Improving understanding and cooperation between diverse faith groups, including those of no faith at all, has been one of President Obama's key messages since he first took office. In his Inaugural Address, he stated that "America's patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness," and went on to describe America as "a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers." In his historic Cairo address, he committed his administration to building bridges of service between different religions.
Many politicians pay lip service to the importance of people from different backgrounds coming together. What makes the Obama administration's interfaith initiative unique is both a focus on concrete service projects and a commitment to achieving ambitious quantitative goals. Indeed, one of the recommendations in the report of the President's Faith Council (which I served on) is to scale and strengthen interfaith service initiatives in 40 American cities and across 500 institutions of higher education. White House officials have moved quickly on this agenda, hosting a convention of over 100 higher education leaders earlier this summer and announcing plans to launch interfaith service initiatives in eight to 10 U.S. cities beginning this fall.
Once considered a ceremonial activity reserved for leaders of religious denominations or experts in theology, interfaith cooperation is fast becoming a movement focused on social impact that involves everyone.
In the twenty-first century, faith can be a bomb of destruction, a barrier of division or a bridge of cooperation.
The stories of religion as a bomb of destruction are on the front pages of the newspaper every morning. The suicide attacks in Baghdad and Kabul are examples of religion as a bomb of destruction, as is the violent tension between faith groups from Northern Ireland to Nigeria.
Those erecting the barriers of religious division are less dramatic but still dangerous. Their work moves a diverse society in the direction of conflict instead of cooperation. The 'new atheists' like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens build barriers by claiming all religious believers are poisoned and intent on poisoning others. Those who hold with Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations build barriers by advancing the idea that different religions are inherently and inevitably at odds with one another. Those who draw a straight line between the violent actions of a few extremists and an entire religion build barriers by telling people that every Muslim -- their neighbor, their taxi driver, their friend from the PTA -- is a potential enemy.
The materials that make up the bombs of destruction and the barriers of division are not just physical; they are also theological and intellectual. They include advancing theologies that require believers to suffocate or marginalize those who are different; emphasizing the stories of conflict between religious communities instead of the stories of cooperation; holding up the worst examples of the other community and saying that these examples define the whole group; and paying heightened attention to the differences between groups while proclaiming that there is no possibility of common ground.
The forces building bombs and barriers are strong. If the idea of faith as a bridge of cooperation is to win out, interfaith work has to expand from a small niche of enthusiasts to a social norm that involves everyone. Indeed, just as it is now status quo for universities, cities, civic groups and houses of worship to "go green," so should it be the new norm for these entities to build bridges of interfaith cooperation.
President Obama knows the potential impact of interfaith cooperation, not just as a policymaker but also from his personal history. As a young community organizer in Chicago, Obama worked under a Jewish mentor to bring together Catholic, Protestant and Muslim groups to launch job training centers and educational enrichment programs on the south side of Chicago. He has lived the mission statement of the first Parliament of the World's Religions, which took place in his home city over a century before he became President: "From now on the great religions of the world make war no longer on each other, and instead of on the giant ills that afflict humankind."
Now he is calling on the rest of us to live it as well.