Are We There Yet? The $100,000 Question in the Interfaith Movement. 

by Bud Heckman

How do we know when we havearrived in the interfaith movement?  When religious pluralism is normative?  When religious differences don’t cause conflict or even concern?

Things have been changing rapidly in the expanding field of interfaith relations. Therefore, it may be worth measuring our progress by some milestones of our achievement rather than by an elusive final destination.  I want to suggest six different markers of hope which I see, and I want to invite you to share your own markers of hope and stories of success.

I see great progress in: academic legitimization, institutional development, research expansion, intra-field cooperation, government partnerships, and specialization of work.  A brief example on each milepost:

Academy – When Diana Eck addressed the American Academy of Religion (AAR) as President five years ago, I glumly noted to her that, out of the hundreds and hundreds of workshops at the AAR, only two referenced “interfaith.”  Through the Pluralism Project, Diana built an entire industry out of the study of religious pluralism with dozens of scholars and researchers in her network. Yet the academy was largely stuck in the dry approaches of comparative religion and history of religion. This year’s AAR program, however, is so chock full of practical “interfaith” things that a person could go to just such workshops for the full five days.

At the same time, seminaries are re-inventing their approaches to the religious “other,” following the groundbreaking lead of the folks at Hartford, Auburn, and Claremont Lincoln.

Colleges and universities are similarly signing up wholesale for the array of services of the Interfaith Youth Core to transform their campuses and tomorrow’s leaders.

Institution Building – Interfaith organizations are growing like spring grass.  In 2003, I started research with a team of interns at Religions for Peace USA to count and categorize interfaith organizations.  We took Chris Coble’s earlier research and expanded it to find 17 different kinds and more than 1,000 interfaith organizations in the US.  Eight years later, a new breed of taxonomers is telling me they have more than 25 categories.  With my colleagues at Coexist Foundation USA, we just catalogued nearly 2,000 interfaith entities.

Research – The Coexist Foundation has invested a great deal in research through Gallup on perceptions of Muslims and the global success of interfaith relations.  But our research is just one of dozens of efforts.  The researchers at Hartford Institute for Religion Research have had a decade-long look at interfaith relations and are showing from 2 to 4 fold growth in shared experiences of “worship” and common action across faith lines.  ARDA, Glenmary Research Center, Public Religion Research Institute, and many others are producing equally important data.

Cooperation – In response to the public relations disaster of Park51 last summer, six New York-based interfaith organizations worked together this year under the umbrella of Prepare NY.  This first-ever multi-organizational interfaith effort has resulted in hundreds of dialogues and in a more peaceful, constructive, and meaningful celebration for the 10th Anniversary of 9/11.  Religions for Peace USA joined with Groundswell, Hebrew College and other institutions to release a statement together about our shared focus after 9/11.

Government PartnershipsReligions for Peace has pioneered fostering government-religious community partnerships, which hold much promise for scaling interfaith relations.  Recently , I had the pleasure of serving on the Interreligious Cooperation Task Force of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and had the pleasure of seeing the new ways in which government is becoming responsive to religious communities. The US Government is just one among many governments who have taken a unique interest in advancing interfaith relations.   Qatar, Norway, Indonesia, Finland, Kazakhstan, and Saudi Arabia are but a few of the countries doing creative new things to foster multifaith cooperation.

Specialization – The waters were much murkier twenty years ago, before the resurgence of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and even ten years ago, before the 9/11-inspired surge of interfaith growth.  Organizations were less clear about their niches, their unique value added.  With today’s clarity and specialization of mission comes better funding, cooperation, and focused impact.

No longer the infant, the interfaith movement is more like the awkward teenager, showing signs of becoming a promising adult, but not there yet.  What is next?  We have room to grow.

Funding is one of the most critical areas that must come along further, if we can say we have succeeded.  My recent research shows an array of new funders starting to test the waters of supporting interfaith relations.  While the continued down global economy and shifts in focus for a handful of the original funders for the movement may give some pause, The Coexist Foundation has been working hard to be one of many in a hopeful countercurrent of support at this critical hour.

The Coexist Foundation is awarding an endowed annual US$100,000 Coexist Prize for an unsung hero/heroine in interfaith relations, and we wish to celebrate the stories of your success that are worthy of being told.  Video stories will be made of the finalists and shared at the announcement of winners next Spring.

We have to continue to progress along the above lines and make advancements in other areas.  For instance, we have to: more effectively engage traditional and new media, articulate standards and measurable outcomes, and help a new, forward-looking generation come into mid-life leadership roles in the movement.

With our common efforts, religious pluralism can become the norm.



Rev. Bud Heckman is the Director of External Relations at the Coexist Foundation and the Executive Director of Religions for Peace USA.  Your comments are welcome: