Intro to Interfaith Pt. 2: History of the Interfaith Movement

Intro to Interfaith Pt. 2: History of the Interfaith Movement

The year is 1893. American women would not have the right to vote for 27 more years, India would not gain independence from Great Britain for 54 more years, and slavery would not be officially abolished in all countries for 88 more years. But in 1893, against all odds, the interfaith movement began.

There are many historical developments that have helped shaped the contemporary interfaith movement. However in this piece, I choose to highlight three that I find particularly influential: the convening of the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions, the American Civil Rights Movement, and the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. This article explains the significance of these events and how they have shaped the movement. 

1893: The Beginning

The beginning of the contemporary interfaith movement can be traced back to the Parliament of the World's Religions, a gathering of representatives from Eastern and Western faiths, held during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. (1) Although it was criticized and even boycotted by some, the Parliament marked the first time that people from Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Unitarian, Shinto and Zoroastrian faiths came together to meet in the spirit of dialogue. (2)

 The First Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago, 1893.   Source:  Parliament of the World's Religions

The First Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago, 1893.

Source: Parliament of the World's Religions

During a time rife with imperialism, expansionist policies and xenophobia, the convening of the Parliament was truly ahead of its time. Its contribution to the interfaith movement was the setting of a precedent for leaders of world religions to gather and discuss differences in their religions as well as shared values. (3) The Parliament inspired the creation of several other organizations that sought to bring attention to interfaith dialogue over the next several decades, many of them would be in direct response to the First and Second World Wars. (4 SOURCE)

1960's: Impact on the Civil Rights Movement

Another notable moment in the history of the interfaith movement is the involvement of various religious leaders in the American Civil Rights Movement. The ideas of justice and equality found in Hinduism, Judaism and several different denominations of Christianity formed a solid platform for the Civil Rights Movement. (5) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was deeply inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's philosophies and practices of non-violence that stemmed from his Hindu faith. (6, 7) King also formed a special friendship with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish-American Jew who was inspired to participate in the Civil Rights Movement by teachings of the Hebrew prophets. (8)

 
 Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel presents the Judaism and World Peace Award to Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965.   Source: Library of Congress

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel presents the Judaism and World Peace Award to Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965.

Source: Library of Congress

 

The American Civil Rights Movement is a key example of both interfaith dialogue and cooperation that led to the achievement of tangible social capital -- the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Both pieces of legislation have protected and promoted the rights of not just the Black Community, but of other marginalized groups and have paved the way for the passage of subsequent civil rights laws that now protect people of diverse races, sexual orientations and those with disabilities. 

2000’s: Response to September 11th

The 1990's saw a dramatic increase in interest in interfaith dialogue. (9) Those in the religious and scholarly communities began articulating the potential of interfaith dialogue to address issues of common concern, including environmental sustainability as well as war and conflict. (10)

The September 11th terror attacks quickly highlighted the important role interfaith dialogue in the United States and around the world. Suddenly it seemed more important than ever for the Western world, with social systems largely based on traditional Christian values, to truly understand Islamic beliefs. Likewise, it was important for Muslims to ensure that the perpetrators of the attacks were not seen as ambassadors for a religion that gives no justification for their actions. And so out of necessity, Muslims and non-Muslims started participating in a cautious, if even skeptical, dialogue. (11)

 Pope Francis, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, and Imam Khalid Latif speak during an interfaith prayer event at the  National September 11th Memorial and Museum  in New York City on September 25, 2015.   Source:  Barbara Wheeler-Bride / Busted Halo

Pope Francis, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, and Imam Khalid Latif speak during an interfaith prayer event at the National September 11th Memorial and Museum in New York City on September 25, 2015.

Source: Barbara Wheeler-Bride / Busted Halo

For many people, what started out as curious dialogue in the wake 9/11 has transformed into friendships and active interfaith cooperation. (12, 13, 14, 15) From 2000 to 2010, the number of religious communities that participated in interfaith worship doubled and participation in interfaith service activities tripled. (16) Since 9/11, interfaith initiatives have been endorsed and sponsored by the United Nations, (17)  World Health Organization (18) and World Bank (19) as well as the federal government of the United States (20) and countless others. (21)  The tragic September 11th attacks made clear that religious diversity and dialogue could no longer be ignored.

