid with a check giving the name “Lee Penn.” “Are you the Lee Penn, the author?” I asked.
“Yes”, he said, somewhat suspiciously.
“Hi. My name’s Don Frew. I’m on the Global Council of United Religions Initiative. Would you like to get some coffee and have a chat?”
He was very surprised. I was the first person from URI who had been friendly since his first article criticizing the organization. I genuinely wanted to hear what Lee had to say and understand his point of view. Though we don’t have the friendship that Brooks and I enjoy, we have a cordial working relationship.
When Lee wrote his magnum opus against interfaith and URI, False Dawn: The United Religions Initiative, Globalism, and the Quest for a One-World Religion (2004), he quoted me extensively.1 Before publication Lee showed me everything he planned to cite and gave me the opportunity to make corrections. On the one statement where we had significant disagreement as to what I had said, he included my objection in a footnote.
Talking to Brooks, Lee, and the people I met through them, I learned a lot about their perception of the interfaith movement. Conservative practitioners of many faiths see the interfaith movement as creating a single, new, syncretistic religion. From their point of view, that is exactly what we’re doing when we emphasize our similarities and ignore or downplay our differences.
Conservative Christians strongly opposed to interfaith usually believe in a coming End Times, including a single, world government and a single, world-spanning religion, created by the Anti-Christ. Many of them see the United Nations as a significant step in the process of creating a one-world government. No surprise, then, that many of them also see interfaith efforts as steps towards the creation of a single world religion. Unfortunately, on those few occasions when members of the two groups have been in communication – usually in internet forums – the “discussion” has almost always been along the lines of:
“You’re creating a single religion!” – “No, we aren’t!” – “Yes you are!” – “No, we aren’t!” … and so on. Meanwhile, the real issues never get addressed.
Interfaith’s Liberal Social Agenda
The liberal social agenda that most interfaith-active folks share, combined with the “universal statements”2 that pepper our rhetoric and promotional literature, give the appearance of being the tenets of the single world religion, the development conservatives so fear. For example, in the interfaith movement we tend to agree that:
- genders should be treated equally and have equal rights,
- we and the natural world are interconnected and we have responsibility for caring for the world, and
- all religions should have equal legal standing, and the laws of society should be independent of the rules of any particular faith tradition.
Many conservative Christians hear these statements and disagree with one or more. To them such tenants can feel like new doctrinal elements of a one-world religion.
The waters of misunderstood communication can further muddy our relationships. For example, one of the 21 principles in the URI Charter states that “Members of URI shall not be coerced to participate in any ritual or be proselytized.” Interfaith activists understand this to mean that those who do proselytize in their faith traditions must leave their proselytizing at the door when attending a URI event.
However, when Bishop William Swing, the primary founder of URI, wrote about what he sees as the errors of proselytizing in general,3 conservatives mistakenly applied the Bishop’s personal views to the position of the URI. They ended up believing that the URI condemns proselytizing in all circumstances, all over the world, which is not the case. When I explained this to Lee Penn, he was surprised.
“You mean,” he said, “I could hold a Christian prayer service at a URI meeting?” “Of course,” I replied. “We’d schedule a room, make the announcement, and whoever wished to attend could do so.”
Talking to conservative Christians opposed to interfaith was made much easier by my not being a Christian. Dialogue between progressive Christians (promoting the interfaith movement) and conservative Christians (opposing interfaith) is clearly an intra-familial conversation and can get very heated. Usually the progressive voices are the first to raise their voices, which surprised me.
Inviting “Conservatives” to the Table
Deeply conservative Christians opposed to interfaith will never join our organizations. But I believe there is room in the interfaith movement for many others, somewhat less conservative, who don’t share many of our commonly held views. They may believe their faith is the one true faith. Yet, as long as they are polite and abide by appropriate rules of conduct, including honesty and mutual respect, they should be welcome. If invited and respected, as all others, they will come. Dialogue is possible, even productive, and can lead to friendships and cooperation. When Lee Penn’s book False Dawn came out, we were both interviewed on Fox News. Host Alan Colmes was stunned that we were so cordial with each other, in many ways making the case for interfaith dialogue right there. Lee has moved on to other areas of interest, but we stay in touch.
Being a non-Abrahamic practitioner in dialogue with conservatives, Christians and others, has been helpful not only in talking to “exclusivists” but to non-exclusivist conservatives. Non-exclusivist Muslims and Jews who interpret their traditions and associated rules very strictly can feel excluded by what happens sometimes in interfaith settings. Because my own tradition has so often been excluded, they confide in me.
At one international conference that included a number of different ceremonies, a business meeting was followed immediately in the same room by a Christian service. There was no break. Later a conservative Jew said he felt uncomfortable and wouldn’t have attended the service but didn’t want to give offense by standing up and walking out.
On another occasion, the Buddha’s birthday coincided with a major interfaith governance meeting. In a spirit of sharing, the Buddhists present set up a shrine near the door with an image of the Buddha inside. As we entered the room, we were invited to light a stick of incense, place it in a holder before the small statue of the Buddha, and say or think a prayer.
A conservative Muslim and a conservative Jew were very distressed by this. Both felt prohibited from burning incense before an ‘idol.’ But as this had been set up as part of beginning our opening session, it would be hard not to do so without standing out and being seen as insulting. One of them brought the matter to the group, which led to a useful discussion. Affected individuals should speak up about being inadvertently excluded. At the same time interfaith leaders should be more sensitive about our protocol.
The answer in these two cases is easy: Make sure to schedule a break – in time or space, and preferably both – between meetings that everyone is expected to attend, and religious services, ceremony or ritual. And always offer participants the choice of opting out of what doesn’t feel comfortable.
Sharing similarities allows us to find the common ground to build friendships. But we won’t achieve peace until we share and accept our differences. Only then will we be true to our commitment to accept all faiths, even in their conservative, exclusivist manifestations, as long as we all agree to basic rules of courtesy and politeness. Leaders need to go the next step – to be more careful about the way we present ourselves, the language we use, and the way we structure our meetings. A modicum of greater awareness about how we present ourselves to others results in a wealth of greater understanding.
1 Many interfaith folks are surprised to learn that False Dawn was published by Sophia Perennis, the main publisher of books on the Perennial Philosophy. The connection between the Perennial Philosophy and opposition to interfaith work is spelled out in the review of False Dawn on the Sophia Perennis website.
2 Commonplace “universal statements” in the interfaith world include: “We all worship the same God.” “All religions are really paths to the same truth.” “All religions have the Golden Rule.” At the 2011 NAIN Connect conference, there was a vendor selling T-shirts with the statement “One God, Many Names” on the front, surrounded by the symbols of many faith traditions.
3 Bishop William Swing, The Coming United Religions (United Religions Initiative and CoNexus Press, 1998), p. 31