About Interfaith

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 


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.
  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".
  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/.

Intro to Interfaith Pt. 3: Activism

Intro to Interfaith Pt. 3: Activism

What do Nobel Peace Prize winners Malala Yousafzai, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. all have in common? Faith. While religion is the cause of much conflict around the world, we can’t deny that many of the world’s most influential activists are people of faith.

Organizing Around Shared Values

So how do people from completely different religious backgrounds unite around common causes? The answer is shared values. Recognizing values that are shared across religions and cultures such as, serving others, treating others with respect, resolving conflict peacefully and caring for the environment is at the heart of effective interfaith cooperation. (1)

Scholars from diverse academic backgrounds claim that the "Golden Rule" is the "most agreed upon universal moral value.” (2) Nearly all world religions, including non-religious philosophies, teach followers to treat others how wish to be treated. This creates a space for people of different faiths to come together to honor this shared value through service.

By honoring the Golden Rule, we seek to create a world of equality; one where we seek to give others the same opportunities and living conditions as we would like for ourselves. The Golden Rule is reflected in many of the causes that interfaith groups organize to address: human rights, alleviation of poverty, peacebuilding, and environmental responsibility. The Golden Rule demands that we give to others what we want for ourselves, including dignity and human rights, fair economic opportunities, respect for human life, and a planet that is healthy and safe to live in.

Activism at the Local Level

While interfaith activism is centered around shared values, it is often practiced in different ways. People of faith participate in activism on a local level, through their congregations and religious communities. On a community and congregational level, interfaith dialogue often transpires through multi-faith prayer and worship services as well as cultural exchanges, such as sharing religiously significant meals. Activism typically occurs through planned interfaith service projects, ranging from cleaning up parks to facilitating blood drives. 

The rapid increase in the popularity of crowd-funding, however, has added a new dimension to interfaith activism on the community and congregational level. Muslims activists Linda Sarsour and Tarek El-Messidi launched a crowdfunding campaign that raised over $120,000 in a matter of days for a vandalized Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. (3) After a Texas mosque was destroyed in a suspicious fire, local Jews, Christians, and non-religious people raised over $1 million, surpassing the mosque’s $850,000 fundraising goal. (4) While interfaith activism has existed on a local, congregational level for some time, social media now has the potential to shed a national, and even international, spotlight on the actions of these faiths communities.

Activism at National and International Levels

Traditionally, interfaith non-profit organizations are responsible for facilitating activism on national and international levels. These organizations tend to focus on several key issues that affect all human life, regardless of faith. This includes, but is by no means limited to, environmental sustainability, peace and conflict, poverty alleviation, and human rights.

Non-profit organizations address these issues in diverse ways. Interfaith Power and Light developed an organizational model that engaged and educated hundreds of congregations on the spiritual obligation to preserve and protect the environment, which led to the passage of climate and clean energy laws in the state of California. (5) The Fellowship of Reconciliation promotes active nonviolence on a national and international level by providing nonviolence leadership training on a grassroots level and building and maintaining networks of peace organizations throughout the world. (6) OneVoice seeks to facilitate a just and lasting peace for Israel and Palestine by working with global policy makers, amplifying the voices of grassroots partners in Israel-Palestine, and running education programs for high school and college students on how to advocate for a just peace. (7)

As you can see, interfaith organizations tend to engage multifaceted approaches to achieve their goals. These organizations, as well as individuals and communities of faith, all play an important role in addressing issues that directly affect the human condition. Interfaith activism demonstrates the power of values that transcend religious difference and mobilize people to work together for the common good.

Sources Cited

  1. Interfaith Youth Core,. 2013. Facilitator's Tools: Interfaith Conversations On Shared Values. https://www.ifyc.org/sites/default/files/better-resources/SharedValues_small.pdf.
  2. Kinnier, Richard T., Kernes, Jerry L., and Dautheribes, Therese M. 2000. "A Short List Of Universal Moral Values". Counseling And Values 45 (1): 4-16. doi:10.1002/j.2161-007x.2000.tb00178.x.
  3. Hanau, Shira. 2017. "Muslims ‘Overjoyed’ As $130K In Donations Pour In For Vandalized St. Louis Jewish Cemetery". The Forward. http://forward.com/fast-forward/363765/muslims-overjoyed-as-110k-in-donations-pour-in-for-vandalized-st-louis-jewi/..
  4. Chappell, Bill. 2017. "Donations To Burned Texas Mosque Top $1 Million In Outpouring Of Support". NPR. http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/02/01/512826283/donations-to-torched-texas-mosque-top-1-million-in-outpouring-of-support.
  5. "Mission & History". 2017. Interfaith Power And Light. http://www.interfaithpowerandlight.org/about/mission-history/.
  6. "How We Work - Fellowship Of Reconciliation". 2017. Forusa.Org. http://forusa.org/how-we-work.php.
  7. "Onevoice International". 2017. Onevoicemovement.Org. http://www.onevoicemovement.org/where.