Following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a remarkable focus emerged among churches. We know there were instances of religious prejudice and harassment, but many churches immediately understood they had a role to play in fostering better understanding across diverse faiths. They felt called to educate themselves about faith groups beyond Christianity.
When someone tells you they hold a “Christian” position on an issue, think about it. Whom are they including? What are their criteria?
In 2000, for example, the year before the attacks, only eight percent of congregations engaged in activities with other faith traditions. By 2005, that percentage had climbed to 37.5 percent. These reports come from surveys of congregations across the country by the well-respected Faith Communities Today. This increase in interfaith and multifaith engagement among Christians and other religious bodies reflects major leadership by clergy and laity who knew they needed to reach out to others if the nation was to move ahead after such a tragedy.
But in more recent years, things have changed, and not for the better. Between 2010 and 2015, the percentage of congregations engaged in activities with other religious groups decreased from 21 percent to 15 percent. While much time has elapsed since 9/11, the need for greater understanding across religious lines is even greater today. The U.S. population has grown increasingly diverse religiously, and tensions have grown, especially with regard to Islam and to Muslim people.
Changing Political Climate
It appears that the decline is not because the need is no longer urgent. While the theological trends are somewhat more conservative, they do not explain what Director of the Faith Communities Today Project David Roozen calls “the dramatic collapse” of such multifaith engagement. He says that it “probably more strongly reflects, and in fact tracks with, public polling data on changing attitudes about broad geo-political circumstances.”
The political climate today is what makes it harder and less likely that such engagement is happening. That is extremely troubling. Experience indicates that often political views expressed in Sunday school classes and small groups are informed by our favorite political commentators; and, sadly, there are fewer references beyond the most superficial to biblical or theological considerations.
What is a Christian Position?
The very word “Christian” is often used as synonymous with a particular political stance. In recent times, it tends to be conservatives who claim the connection, but those from every political perspective have claimed it when it fit their advantage. When someone tells you they hold a “Christian” position on an issue, think about it. Whom are they including? What are their criteria?
Politicians in this presidential primary season must appeal to a passionate but narrow segment of the electorate in their parties who decide primary elections — even though they know they will have to broaden their base to win a general election. This narrow focus often leads to angry and extreme positions, calculated to stir the electorate, but also causing hostile divisions — including attitudes of divisiveness toward other faith traditions.
When you go to church on Sunday, remember it is not a presidential primary. Your church should help you see others, including those who do not believe as you do, through the eyes of the God we know in Christ. Your church should offer also a way to be in dialogue within and beyond our faith tradition — a dialogue that reflects the witness of Jesus Christ rather than the political crosscurrents of the day.