Building Interfaith Bridges Both in Policy and Interpersonally

By: Elisabeth Stoddard

March 21, 2014

As a master’s student in Conflict Resolution at Georgetown, I was excited to attend a student conference hosted by Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institution in Salt Lake City on the topic of religion, conflict resolution, and diplomacy in relation to foreign policy. To kick off the conference, Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, delivered a thought-provoking keynote address which focused on how to achieve successful interfaith cooperation and dialogue in a world where religious divisions seem to grow stronger every day.
Aside from being a wonderfully charismatic speaker, Patel conveyed a powerful message— “No matter our faith or belief differences, we can all find some common goals from which to build bridges across religious divides.” These common goals can range from sharing stories about family life, to local community service, to more broadly working to eradicate hunger worldwide. Too often we focus on the differences which fuel divisions while overlooking the commonalities which could foster dialogue and build bridges. Even in the most heated situations, focusing on shared goals such as the safety of family or the wellbeing of the community can cause a shift to positive dialogue.

This powerful mechanism can be employed in conflict areas around the world, but could also benefit situations of political, ideological, or religious division here in the United States. Currently, Americans are strongly divided by ideology and feel that collaboration or possible compromise would weaken their convictions. This same argument is used in disputes worldwide, where often groups believe that agreeing to cooperate with opposing groups somehow surrenders their loyalty to their faith. Crucially, Patel disputed this by arguing that your faith is not compromised by working with someone of another faith; in fact, it becomes stronger. For the conference participants, a group of 60 students from various faith traditions—Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Muslim, Jewish, and Atheist, among others—this was a particularly salient message. During the many social events I found out that within these groups, not surprisingly, there was a wide spectrum of belief from the most devout, to generally religious, to questioning, and everything in between. Furthermore, participants came from a range of geographical, ethnic, and political backgrounds.

Political and religious divides could have instigated heated arguments and bitter stalemates at our conference given the group's diversity and task to identify gaps in current foreign policy and recommend solutions. However, this did not happen. After Patel’s speech, conversations buzzed about how he challenged everyone to accept others with whom they might otherwise disagree. One Mormon participant reflected on how he now understood that he could accept his newly openly gay friends without compromising his personal beliefs as a devout church member. Similarly, I entered into an open dialogue with students across the political spectrum about the “war on terror” and America’s intervention in Iraq. Even though we all had differing opinions, everyone listened intently, respectfully asked questions, and voiced his or her own perspectives.

This trend continued throughout the conference. Even when formulating our policy recommendations on such divisive issues as drones, terrorism, extremism, and the intersections of church and state, the dialogue never turned confrontational. I believe Patel’s message convinced participants to come together and collaborate toward achieving a shared goal. Within the conference’s theme of “How can religion be better integrated into foreign policy,” we were able to put aside our differences and cooperate to find solutions which could correct the absence of religion in our international affairs. For me, the interfaith and bipartisan collaboration displayed by the participants of the Wheatley conference provided some hope for America’s future in both our domestic and foreign policy.

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Building Interfaith Bridges Both in Policy and Interpersonally