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Religious Leaders Agree to Resistance Agenda

"Out of Many, One"

Religious Leaders Agree to Resistance Agenda 

by Bud Heckman

Religious Diversity, Politics, and Tipping Points

It is an understatement to say that America is in a very tense political situation. The rabble rousing of the political cycle and unpredicted election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States have brought to the forefront very difficult public discussions and challenging situations. We have had mass protests, a sharp increase in hate crimes towards religious minorities, emboldened white nationalist and hate groups, and many other “unprecedented” developments. 

At the gathering of religious leaders earlier this month, Terri Johnson, executive director of the Center for New Community (CNC), talks about the threats to Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities and CNC research. – Photo: Steven D. Martin/National Council of Churches.

At the gathering of religious leaders earlier this month, Terri Johnson, executive director of the Center for New Community (CNC), talks about the threats to Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities and CNC research. – Photo: Steven D. Martin/National Council of Churches.

 The reality of our growing religious diversity in America is being used as a political wedge. This is exacerbating the civic discourse because America’s vibrant political diversity and concomitant tensions are reflected in the lives of our religious communities.

America has always been a religiously diverse nation. In interfaith cooperation work, we often celebrate the impact of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act which ended the pattern of discriminatory preferences for who could come to the United States and become an American. It accelerated the diversification of our religious and ethnic identity in a way not seen in the first 200 years. Yet, this is not a fact that everyone welcomes.

A couple of full generations after the Immigration and Naturalization Act, we anticipate another social change tipping point. Social demographers suggest that by the end of another generation we will no longer have either Whites or Christians as dominate cultures in the United States. A plurality of religions and ethnicities will become the major paradigm. The growing pains of our young country are evident amidst this changing reality.

Dr. Nathanael Symeonides (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America), Rabbi Jonah Pesner (Union for Reform Judaism), and Rev. Fletcher Harper (GreenFaith) listen to one of their fellow participants talking about resistance.  – Photo: Steven D. Martin/National Council of Churches.

Dr. Nathanael Symeonides (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America), Rabbi Jonah Pesner (Union for Reform Judaism), and Rev. Fletcher Harper (GreenFaith) listen to one of their fellow participants talking about resistance.  – Photo: Steven D. Martin/National Council of Churches.

In my opinion, many of those who seek to put “America first” now are simply harkening – whether overtly, through ‘dog whistles,’ or even without conscious acknowledgement – to a time when America was predominately white and Christian. It appears that White Christian hegemony in the United States does not want to end without a few fights to try to turn back the demographic trends.

Amidst these tensions and the current political power shifts, it appears that our diversity, religious freedoms, right to free speech, right to due processes under the law, and systems of checks and balances are among the things under possible threat. Civility has deteriorated, and our ideal of forming “e pluribus unum” or “out of many, one” is under grave duress.

Crisis though brings opportunity, and people of faith rise to meet the challenge. People of faith and practice are adding prophetic witness and bringing to light moral imperatives and spiritual assets in a way that secular political movements simply cannot. People of faith can give a voice to those whose voices are too often unheard or unrecognized, and we can stand in solidarity together where our shared values lead us.

Speaking To Power with Truth, from Shared Values

Ms. Sari Heidenreich, North America regional coordinator of United Religions Initiative, speaks at a press conference in front of the White House, during Out of Many, One. – Photo: Steven D. Martin/National Council of Churches.

Ms. Sari Heidenreich, North America regional coordinator of United Religions Initiative, speaks at a press conference in front of the White House, during Out of Many, One. – Photo: Steven D. Martin/National Council of Churches.

In order to address these rising tensions, a broad coalition of religious leaders and faith and interfaith organizations came together in mid-February to start working on concerns where they have deeply held and widely shared values.

Even with a short window of notice, nearly four dozen religious leaders came together on March 6-7, 2017 in Washington, D.C. They joined as one to express shared concerns, uplift moral voices, and make evident the imperatives of our various faith traditions.

