09/09/2013 04:00 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2013

A Stone of Hope: The Multifaith Movement for Justice and the Urgent Need to Move Freedom Forward

Religious voices that have exemplified a tone of division and exclusion, and advanced ideas of individual rights, have too long-dominated our public discourse. A growing body of evidence -- and a growing number of voices -- clearly demonstrates a remarkable shift in American religious life toward a more diverse, justice-focused worldview. The bourgeoning multifaith movement for justice is taking center stage.

A groundbreaking new study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) finds that 1 in 5 Americans identifies as a "religious progressive." And while "religious conservatives" currently outnumber them as a group, younger generations of "religious progressives" already outnumber their conservative counterparts. As the younger generations take their rightful place as leaders, there is every reason to believe that faith in our new America will have a new and bolder face -- a many-colored, gender-equal, God-loving (not fearing), and inclusive face as never seen before. It will be defined by our collective work for justice.

The desire is there. I've seen it firsthand. This past June nearly 100 American faith leaders from across faith traditions came together in Nashville, Tennessee for a convening called MountainTop. Muslims, Christians -- evangelical to progressive -- Jews, Sikhs, humanists and more; from different generations, races and ethnicities, joined together for an intensive three days to explore and move this movement forward with tangible actions.

PRRI's research bolsters this yearning we all felt at MountainTop. The study revealed a greater ethnic and religious diversity among "religious progressives" than among "religious conservatives." We saw that in the breadth of voices that joined the MountainTop conversation. The study also indicated that those on the spiritual left have greater concern about income inequality than any other group polled. This, too, we saw at MountainTop, as many of us voiced concerns about the growing gap between the rich and poor in our communities. Then, in the days and weeks that followed MountainTop, major events put theory into action, challenging faiths to speak up about voting rights, marriage equality, humane immigration reform, and of course the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin.

Among the participants at MountainTop was the Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis of Middle Collegiate Church. She had already led her congregation in the nationwide "Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath" to raise a call to end gun crimes in the aftermath of so many gun massacres. The morning after the Trayvon Martin verdict, her church donned hoodies, a heartfelt affirmation in remembrance and solidarity.

Like Rev. Lewis' congregation, and like Trayvon Martin's parents, millions of Americans turned to their faiths in the immediate wake of the jury verdict. Faith leaders remain at the helm, challenging misguided laws, such as the one that allowed an innocent young man to be gunned down with impunity.

This is no surprise. Faith-led movements have historically guided our nation toward justice. Leaders across faith traditions joined the call to support the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. American Baptist Minister Rev. Howard R. Moody founded the Clergy Consultation Service for Abortion in 1967, and with other faith leaders he created the moral imperative for women's access to reproductive health care.

Today, faith leadership continues to drive us toward justice. Pope Francis is calling us to care for the poor, and the "nuns" on the bus are leading us to economic justice and immigration reform. In North Carolina, thousands now continue to gather each "Moral Monday" to protest cuts to education, unemployment, voting rights, gun laws and more, despite hundreds of arrests. Thanks to faith-led efforts to show the full humanity of our LGBT people, support for same-sex marriage has risen by double digits in every major religious group since 2006. Clergy have steadfastly led efforts to dismantle laws that prevent marriage equality. When a Boston mosque was threatened by bigotry in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, a multifaith coalition quickly coalesced; and President Obama held a memorial service in which a multitude of faith traditions gathered together.

A multifaith movement for justice builds power from interdependence, listening, relationship and joint action, not from exclusivity and stigmatizing. One of the brightest lights in the PRRI research is that 8 in 10 "religious progressives," versus only 4 in 10 "religious conservatives," say that being a religious person is about doing the right thing and not about holding the right beliefs. These findings can fuel multifaith movements for justice as we work together across religious divides and lead the way to creating change on issues like income inequality, immigration reform, gun violence and others.

Auburn helped to host MountainTop to explore ways to elevate faith even more fully into the public square, and infuse justice more deeply into the faith arena. At that convening I was vividly reminded that when we work with the Spirit, our work is so much greater than what we could have imagined on our own. It is clear that as seekers of justice, we need a new architecture for a new world -- to borrow from Hillary Clinton. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope."

In my tradition we say, "So now, as worship ends, the service begins." Now is the time for religious leaders and faith voices to transcend religious divides and pursue bold collective actions to strengthen the march for justice.