ALL NATIONS BEFORE GOD'S THRONE

Evangelicals in the Interfaith World

by Nicholas M. Price

On May 16th, 2005, the 3rd National Conference on Interfaith Youth Work convened in the Cortelyou Commons of DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. The day began casually with participants from a variety of interfaith organizations and religious groups slowly trickling into the Main Hall of the Commons, some stopping at the entrance to indulge in a bagel or coffee, others sitting at tables greeting old friends and making new acquaintances. Smiles were contagious as many delighted in the knowledge that they were among like minds, each devoted to the vision of building a movement that would encourage dialogue between the diverse faith communities that call America home.

Soon the day's events began with all members of the conference taking turns introducing themselves to the whole group and briefly describing their role in interfaith work. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Bahais from places as far away as Boston and Washington D.C. each stood and expressed their excitement and eagerness to begin developing a vision for interfaith work nationwide over the coming year. The sense of camaraderie was highlighted by an opening address from Dr. Eboo Patel, the founder and director of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), who articulated the present need for interfaith dialogue in a post-9/11 world which was desperately in need of a language through which people of faith could articulate their religious traditions to their neighbors and build bridges of understanding between faith communities. The audience leaned forward as each listened to his address, many nodding in approval, some eagerly writing notes as they saw their desires given word and form in the eloquent vision put forth by the young director. His address concluded with a word of thanksgiving to the participants followed by a moment of applause.

As the applause died down a microphone was passed around as members of the conference were invited to share the triumphs of their respective work in interfaith as well as pose questions to other individuals. Stories ranged from everything including interfaith youth councils to work being done on college campuses. However, the discussion soon turned to another topic as individuals within the conference began to voice the challenges that they have faced in working to expand the interfaith movement. Eventually one man stood to join in the dialogue. He identified himself as a Christian committed to interfaith work who was struggling with how to include the more conservative members of his own faith tradition in the interfaith movement. His frustration was quickly seconded by others in the conference with words like "evangelicals," "conservatives," and "fundamentalists" joining the cacophony of voices. It was then that I raised my hand for the microphone. When it reached me I made the confession that brought the earlier concerns a little closer to home. "Good morning. Once again, my name is Nick Price and I am a conservative, evangelical Christian." It would be an understatement to say that this admission changed the nature of the conversation.

Before long the question was no longer, "Why don't religious conservatives participate in interfaith dialogue?" but became "How do we make sure that we set a place at the table for religious conservatives?" While these two questions look similar at first glace the truth is that they operate with a totally different set of assumptions. The first of these questions assumes that religious conservatives have an inherit aversion to participating in interfaith dialogue, much less the religiously plural atmosphere of modern American society, and that we must somehow strong arm them into dialogue or go over their heads and build a society around them which will, ultimately, force them to accept more "moderate" or "mainline" ways through which to view their own faith.

However, I would argue that the problem is not that most religious conservatives do not want to participate in interfaith dialogue, but that they do not feel welcome in the places of public discourse. Recently, in a story by National Public Radio, commentator James Davison Hunter, author of Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, noted that the recent dominance of relativism as an intellectual position has placed western society in a position of uncertainty about the basic truths of life and that this has created fundamentalists in both liberal and conservative spheres of society. While the use of the term "fundamentalist" could easily be contested in this case, this does not solve the underlying problem facing American society; it's increasing polarization along ideological lines. Hunter goes on to note that this is the reason religious fundamentalists have begun to grow in popularity and that liberal scholars have become increasingly vehement in the condemnation of tradition religious groups in the op-ed pages of American media sources.1 Both camps, whether they represent a strict faith-based ideology or a secular intellectual worldview, have become so entrenched in their own systems of belief that the hope for dialogue between the two groups is quickly dwindling. Evidence of this kind of thinking can be found in Lewis Lapham's recent article in Harper's entitled "The Wrath of the Lamb" in which he aggressively condemns the Christian right as one of the most detrimental groups in modern American discourse and pose an immanent threat to the intellectual and political advancement of society.2

This is true among religious circles as well. There is an increasing belief by progressives that conservatives represent an outdated and intolerant worldview which cannot constructively add to religious dialogue between different faith traditions. Likewise, religious conservatives see progressives as a threat to the deeply held tenets of their faith who would seek to silence their own beliefs in the public discourse and compromise them when faced with religious diversity. As a member of evangelical America I can only speak from my own tradition about how to face this problem, but my hope is that, in doing so, I can eliminate many of the commonly held misconceptions about evangelical Christians as well as offer some answers to the question about how to make religious conservatives feel welcome in public discourse.

