07/23/2014 02:02 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2014

The Power of Religion to Restrain Conflict

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Conservative thinker George Weigel (a leading "theocon," aligning theocracy and conservatism) is making the case that spiritual malaise was one of the causes of the start of the First World War. He argues that religion had been largely replaced by secular nationalism at that time, accompanied by a rise in racial theories based on the superiority of Slavic or Teutonic peoples.

In addition, says Weigel, Darwin's theories were distorted to support survival of the fittest, and the philosophy of Nietzsche glorified destruction and power. All of these trends diminished religion and its ability to restrain the urge to fight, and the result was the start of the First World War, exactly 100 years ago.

We are facing a similar challenge today, with secular nationalism again pushing religion to the margins of many societies. Over 40 percent of people in Israel never attend religious services, while the numbers in Britain and France are over 50 percent. In the Czech Republic, non-attenders exceed 60 percent of the population. In the United States, only 8 percent say they never attend services, but 25 percent describe themselves as secular -- the same percentage that is devoutly religious.

Still, even in secular contexts, people of faith can work together to encourage or discourage warfare. I give credit to Muslim communities in the U.S. for reaching out to Christians and Jews and extending invitations to participate in fast-breaking dinners during Ramadan. In California, members of evangelical Saddleback Church participate in a Christian-Muslim picnic every year, building bridges of relationship, and clergy including Pastor Rick Warren have gathered with Muslims at the end of Ramadan to break the fast together.

My congregation just joined the Turkish mosque in Fairfax for such a meal, and the conversations around the tables helped us to build bridges between our faiths and cultures. In August, I'll be taking part in an interfaith trip to Turkey with eight other clergy, Christian and Muslim. Both are signs of obedience to Jesus, who said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God" (Matthew 5:9).

Similar efforts are being made across the country and around the world. As violence has escalated in Israel and Gaza, an international campaign for peace has been launched, involving Jews, Muslims, and Christians. On Tuesday, July 15, a daylong fast was held as part of a public effort to unify people of faith against war and violence.

This campaign started in Israel and spread to England, before being announced in temples, mosques and churches in the United States. Steve Norman, pastor of Kensington Church near Detroit, called his 10,000-member congregation to join him in the fast after he learned of Muslims and Jews standing together for peace.

This is part of what Scott Cooper, an American Jew and a provider of Holy Land pilgrimages, calls a "massive grass-roots desire to end the fighting and live in peace," a movement that is critically important although rarely in the headlines.

Such efforts might seem like small steps, but small can be significant when it comes to war and peace. After all, it was the assassination of one man, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, that sparked the outbreak of the First World War. With God's help, many small interfaith movements can have the opposite effect, and play a role in restraining conflicts around the world.