Together, they pledged to join each other in focusing on three things:

  1. protecting religious minorities and religious freedom;
  2. advocating for continued resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers, offering hospitality to them and to immigrants; and
  3. defending vigorously our environment and reversing the threats of climate change.
Ven Chung Ohon Lee (Won Buddhist), Rev. Rachel Corwell (United Methodist), and Naeem Baig (r.) (Islamic Circle of North America) are greeted by staff (in the tie) as they visit Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin’s office on Capitol Hill. – Photo: Rachel Cornwell

Ven Chung Ohon Lee (Won Buddhist), Rev. Rachel Corwell (United Methodist), and Naeem Baig (r.) (Islamic Circle of North America) are greeted by staff (in the tie) as they visit Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin’s office on Capitol Hill. – Photo: Rachel Cornwell

Happily, there are many signs of shared hope and solidarity in the current crisis. For starters, people are  speaking out and coming together in ways they did not before. Necessity is one engine of progress.

Another sign is the beautiful way that communities are coming to the direct aid and defense of one another. Muslims and Jews, for example, are developing deeper bonds as they reach out to defend one another. Jews have worked to fund rebuilding a damaged mosque, and Muslims have worked to restore and protect vandalized Jewish cemeteries.

In this same spirit, it is pleasing to note that several of the major interfaith organizations acted together in this effort. Victor Kazanjian, executive director of United Religions Initiative, said:

Our principles call us to join with our sisters and brothers from interfaith and faith-based organizations in support of religious freedom, the protection of the Earth, and care for all members of the human family.

And Larry Greenfield, executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, added: 

With so much that divides us in the world, we can lose sight of what should bring us together, and that is especially the case for religions. And the first test for that unity is how the religions of the world stand together on issues of religious freedom for religious minorities, of advocating for refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants, and of defense and care of the Earth. We cannot fail to work together on these issues that are so fundamental to our faiths.
Vicken Aykazian of the Eastern Archdiocese of Armenian Church and Jim Winkler, president and general secretary of the National Council of Churches, confer at the Out of Many, One gathering. – Photo: Steven D. Martin/National Council of Churches

Vicken Aykazian of the Eastern Archdiocese of Armenian Church and Jim Winkler, president and general secretary of the National Council of Churches, confer at the Out of Many, One gathering. – Photo: Steven D. Martin/National Council of Churches

Facilitated by myself and Naeem Baig, moderator of Religions for Peace USA, the leaders listened to each other’s concerns and activities, identified common areas of concern, and began to discern joint actions they can take. They heard from issue-based experts and shared working documents, strategies, tactics, and talking points. Participants also made visits on Capitol Hill to Congressional representatives.

While this effort is still emerging, there were some ongoing trajectories that were mapped out. For example, participants sought to develop joint resources. These resources can be designed to enable both faith and interfaith organizations in facilitating difficult conversations in local situations in an effort to bring healing to our communities.

A joint public statement was released by the group, titled “Out of Many, One.” Here are the opening words of their statement, first signed in Washington, D.C. on March 6, 2017:

Out of Many, One
The 0pening words of a joint statement
from U.S. religious leaders and communities

We – people of faith and religious and spiritual leaders from diverse traditions throughout the United States – are urgently joining to express our shared concerns, uplift our moral voices, and make evident the imperatives of our traditions that call us to act together on three critical issues facing our country today.
We come together to declare our shared commitments to: (1) protect religious minorities' religious freedom, (2) to advocate for refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants, and (3) to defend and care for creation.
We are from religious traditions small and large, young and old. We are Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Indigenous, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Unitarian Universalist, Zoroastrian, and many others…

You can view the full statement here and sign on to the statement here.  Signatures are being added and a coordinated #OutOfManyOne social media campaign will follow in late March.

First institutional endorsers of the Statement include the following national and international interfaith and religious organizations:

The list of endorsers is growing. Many individuals and local or regional interfaith organizations, like Interfaith Partners of South Carolina, have joined as well. Please consider signing on to “Out of Many, One” to add your voice to this effort.