Let me begin by stating what it means to me to be an evangelical Christian. First, I believe that Jesus Christ is God made flesh and risen from the dead to bring salvation to the whole world. I affirm that believing in the divinity of Christ, His resurrection, the Trinity, and coming Day of Judgment are necessary to attain eternal life in Heaven. Furthermore, I am committed to sharing this message with others. I do so not out of a sense of obligation to some church authority, but out of the deep joy that I have as a result of my personal relationship with Christ. My ultimate hope for those with whom I share this message is that they will come to know Christ in a deeply personal way and experience to overflowing joy the comes from having this kind of a relationship with the God of the universe.

So what does this say about me as a person? What assumptions could one make about me based upon the commonly held perceptions of evangelicals in the media? I am sure that there are a thousand different labels that might come to mind, "holy roller" and "Bible thumper" being just a few. No doubt conclusions might be made about my politics as a result of the above confession. However, let me proceed to set the record straight. I do not identify with either the Republican or Democratic political parties. Like 40% of self-professed evangelicals throughout the nation I consider myself a political moderate. There is a prevailing assumption in modern America that evangelicals are a unified group with a single ideological vision that informs their politics as well as their social stances. This view is strengthened by the image of evangelicals that is often presented in the popular media sources of our day. The February issue of Time was entitled "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America" with supporting stories asking the questions "What Does Bush Owe Them?" and "Do the Democrats Need More Religion?"3 It proceeded to list off some of the most important evangelical leaders in America, providing descriptions of their accomplishments as well as their involvement in a Christian movement that claims nearly 40 million adherents nationwide. However, in placing all of these individuals side by side, Time, whether by design or by accident, portrays these people as all being linked together in a unified movement with specific goals for America's future. The supporting pieces also contribute to this view by tying evangelicals to the Republican party and crediting them with the party's victory in the most recent congressional and presidential elections. It would seem that evangelical America is a unified monolith, a kind of super organization with unlimited financial resources and political contacts that would make any politician jealous.

However, this picture of American evangelicals could not be further from the truth. If one was to take a closer look at the politics of many evangelical leaders today, one would find that they are much more diverse than initially thought. While James Dobson might be exhorting his listeners to fight to overturn Roe v. Wade, Jim Wallis attacks the issue of poverty and denounces the Republican party for its narrow focus on hot-button issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. While there is no doubt that the Republican party was able to draw on the evangelical community in its recent political victories, to assume that all evangelicals fit the stereotype embodied by people like Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye would be a big mistake. Like any other social, or for that matter, religious movement throughout history, evangelical America is made up of a wide variety of individuals from very diverse backgrounds.

Perhaps the best illustration of this can be found at my Alma Mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In addition to being a Religious Studies major there, I am also involved in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as well as Covenant Fellowship Church and Twin City Bible Church. It is through these Christian groups that I have had the great pleasure of building friendships with other college students who share my passion for faith in Christ and exploring how that faith influences our daily lives through Bible studies, work days, volunteer projects, and All Campus Worship events. In all of this we are united by our love for and faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah and our commitment to studying the Bible as the authoritative text for our lives. Beyond this, anything goes when it comes to other areas of our lives, including politics. I remember one particular conversation that took place between myself and several of my InterVarsity friends around the dinner table in the dining hall of the Illinois Street Residence hall. It was during the fall of 2004 and the November presidential elections were drawing closer. Naturally the topic of discussion steered in the direction of the elections and a heated debate was soon taken up. Some of us, myself included, began talking about why we could not, in good conscience, re-elect President Bush. Others, all my good friends, struck back with equally strong convictions about why they would not be giving their vote to John Kerry. We circled around issues like abortion, the war in Iraq, and Social Security. The group included engineers, business majors, biology majors, and everything in between. We were also a diverse group ethnically and economically, each coming from backgrounds that reflected the great diversity of the American nation. In all this we were still evangelicals. None of us became more or less Christian as a result of our political views because we recognized that our faith was something spiritual and not defined by changing allegiances to political parties or defending some piece of political legislation. Ultimately we all agreed on several moral issues. We all read Psalm 139 in which the psalmist praises God saying, "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. . . When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body" and agreed that abortion was a sin for it ignored the hand of God in the process of birth. However, where we differed was whether or not this spiritual view should be legislated. Nevertheless, we had a common spirituality from which we drew our strength and camaraderie.

I would argue that the make-up of the evangelical circle of which I am a part at the University of Illinois is representative of the evangelical community on a national level, a community which, according to the most recent Gallup poll, claims over 40% of American society.4 Furthermore, it is a community that is ethnically diverse, with over a third of its members belonging to some minority group. Writer/scholar Kenneth Collins, in his book The Evangelical Moment, points to research which highlights the fact that, evangelicals are among the best-educated Americans and have enjoyed the greatest inter-generational educational mobility among all major American religious traditions.'"5 In any group of evangelical Christians you can find gun control advocates alongside card-carrying members of the NRA, pacifists next to soldiers, Republicans hand-in-hand with Democrats.