Interfaith Involvement in American Congregations

Source: David Roozen / Faith Communities Today 

Conclusion

Each of the three events and time periods I describe above are special in their own ways. The first Parliament of the World's Religions set a precedent for religious leaders of Western and Eastern traditions to come together in dialogue at a point in history where tolerance and multiculturalism were not priorities. The Civil Rights Movement became an avenue for religious leaders to find common ground and actively participate in interfaith cooperation that eventually yielded important legal protections for diverse groups of marginalized people. The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 further magnified the importance of interfaith dialogue and has inspired a marked increase in interfaith cooperation in the United States and around the world. 

Learn more

So where does that leave us? What is the future of the interfaith movement? Intro to Interfaith Pt. 3: Activism will address these issues, so check back soon!

  • New World Encyclopedia - Slightly more detailed and comprehensive history of the interfaith movement
  • The Pluralism Project - Excellent overview of what transpired during the 1893 Parliament of the World's Religions
  • As Good As Anybody - Book that examines the relationship between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and how they worked together for justice during the Civil Rights Movement

Sources Cited

  1. Patel, Eboo. Interfaith Leadership: A Primer. Beacon Press, 2016.
  2. "Academy For Cultural Diplomacy". 2017. Culturaldiplomacy.Org. http://www.culturaldiplomacy.org/academy/index.php?en_historical-examples.
  3. Ibid.
  4. SOURCE
  5. Higgs, Emily. 2017. "Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., And Interfaith Cooperation In The Civil Rights Movement". Boniuk.Rice.Edu. http://boniuk.rice.edu/Gandhi_and_MLK/.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Harvey, Paul. 2016. "Religion And Civil Rights In America". Oxford Research Encyclopedia Of Religion. USA: Oxford University Press.
  8. Higgs, Emily. 2017. "Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., And Interfaith Cooperation In The Civil Rights Movement".
  9. SOURCE
  10. Neufeldt, Reina C. 2011. "Interfaith Dialogue: Assessing Theories Of Change". Peace & Change 36 (3): 344-372. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0130.2011.00702.x.
  11. Goodstein, Laurie. 2011. "The 9/11 Decade: How Interfaith Groups Built Bridges". Nytimes.Com. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/03/us/sept-11-reckoning/interfaith.html.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Lawton, Kim. 2016. "Remembering 9/11, A Rabbi And Imam Nurture Interfaith Friendships". Religion News Service. http://religionnews.com/2016/09/09/911-a-rabbi-imam-interfaith-friendships/.
  14. Hirschoff, Paula. 2016. "Interfaith Amigos". Macalester.Edu. https://www.macalester.edu/news/2016/04/interfaith-amigos/.
  15. "The Faith Club | The Pluralism Project". 2017. Pluralism.Org. http://pluralism.org/profile/the-faith-club/.
  16. Roozen, David. 2017. American Congregations Reach Out To Other Faith Traditions: A Decade Of Change. Americans Congregations 2010. Hartford: Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
  17. "UN News - Religious Communities Must Embrace Shared Values To Foster Peace – UN Officials". 2013. UN News Service Section. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=44149#.WKH0cW8rKHt
  18. World Health Organization,. 2008. Building From Common Foundations. The World Health Organizations In Primary Healthcare. Geneva: WHO Press
  19. "Global Faith Leaders And World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim On Call And Commitment To End Extreme Poverty". 2015. World Bank. http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/speech/2015/04/09/global-faith-leaders-and-world-bank-group-president-jim-yong-kim-on-call-and-commitment-to-end-extreme-poverty
  20. "President’S Campus Challenge | Center For Faith-Based And Neighborhood Partnerships". 2017. Sites.Ed.Gov. Accessed February 13. https://sites.ed.gov/fbnp/presidents-campus-challenge/.
  21. "Sidebar: Initiatives And Actions Aimed At Reducing Religious Restrictions Or Hostilities". 2013. Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. http://www.pewforum.org/2013/06/20/arab-spring-restrictions-on-religion-sidebar2/.