America's Crisis of Interfaith

PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 29:  Protesters and counter-protesters rally outside the Islamic Community Center on May 29, 2015 in Phoeni
PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 29: Protesters and counter-protesters rally outside the Islamic Community Center on May 29, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona. Crowds gathered in response to a planned 'freedom of speech' demonstration where attendees were encouraged to bring weapons and 'draw Mohammed'. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Two weeks ago I was privileged to report on a multi-faith gathering that included 500 religious leaders who welcomed Pope Francis to the 9/11 Memorial Museum. The service was entitled "A Witness for Peace" and began with an embrace between an Imam and a Rabbi who offered an emotional duel-invocation, alternating in prayers for peace, dignity and respect for all humans.

The Pope was joined on the dais by leaders of the Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu, Jewish and Orthodox Christian faiths who all offered prayers from their tradition. In his address to the faithful group, Pope Francis said: "I trust that our presence together will be a powerful sign of our shared desire to be a force for reconciliation, peace and justice in this community and throughout the world. For all our differences and disagreements, we can live in a world of peace."

It was a powerful moment that, unfortunately, is far from being a reality.

As we speak, Muslim-Americans are preparing to be visited by possible armed protests at mosques across the country. A small movement of self-described patriots is organizing a Global Rally for Humanity, which so far has resulted in 20 planned protests.

Certainly this movement of anti-Muslim American activism (which could also be called anti-freedom of religion activism, or even shortened to anti-American activism) has its foundation in a well-funded and organized Islamophobia machine and has been emboldened by the irresponsible rhetoric of Republican front-runner Ben Carson, whose bizarre ideas about the inability of a Muslim to be president made news last week.

While these plans are really horrible, my concern is compounded by the silence of the 500 religious leaders in the room with Pope Francis who prayed for peace and love of our neighbor. As my colleagues and I thought about how to cover this story of the "Rally for Humanity" we decided that we would cover it from the interfaith response. While different groups do appear to be mobilizing behind the scenes, the public condemnation from religious leaders and interfaith groups in the media and online seems pretty much entirely absent.

This is not to say that the people present at the interfaith gathering with the Pope are complicit, or that they aren't doing really good work in a myriad of ways. But it does point to what I, as someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about the interfaith movement, see as a seriously weak spot. Interfaith gatherings do occur around the country, often in very simple and beautiful ways, but when we need to mobilize against bigotry -- whether that is against Muslims, Jews, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus or Humanists (the list can go on) -- how well equipped are we?

Where is our rapid response, where is the determination to stand up every time someone uses religious identity as an excuse to hate?

One of my colleagues suggested that religious leaders and interfaith groups were waiting for mosques to tell them how to help. My feeling is that religious leaders, interfaith activists and your average citizen in each of the cities where "Rally for Humanity" actions are taking place should be showing the initiative and reaching out, asking how they can help.

The Parliament of the World's Religions is set to meet just a week after the "Rally for Humanity." This interfaith gathering, that has its beginnings in 1892, brings together religious people from around the world to talk about peaceful cooperation on important issues of our day such as gender and the environment. But again, if this is a gathering where people talk and feel good and go home and do not organize and commit to standing up to hate when it occurs, even when it means standing up to people of our own tradition, then it probably is not worth the plane ticket.

When a protest was planned against a Phoenix mosque in May, a large group responded with people on the ground and online with the hashtag #NotMyAmerica. The time to remind America about it's own values is upon us again. Wherever attacks on other people use religion as a reason to hate, the interfaith movement needs to stand up.

The interfaith movement needs to be courageous, aware, vigilant and mobilized. As Pope Francis reminded Congress: "We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind."

The Rally for Humanity is just one example of many different ways that the religious divides are being exploited and fracturing our societies and our world. It is crisis time for the interfaith movement -- in America and around the world -- how will we respond?