Another example of this was at the Cornerstone festival. This annual Christian rock concert was held in Bushnell, Illinois from June 30th to July 3rd. It draws thousands of Christians of all ages together for a celebration of God through song as well as seminars with topics ranging from evangelism to service to prayer. One of my friends from the University of Illinois was able to attend Cornerstone this year along with his brother. When they later recounted their time at the festival he commented on the wide variety of individuals that he met there. At one point he noted how interesting it was to see tattooed, longhaired young people worshipping next to clean cut, clean shaven Christian youth. In all of this it was apparent that the Christian world is made up of a vast group of diverse people united by the message of the Gospel.

The message that is put forth by these two pictures of evangelical America is that evangelical Christians do not fit into the mold portrayed in the media as neatly as many would believe. Sadly, these stereotypes continue to affect the way much of the public views evangelicals and this perception has bled into acade-mia and many intellectual circles. During my sophomore year in college I enrolled in a World Religions class. It was a team taught course in which each professor from the department took turns instructing the class in the diverse religious traditions of the world. Each week I would join with several hundred other students in learning about the Scriptures, myths, rituals, and development of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, Judaism, and Islam. I grew to love the epic tales from each of these unique traditions and frequently would discuss what I was learning with my friends outside of class.

However, when we finally arrived at the section on Christianity I found myself confronted with a faith that I did not recognize as my own. In fact, very little time was spent on the faith messages of the Gospels or the other books of the New Testament. Rather, it was focused largely on events like the Crusades, the splits between denominations, and sharp criticisms of the faith. There is no denying that Christianity has had its share of dark periods. One only needs to pick up a book about the development of Western Civilization to find stories about inquisitions and massacres perpetrated by Christians against people of other faiths as well as against each other. However, there is also a great legacy of social service, kindness, compassion, and dedication to freedom that is a part of Christianity. It was fervent Protestants in the Civil War era that pushed for the emancipation of slavery. It was individuals like Dorothy Day who drew upon their faith to care for the poor. Where were these stories? Instead the Christianity that was presented was a faith rife with divisions, uncertainties, and petty hatreds. I could not help but think that other faiths had their fair share of crimes. After all, Hindus and Muslims still kill each other in India in the name of their religions. Fundamentalist Jewish groups attack Palestinians in the West Bank in the name of reclaiming the Holy Land and Muslims blow themselves up in the streets of Jerusalem for the same reason. However, when we studied the faiths of these people we tried to focus on the positive histories of each. Why was Christianity stigmatized? I was told by fellow evangelicals that oftentimes when they tried to defend their faith in discussion section that they were accused of proselytizing and told to be more "tolerant" of their fellow students' views. While it is true that an evangelical sits in the White House, this does not change the fact that the halls of liberal academia remain hostile to evangelical Christians largely based on a fear and skewed view of the group painted by the media and supported by the example of some of the more vocal, though not necessarily most representative, members of evangelical America. It is a shame that a few bad apples have ruined the whole barrel.

If I could not find a way to discuss faiths equally in the classroom I decided to seek out other avenues of discussing world religions with fellow students who were as equally devout in their faith traditions as I was in mine. This desire inevitably led me to interfaith dialogue. After a visit by Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core to Urbana in the fall of 2004, I was immediately hooked. While speaking at Allen Hall he articulated a formula for interfaith dialogue based on the vision of social justice and service. He believed that each faith tradition had a focus on these themes of justice and improving one's society that could serve as a bridge between the diverse faith communities that call America their home. He had given form to the desire that was resting within my heart. I realized that it was the perfect approach to building understanding between faith communities and created an atmosphere where I felt I could finally articulate my faith as well as hear about the religious backgrounds of my fellow students. I realized that if a mosque with a food pantry partnered with a Christian homeless shelter which turned around and worked with a Hindu orphanage we could increase our social capital to make a greater change in our society as well as open the door for understanding, respect, and cooperation. Did I mention that I was hooked? In the coming weeks and months I came into contact with other students who were similarly inspired by Eboo's vision and were working to create an interfaith environment at the University of Illinois.

