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Evangelicals and Interreligious Dialogue: the Next Generation

Intrafaith, then Interfaith

by John W. Morehead

It doesn’t take much time visiting websites, attending conferences, or reading books about interfaith dialogue to discover how few Protestant evangelicals are involved. A few can be found, to be sure, but not in large numbers.

A new movement appears to be gaining momentum, however, where a variety of circumstances have resulted in interreligious dialogue being viewed in a more positive light than in previous generations of evangelicals. In this essay I will sketch some of the reasons evangelicals have opposed interreligious dialogue, how this situation is changing, with an example, and some of the benefits for those who’ve been involved.

Evangelicals oppose interreligious dialogue for a number of reasons. They have been concerned about watering down religious convictions in the name of tolerance. They believe they have the “Truth” in religion and have little desire to listen to alternative religious viewpoints. Evangelicalism is a religious movement comfortable with proclamation but often ill at ease with listening. Evangelicals fear syncretism, the inappropriate blending of religious traditions, and fear interacting with those in other religions. A sense of spiritual contamination seems to be at play. Other reasons could be considered, but these factors alone surely explain the evangelical disinterest or outright rejection of interreligious dialogue.

Things are changing, however, due in part to evangelical credibility in the public square. Research has indicated considerable religious illiteracy among evangelicals. Surveys of younger evangelicals suggest they perceive their own churches as judgmental institutions that fear risk-taking as they engage culture. A new generation of evangelicals is moving away from confrontational stances towards other religions and getting involved in more relational, dialogical approaches.

Evangelicals and More

As an evangelical I knew the challenges in my own community to interreligious diaolgue, but said yes when first invited to be a part of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. Today I serve on the board of directors, and am happy to report that we are bringing to the interfaith table not just evangelicals, but members from a number of different religions interested in dialogue, diplomacy, and peacemaking.

John Morehead’s first contact with FRD was at an event held at the University of Southern California.

John Morehead’s first contact with FRD was at an event held at the University of Southern California.

FRD is four years old, founded and largely funded by Charles Randall Paul, a man of considerable talents. He took a degree at Brigham Young University in social psychology 42 years ago, quickly followed with a Harvard MBA focused on new ventures, marketing and real estate, and in 2000 completed his doctoral work at University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. In the meantime, his development activities secured personal funds, allowing FRD to launch and develop without having to depend initially on foundations and fundraisers. Dr. Paul is a Mormon, but as president does not direct FRD’s Mormon chapter.

The Foundation “facilitates respectful, transparent discussion of deep religious differences that are the source of much conflict, not with the goal of agreement or compromise but of building relations of healthy, creative tension between people who have respect and good will for each other.”

To accomplish this, the organizational structure of FRD involves the creation of chapters within various religious traditions led by people who speak with credibility to their religious communities. To date this includes an Evangelical Christian chapter as well as Jewish, Mayahana Buddhist, Mormon, Shia Islam, and Sunni Islam chapters. Additional chapters are planned for the future.

Each chapter crafts its own purposes and approaches to preparing its religious community for dialogue, in keeping with FRD principles. The purpose of the Evangelical Chapter, which I direct, is “to prepare evangelicals for interreligious relationships and conversations without compromise and in civility.” This short summary deserves unpacking.

  • First, the emphasis is on relationships from which conversations can flow. The most productive and transformative types of dialogues take place amidst real relationships between people who know and have a personal investment in each other.
  • Second, the evangelical chapter of the FRD encourages those involved in dialogue to do so without compromising one’s religious convictions of praxis and belief.
  • And third, dialogue is done civilly, moving beyond the confrontational tone frequently found in the public square where ideological combatants stake out their positions but do little to be civil to each other as they share their convictions.

FRD’s Evangelical Chapter seeks to achieve this two different ways: intra-religiously (that is, within the evangelical family) and inter-religiously (that is, with other traditions). Among evangelicals, the Chapter provides resources and training to prepare for engagement with ‘others.’ To this end we are completing a curriculum titled Loving Our Religious Neighbors.

Religiously Bilingual Ambassadors

The Chapter’s internal evangelical dialogue cannot get the job done without moving beyond the theoretical and relating to people who have been outsiders, moving us into an interreligious arena. The Evangelical Chapter sponsors interreligious activities in various forums, including joint-service projects. This twofold approach helps us develop religiously/culturally bilingual ambassadors, evangelicals who are fluent in a religion beyond their own for the benefit of their own religious community and others.

The impact on those evangelicals who have gotten involved in interreligious relationships and conversations has been transformative. Consider the story of a group of students at Gordon College, a Christian, liberal arts institution in Massachusetts. Gordon’s faculty got behind a program teaching students about other religions and then brought them together with Muslims to build new relationships and share joint-service projects. The popular program has been extended and is growing.

Students in Gordon College’s “Loving Our Religious Neighbors” project.

Students in Gordon College’s “Loving Our Religious Neighbors” project.

One of the students remembers, “A small group of us started meeting weekly, talking about religion and belief in general. We partnered with the Muslim Students Association at MIT to host a joint service project at a local NGO, and a church/mosque visit. By the end of our first semester we had facilitated exciting conversations and formed new friendships with peers we would not have met otherwise.”

Another wrote, “We are able to meet thoughtful and devout students our own age and develop relationships that broaden and challenge our comfortable lines of thinking. … Without learning from, and engaging with, our religious neighbors, we neglect an important aspect of how we might develop as students and as evangelical Christians.”

Yes, evangelicals are not involved in interreligious dialogue to any great extent yet. But encouraging signs of change suggest a new day. Personally, I look forward to working with evangelicals and Christians from other traditions and denominations interested in exploring our program on interreligious relationships and conversations. I’m also eager to work with those in non-Christian religious traditions who want to explore the benefits of dialogue in our post-9/11 world.