What is Interfaith Cooperation?

Present day America is one of the most religiously diverse societies in history. Look around you and you’ll see people with different histories, values, and beliefs. Different ideas of what justice is or why we’re here in the first place. We’re a nation made up of people with different truths interacting together.

Here’s the thing: this diversity isn’t a good or bad thing on its own. It’s just a fact. Oftentimes that fact is at the root of tension, conflict, and tragically, violence.

Pluralism, on the other hand, is a social achievement. It’s the “energetic engagement of diversity toward a positive end” (Eck, 2001) and it represents an ideal that people have worked towards since our country’s founding. As we see it, a religiously pluralistic society features three key things:

  • Respect for Identities – where people have the right to form their own religious or non-religious worldviews, express them freely, and expect some reasonable accommodations to live out their convictions. To respect someone else’s worldview doesn’t require you to agree with it or to accept it.
  • Mutually Inspiring Relationships – where there are conversations, activities, civic association, and friendly contact between people who orient around religion differently. Areas of both commonality and difference are recognized, but there is always some essential concern for the other’s wellbeing.
  • Commitment to the Common Good – where different people share common values, even despite theological disagreements, that support principles and structures that a range of groups benefit from and people generally agree we have a collective interest to uphold. Think safe communities, good schools, defeating poverty, access to healthcare, and addressing climate change.

Pluralism is a goal. It is an ideal to be upheld and worked toward. Interfaith cooperation is a way to achieve pluralism. It’s a process in which people who orient around religion differently come together in ways that respect different identities, build mutually inspiring relationships, and engage in common action around issues of shared concern.

Interfaith cooperation does not depend upon shared political, theological, and spiritual perspectives. People who engage in interfaith cooperation may disagree on such matters. The goal of interfaith leadership is to find ways to bring people together to build relationships, learn about each other, and participate in common action despite such differences.

The Interfaith Triangle

An easy way to understand interfaith cooperation is to picture it as a triangle made up of attitudes, knowledge, and relationships. According to social science research, relationships, positive attitudes, and appreciative knowledge are closely related to each other such that an increase in one leads to an increase in the others. If you know some accurate and positive things about a religion, and you know some people from that religion, you are far more likely to have positive attitudes towards that religion and that community. The more favorable your attitude, the more open you will be to new relationships and the more likely you are to seek out appreciative knowledge. Effective interfaith work creates space for people to move around the triangle, helping them to grow in each of these areas.

Interfaith Cooperation: Past & Present

Engagement across lines of religious and worldview difference has been an inspiring part of the American story since before the nation’s founding. In a society whose identity is largely rooted in its pluralistic ideals, and whose population has grown more diverse through its history, it’s unsurprising that engagement between worldviews has played a role in nearly every major chapter of social change. From colonial times to America’s founding to the civil rights movement to now, interfaith movements and leaders have propelled progress. Watch this video to learn more, and test your knowledge of historic interfaith cooperation with our Interfaith Literacy Quiz.

If you pay attention to today’s news, it’s easy to assume that the paradigm of 21st century religious difference inevitably revolves around conflict. Sadly, conflict and violence fueled by religious disagreement is all too common around the world. The United States certainly isn’t immune, but we also have a strong history of interfaith cooperation and committed institutions (including colleges and universities) that raise unique possibilities to positively engage the growing diversity that characterizes modern life. Interfaith leaders – people with the vision, knowledge, and skills necessary to create the spaces and craft the conversations such that people who orient around religion differently can have a common life together – are a key part of this. As more citizens make interfaith leadership a part of their commitment to American pluralism, the greater our chances of achieving that pluralism become.

In the end, interfaith cooperation is a way of moving America closer to its ideals, but it is also an act of citizenship. When you work to bring people into relationships, even when forging that link is difficult, you actively strengthen the bonds that hold our society together. In divided times, that citizenship is more important than ever.

Keep exploring to learn more about interfaith cooperation in American life, and see how colleges and universities are the ideal environments to make it a norm in this society.

Learn More About IFYC


What IFYC Does

Learn more about how we partner with colleges and universities working to turn religious diversity into a positive force in our society.

Introduction to Interfaith Leadership

Keep learning about the history and future of American interfaith cooperation using this free, video-based blended learning course.

Interfaith Literacy Quiz

These 10 questions test your knowledge of interfaith cooperation in diverse religious and ethical traditions.