Before long I was working to plan interfaith events at the residence hall with which I was employed. I also began to lend my support to the National Day of Interfaith Youth Service planning committee at the University. They were developing a day in which students of each faith community came together in service to the local community and discussed how their individual faith inspired them to serve. Up to this point many people knew that I was a Christian and were happy to partner with me in these events. However, I had not yet dropped the dreaded title that preceded my faith identification: Evangelical. Finally, after being initially hesitant I decided to let it slip that I was an evangelical Christian involved in InterVarsity and two evangelical churches on campus. Before I knew it a few of my fellow interfaith workers and residence hall co-workers became a little more wary of my participation. Questions started coming my way about how it was that I could say I respected other faiths while still holding to an exclusivist truth claim? Wasn't that just being superficial? Other comments slipped as well, many along the lines of "you just don't seem like that kind of person." No doubt these comments came out of a genuine desire to be nice and I do not blame my co-workers for feeling apprehensive about my involvement, but I do not deny that I was, initially, very shocked.

Fortunately, as I continued to work with my partners in interfaith work these misconceptions were dispelled and we came to appreciate each other's faith commitments. Furthermore, I was overjoyed to hear several of them express to me that they were now more open to speaking with more evangelicals and wanted me to invite my friends to the National Day of Interfaith Youth Service. Despite the initial shock and apprehension that arose from my identification as an evangelical, we were soon working together in harmony and building stronger friendships as a result of our common commitment to interfaith service and understanding.

However, another obstacle soon arose: convincing my evangelical friends to investigate interfaith dialogue. Some of them were immediately interested in interfaith work and several attended the National Day. Others, however, were a little more wary. Many of their questions focused on a fear that they would face similar situations as those that they experience in classes. They were tired of being called intolerant. They also worried that "interfaith" was synonymous with "relativist." They did not want to be a part of a movement in which they would be forced to accept the theological truth claims of other faiths that directly contradicted their own deeply held spiritual beliefs. Luckily, I was able to assure them that this is not what interfaith work was about. I told them that while we all might pray in separate mosques, churches, synagogues, and temples we still share schools, stores, and streets and that the interfaith movement was focused on improving these common social places and building understanding between communities. Slowly but surely many became more comfortable with this vision of interfaith work and eagerly anticipated meeting with people of other faiths and learning about their spiritual lifestyles. These encounters teach us several valuable lessons about including evangelicals in the interfaith sphere. The first is that we must stop assuming that evangelicals are inherently hostile to interfaith work. The frustrated comments that arose at the National Conference on Interfaith Youth Work that was mentioned earlier were made based on the assumption that there were no evangelicals present in that circle. As was demonstrated by my presence this simply was not true. I have found that once evangelicals are presented with this vision of interfaith work many are positive about the idea. The apparent hostility of evangelicals towards the interfaith movement often stems from a misunderstanding about the goals of the interfaith movement. Once it is made clear that interfaith work is about changing society and not watering down each other's deeply held faith commitments I think many will find that evangelicals are quite supportive of the idea.

The second lesson is that interfaith workers must accord the evangelical worldview with the same kind of understanding and tolerance that is expected of them. Too often we, as evangelicals, feel that we are constantly being asked to accept other worldviews while at the same time being expected to remain silent about our own deeply held spiritual beliefs. If interfaith work is to truly live up to its namesake it must be able to accommodate groups with exclusivist theological truth claims like evangelicals. If it does not then interfaith work ceases to be truly "inter" and "faith" and simply becomes another group of likeminded universalists. The goal of this movement is to build understanding between different groups, not create an exclusive club for progressive liberal religious elites.

We deal in a world of difference and are in the business of building bridges. If the interfaith movement does not reach out to evangelicals and other religious conservatives we risk alienating them entirely. If evangelicals do not feel welcome in the interfaith circles that we create then they will seek out those who do welcome them, even if those with the open doors are the extremists that the interfaith movement is trying to disarm. Eboo once told me that we are in the field of preventative peacekeeping, but how can we succeed if religious conservatives are denounced as backwards and intolerant by the "open-minded" members of the interfaith movement? In the end we want to reach out to people of all religious traditions and movements in the hope of building a world in which faith is no longer viewed as an instrument of religious totalitarians, but as the vehicle that inspires individuals to look to the divine for inspiration and moves them towards the service of humanity. As long as we remain insular we can never change the world, but when faith can be articulated through a smile, a helping hand, and a kind word to a stranger, it can move mountains and transform hearts. May this be the hope that drives us and "not my will but [God's] be done" (Luke 22:42).

Notes

1. See "Relativism vs. Fundamentalism," (Monday, April 25, 2005) at www.npr.com.

2.  See "The Wrath of the Lamb" by Lewis H. Lapham in Harper's (May 2005).

3.  See articles The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America, What Does Bush Owe the Religious Right?, and Trying Out a More Soulful Tone in Time , February 7, 2005.

4.  See "Who Are the Evangelicals?" by Frank Newport at www.gallup.com.

5. Kenneth Collins, The Evangelical Moment: The Promise of an American Religion (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 12.

 

Copyright of CrossCurrents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user.
Source: Cross Currents, Fall 2005, Vol. 55,  No 3.