Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Interfaith or Multi-faith?

Stanley Carlson-Thies


June 26, 2006

There is no official requirement, at least not yet, but the growing sentiment favoring interfaith efforts in the public square is cause for serious worry. Some officials think it is safer for the government to support interfaith coalitions than groups embodying single, distinct, faiths. They fear that groups that insist on independence and specific teachings are sectarian and prone to impose their beliefs on the people who turn to them for help. And if there is going to be a religious ceremony at an official function, then the more varieties of worship the better, lest it appear that the government favors one faith. Some corporations try to avoid the appearance of bias by giving only to ecumenical groups rather than single churches serving their neighborhoods.

Officials are right, of course, to promote collaboration in human services. Few groups on their own can offer the whole range of helps needed by a family or troubled teens. Many theological differences are of no significance for social assistance. Getting past artificial barriers and overcoming church empire-building may lead to better services.

It is good to be reminded that not only your own religion but also other faith traditions include a mandate of service. Recognizing this common grace, we can look beyond our own circle and create ways to cooperate in offering more effective help. Government officials certainly must reach out past Christian and Jewish organizations to seek out, equip, and welcome into partnership groups that are less familiar.

Furthermore, given our diverse faith and philosophical traditions, to thrive as a society we Americans need to learn to appreciate each other's beliefs and styles, how to honor each other when we gather together as citizens, and what kind of prayer and worship, if any, is right and true to God when the audience is diverse.

The faith-based initiative is challenging religion in America to become more public, less hidden. So it is ever more obvious that Americans are not simply highly religious but also highly diverse in religion. It is no surprise that government officials, commentators, and corporate donors get nervous and even worried about social divisions, sectarianism, and conflicts. Emphasizing commonalities and suppressing differences might seem the perfect solution.

But we should resist this solution. Groups need not minimize differences in order to collaborate. And what they share in common may not be the deepest or most significant characteristics of their distinctive missions and commitments. Religions may have commonalities, but the differences aren't mere theological frippery.

Of course, some people believe the opposite, and are convinced that common action flows from and should produce common religious or humanitarian beliefs. That view should be respected, but it must not become the required official belief system for the public square.

True pluralism, and the glory of the American model of religion in public life, enables groups to bring their passion and specific insights to our common life and common tasks. The reality that different groups all want to serve their neighbors doesn't mean that they all want to serve in exactly the same way. Requiring uniformity erodes passion, suppresses diversity, and robs us of alternative approaches.

It would be a great tragedy if, after the faith-based initiative has assured people of faith that their religion need not be sidelined as the price of collaboration with government, contract officials, lawmakers, and courts would subtly make interfaithism a requirement for those who want to bring faith with them into public life and service. The government must not establish religion, not even a nonsectarian religion of humanitarianism and service. Government may promote multi-faith alliances, but must not require an interfaith approach.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Director of Social Policy Studies
    Center for Public Justice


“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”