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Five Reasons that ‘Interfaith’ Is Not a Movement (Yet)

By Rev. Bud Heckman


Without much general public notice, we have just passed the 50-year mark since the Second Vatican Council issued Nostra Aetate, forever changing the way religions and people of faith see and constructively interact with one another.  Nostra Aetate continues to have a ripple effect, inspiring people and organizations to become intentional and strategic about advancing relations between faiths.

The Salt Palace Convention Center was the Salt Lake City site for last month’s Parliament of the World’s Religions. – Photo: TIO

The Salt Palace Convention Center was the Salt Lake City site for last month’s Parliament of the World’s Religions. – Photo: TIO

In mid-October the world’s largest gathering of interfaith activists, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, took place in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Perhaps nothing gives a better snapshot of seeing “where we are at” with the handling of religious pluralism in our world today than looking at what happened in Utah.  It could be a litmus test for determining where the brave inspiration and legacy of Nostra Aetate has gotten us.

The Salt Lake Parliament

The Parliament of the World’s Religions was a great stimulus to interfaith activity in 1893 and then again in 1993, when the first modern reiteration was held.  Those two events, both held in Chicago, were the last time it was held in the U.S., having convened in Cape Town, Barcelona, and Melbourne since. 

More than 9,000 people gathered from all over the globe in Utah.  Parliaments are a place for inspiration and the development of relationships and networks among activists.  Some visionary interfaith leaders – like Eboo Patel (Interfaith Youth Core), William Vendley (Religions for Peace), and Bill Swing (United Religions Initiative), to name a few – cite the valuable role it has played in their careers. 

But a little more than a year ago some wondered whether there would be a Parliament ever again.  The organization behind the Parliament had suffered years of steep financial challenges, even operating for a period with little staffing and a volunteer executive director until this past spring. And, despite generous intake from registrations and a record attendance in Utah, its future remains in question with a lack of traction and trust with major sponsors and funders and the quiet dismissal of its executive director just days before the Parliament start.  But new Board leadership has been elected, new staff leadership will be hired soon, and there were many “firsts” in Utah to celebrate.

I Say Movement, You Say Movements

The Parliament has been re-marketing itself in the past year as “the Global Interfaith Movement,” as a shared voice for and meeting place, and it has promised to step up global gatherings to a pace of one every two years. I am in the middle of the field of interfaith cooperation, and I say that there is a movement. But I am frequently questioned whether there is “a movement.”  Of course, there are many “interfaith movements” of people and organizations connecting and doing meaningful things. Utah was an orgy of such intersections.  And, after all, interfaith cooperation has grown up in the past two decades, now with many organizations enjoying dozens of staff and millions in budgetary resources, each with their own large convenings and programmatic prowess.  

For the first time, the Parliament featured a Parliament Chorus. – Photo: TIO

For the first time, the Parliament featured a Parliament Chorus. – Photo: TIO

But I am talking about a Movement.  Movements have cooperation, coordination, and purpose.  They have moments of congealing, interlacing strategies, and development of a truly public face, despite the multitudes of personalities and organizations that contribute to them.  

Unfortunately, I argue that we aren’t there yet with “interfaith” or “interreligious cooperation.”  But we darn well need to be.  Like yesterday, as they say. We need to be a movement in the sense that we have some clear, shared strategy, because we are still losing when it comes to the recognition, let alone valuation, of religious pluralism by the general public.  In short, “we apparently don’t have our ‘full groove’ on yet,” as one colleague noted to me amidst a particularly disjointed and unfocused workshop at the Parliament.

What We Need To Do Together

The things that we must commonly tackle to get there I will enumerate as the five Cs:  clarity, coordination, capital, communication, and creativity.

1)  Clarity – First, few people understand what “interfaith” or “religious cooperation” is or means.  The language we use to describe people of distinct faiths (and even of no faith) working together via dialogue and service is, well, misleading and confusing.   This is reinforced every time I speak to my many religion reporter friends about their scouting possible coverage of interfaith issues.  They see “interfaith” as “fuzzy” and “confusing.”  (Of course, they are in the business of selling the other 5 Cs: controversy, conflict, character, color, and change.)

For one, we don’t have common words we use to describe what this thing is that we are talking about.  The words we do use – like interfaith, interreligious, multireligious, multifaith, religious cooperation, and so on – are so rife with different meanings as to be rendered meaningless to the general public.  At least this is so in terms of forging a movement.  If you have to explain them every time, it doesn’t count.

For another, there is a gulf of difference between those who work between faiths with an eye towards recognizing the distinct integrity of faiths (interreligious) and those who view all religions as essentially the same, as different paths up the same mountain (interspirituality).  Both camps speak past one another.  

And the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd (that is often “interspiritual”) seems to be growing and treating interreligious gatherings as their spiritual connection point and personal playground.  Many whom I encountered in Utah looked like hungry people at a buffet spread, working the schedule to attend as many religious services and experiences as they could of the many unique and different paths doing their thing. 

Just witness the painful overstretching of the media to make sense of what the Parliament exactly represented through the lens of the bold headline it garnered in the Salt Lake Tribune, which dubbed it an “Interfaith Lovefest.”  I asked myself “how the hell can I get governments, funders, and leaders to take ‘interfaith’ seriously when this how ‘our’ story gets told again and again?” Where is the actionable purpose, the measurable impact, or the argument for social cohesion if the uninitiated see “us” as a shoes-off kumbaya singalong?

