3 Reasons Interfaith Efforts Matter More Than Ever

BOSTON - APRIL 18: People embrace in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross before President Barack Obama leads a special interfaith
BOSTON - APRIL 18: People embrace in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross before President Barack Obama leads a special interfaith service this morning in memory of the victims of the bombing at the 117th Boston Marathon. (Photo by Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In the wake of the Boston attack and manhunt, I've been getting a lot of messages about how interfaith efforts matter more than ever, and I've sent out a volley of tweets expressing the same sentiment myself. So, does this view hold up to analysis, or is it just a surface salve for a really deep wound?

At the risk of promoting a cause in which I'm deeply involved, I think that there are several good reasons to strengthen and expand interfaith efforts. These are true even during normal times; what the events in Boston have done is highlight their importance. Before launching in, let me state the obvious: Interfaith programs are not a miracle solution. Their primary purpose is neither to root out potential terrorists nor solve every social problem. But they do matter. Here are three reasons why: 1. Interfaith helps harmonize people's various identities.

In America, just about everyone is some sort of hyphenated hybrid of race, religion and ethnicity/nationality. Irish-Catholic-American, African-American Pentecostal, Jewish-American secular Humanist, and so on. As Walt Whitman said, "I am large / I contain multitudes." When interfaith cooperation is done well, it not only helps people from different faith and philosophical backgrounds get along, it creates space for the diverse identities within each of us to become mutually enriching rather than mutually exclusive. When interfaith events raise the question, what do I have in common with people of different religious and national identities, the natural internal dialogue that ensues is: What do my own diverse identities have in common with each other?

Religious extremists try to separate people's various identities and pit them against each other. The extremists that got to the young London 7/7 bombers somehow convinced them that their Muslim identity was at war with their British identity, and the former had to destroy the latter. While the facts are still coming in, this may also have been the case for the Tsarnaev brothers. It was a clash civilizations in their souls.

In a nation of hybrids, it's important to have loyalty to both sides of the hyphen. What if the Tsarnaev brothers were involved in discussions with people from other backgrounds about how their faith identity was mutually enriching with their nationality and citizenship? Perhaps they would have been less susceptible to the divide-and-destroy tactics of extremists.

2. Interfaith efforts help us to separate the worst elements of communities from the rest.

One of the most interesting findings in Robert Putnam and David Campbell's "American Grace" is that Catholics are among the most favorably viewed religious communities in America -- a stunning change from just two generations ago. The study was done in the mid-2000s, when the Catholic pedophilia crisis was frequently in the news. So not only had people's views about Catholics dramatically improved, but they had done so at a time when the evening news was carrying stories of Catholic priests being arrested for doing despicable things, and some in the Catholic hierarchy hiding them.

Why didn't more Americans associate all Catholics with the actions of the handful of pedophiles? The answer is simple: Most Americans had positive, meaningful relationships with other Catholics, and associated the broader Catholic community with those Catholic friends, neighbors and colleagues.

This is a crucial social science insight that is applied in any good interfaith program: Developing a positive meaningful relationship with someone from another religious community improves your attitude toward the entire community, making it less likely that you will view a whole group of people through the actions of its worst elements. This becomes especially important at a time like this, when the Muslim identity of the two Boston Marathon terrorists has cast suspicion on Muslims as a whole.

3. Interfaith efforts remind us America is about welcoming the contributions of all communities and nurturing cooperation between them.

The interfaith ceremony that took place three days after the marathon bombings in Boston was a reminder that not only is Boston a city of many religions, but that a variety of faith and philosophical traditions are sources of hope and healing at times of grief. At the ceremony, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Greek Orthodox leaders offered solace from their traditions to their city and the country. (For the record, I think groups like Humanists and Buddhists should have been invited as well.)

The Muslim who chairs the New England Interfaith Council, Nasser Wedaddy, speaking on behalf of the city's Muslims, referenced both Jewish and Muslim texts when he said. "Whoever kills a soul, it is as if he killed mankind entirely. And whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved all of mankind."

An interfaith prayer service is only one place to see multiple traditions coming together to heal a community. Imagine how much interfaith cooperation there was in the operating rooms of Boston hospitals last week, where medical professionals of all faiths were working together to save lives and limbs.

These times require all of us to be interfaith leaders, to signal clearly that the worst elements of every tradition represent nobody. The murderers of all communities belong only to one community: the community of murderers. We have to expand our knowledge base of the various contributions diverse communities make to our nation and world, to bring into mutually enriching discussion not just people from different backgrounds but diverse identities within individuals.

If you need some inspiration, check out how college students running Interfaith Youth Core's Better Together campaign are making this a reality.

After Boston, we all know just how much is at stake.

For more blogs on interfaith cooperation, check out the IFYC Blog.