Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal published an interesting op-ed on interfaith dialogue, something I’m in favor of if it also embraces those of us who are faithless—and we include them, too.
There is an assumption by commentators on the right and the left that as far as religion goes, it is liberals who work–and care to work–across faith lines. Interfaith activity is understood as a politically and theologically liberal enterprise. This stems in part from the fact that the most widely recognized examples of interfaith cooperation have occurred on the left. Martin Luther King Jr.’s partnership with Abraham Joshua Heschel (the prominent Jewish theologian and civil-rights leader) is probably the most famous. Other figures who have reached across religious lines include The Very Reverend James Parks Morton (former dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine) and international icons like Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu.
But during my years at the Interfaith Center of New York, a nonprofit organization devoted to fostering interreligious civic relationships, I found that the stereotypes about who is willing to form partnerships were wrong. When the center first opened, we received enthusiastic support from liberals and were ignored by conservatives. Our programs looked diverse, and they were, religiously speaking. But participants were homogeneously liberal.
The more conservative religious folks were not interested in talking about spirituality, peace-building and social justice. So we refocused our programs to include seminars and information sessions on issues such as domestic violence, health-care access and immigration rights. Suddenly, every kind of religious leader came, including conservatives. Their religious perspectives did not change, but our assumptions did.
Sheikh Musa Drammeh, an African lay leader who runs an Islamic school in the Bronx, first came to a retreat we held on immigration issues. Sheikh Drammeh believes that Islam is the one true path, that premarital sex is not moral and neither is homosexual behavior. He runs a school that teaches Muslim children these values. In preparation for opening the school in 2001 he introduced himself to local pastors and rabbis, inviting them to come observe his classrooms. He attended a week-long program on religious diversity to better understand the other religious groups in his community. He also works with a Latino Pentecostal minister on the Bronx District Attorney’s clergy task force. For him, interfaith partnership is critical for good citizenship and safe neighborhoods. “The more friends we make,” he says, “the less likely we are to shed blood.”
Rabbi Emmanuel Weizer is another one of our regular participants now. An ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Rabbi from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he is the vice president of Congregation Beth Yitzthock. Rabbi Weizer strongly believes Orthodoxy is the right path (for Jews) and strongly disagrees with the theology of nonmonotheistic faiths. He will not participate in interfaith prayer services, nor will he enter another religion’s worship space. But he has worked across religious lines for years, for example, on our interfaith mediation team, a program of the New York State court system that includes Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Sikhs.
Interestingly, it was the liberal leaders who had problems with our new conservative participants. Some wondered aloud “who let them in.” Others wanted us to advocate for positions that would keep some conservatives out, like opposition to the war in Iraq and tolerance for homosexual behavior.
Instead of excluding conservatives, though, we adopted a different understanding of interfaith activity. It is not an understanding based on the idea that with a little conversation we can iron out all our theological differences. Rather, it is one based on the idea that religious beliefs are distinct, deep-set and deserve to be taken seriously. On that point, it turns out that Rabbi Weizer and Sheikh Drammeh understand each other well.