Part of this is owing to the big-tent, come-one-come-all approach of the modern Parliament.  It becomes a dizzying array of individuals from new age movements, minor religions, interspiritual communities, and interest groups all (quite understandably) seeking attention for their existence and purpose.  Meanwhile, Parliament organizers work hard to get their collective endorsement of statements on critical social issues like climate change, economic inequality, and war and conflict.  But such efforts have little teeth.

 There can’t be an “interfaith” or “religious cooperation” movement – like there is a movement for the environment, persons with disabilities, women’s rights, human rights, civil rights – unless there is better clarity and common agreement on language, especially one that meets the public digestibility test.

2)  Coordination – Other successful social movements have at some point in their life cycles had moments of creative collusion and coordination that led to changes in how their movements were perceived.  Such moments, planned or serendipitous, are sorely lacking in interfaith.

I have worked to advance interfaith cooperation for 15 years now inside of nonprofits, educational institutions, and foundations.  I have been a part of dozens of conversations on coordination and cooperation, as I was again in Utah between interfaith funders and between international interfaith organization leaders.  It has been laborious and difficult to get cooperation across institutional lines.  As brilliant, visionary and gifted as many interfaith leaders are, they have spent the majority of their time hereto looking at their own organizational bottom line.  It’s natural, human.  I cry mea culpa, having done the same too often.

Yet something greater must happen.  We have to start asking the questions about what we are not yet doing that could help move the attention for interreligious cooperation into the mainstream.  In a post 9/11 world, we have all been put on high alert for what are (often wrongly!) thought to be the causal and correlational connections between religion and violence or conflict.  Yet, we have not been able to turn this high issue visibility into lasting victories of deeper appreciation for religious diversity and religious pluralism.

3)  Capital – Interfaith is underfunded.  Compared to the inordinate resources that are spent on promoting religious division and hate, the resources applied to religious cooperation are paltry. 

Just in the United States, as one example, the Center for American Progress has catalogued tens of millions of dollars coming from just a handful of sources to fuel the manufacture of hatred towards Muslims and Islam.  The resources on the other side of the coin are scant in comparison.  Along with many good colleagues, I have spent years trying to marshal such resources.

In late 2014, while at the El-Hibri Foundation, I started the Interreligious Funders Group to try to encourage new donors and galvanize existing funders, both individuals and foundations, to try to support this work, to see this movement as worth investing in.  Most funders still look at “interfaith” like a fish flopping on a summer dock, not certain whether they can get their hand on it or whether they even want to try, frankly.

There are encouraging signs, however.  Some interfaith organizations have become quite large and stable over the past few years, garnering trust with foundations.  One flagship organization just landed a $12M gift in order to advance research.  Governments continue to show valuation of interreligious cooperation as a method and partner in many causes.  The Saudi Arabians have invested tens of millions into the KAICIID Dialogue Centre.  They now have a staff of 50 people.

4)  Communication – This is not just a matter that interfaith organizations have trouble getting their message out and lack savvy and investment in communications.  The problem is much bigger.  That will come in time, when they see communication as fundamental to the mission, rather than a tool.

For many of the thousands who attend Parliaments, the most valuable experiences on the one-on-one, face-to-face communication these gatherings facilitate. Here Rabbi Rami Shapiro (left), author and host of How to Be a Holy Rascal, interviews Victor Kazangian, executive director of United Religions Initiative, in the URI hospitality suite. – Photo: TIO

For many of the thousands who attend Parliaments, the most valuable experiences on the one-on-one, face-to-face communication these gatherings facilitate. Here Rabbi Rami Shapiro (left), author and host of How to Be a Holy Rascal, interviews Victor Kazangian, executive director of United Religions Initiative, in the URI hospitality suite. – Photo: TIO

There are no positive images of exchanges of religious diversity in our mainstream media, in movies or on television. Save a remarkable exception or two, like the Canadian show “Little Mosque on the Prairie.”

The religious dimensions of people’s lives are sanitized (too often) from story lines, or the characterizations rely on stereotypes and prejudices for humor or effect.  The effect is damaging and results in unconscious delivery of cultural standards that become expectations and norms.

We have to demand to see the religious diversity that is our world reflected in the media that we consume.  Speak up.  Make different choices. 

5)  Creativity – Other movements have at critical points in their maturation gotten really creative in efforts to advance their cause.

Commissioning research and focus groups, they have learned how people perceive what they are talking about and the barriers folks have in coming to embrace their positions.They change their language, their tactics, and their audiences.

Using humor and advertising, face-to-face outreach, non-traditional channels, and multi-level saturation approaches, they have creatively widened attention for their cause and deepened understanding of their purposes.

We have talented people in various organizations trying this, but too often in silos.In time, we must do it on scale.

In the end, I am hopeful about what is possible for the movement for interfaith cooperation.  We are a young movement.  The need for our work in this religiously divided and conflict-ridden world is beyond obvious.  Possibilities abound.

After all, much progress has been made in the development of organizations and meaningful programs, the creation of funding streams, the legitimization of interfaith as enterprise before governments and other disciplines, and the advancement of interfaith and interreligious as an academic discipline.All these things bode well.

In order to come on to scale in the way that other movements for cultural progress have, we need to take several paths of action, which I have outlined as accessing and advancing the five Cs: developing clarity, enabling coordination, identifying capital, prioritizing communication, and fostering creativity.

Correction: A change was made in paragraph five to indicate that in 2014 the Parliament had a limited staff, rather than none. ED