Friday, August 16, 2013

Interfaith movement struggles to adapt to changing religious landscape

By Michelle Boorstein, Friday, August 16, 12:00 PM

The Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington is known as one of the country’s early multi-faith groups, and its executive director’s nickname is the “dean of American interfaith.” Yet as it approaches its 35th anniversary in November, the group is fighting for survival, down to two full-time staff members and facing more than $100,000 in debt.

The conference, which has a major fundraiser planned this fall and aims to restructure the organization and sharpen its mission, is hardly alone. Some of the oldest and best-known names in interfaith, including the National Council of Churches and the Chicago-based Council for a Parliament of the World Religions, have slashed staff as their revenue shriveled.

The Interfaith Conference is struggling, experts and some group leaders say, in part because it relies too much on clergy and religious denominations for participation and money at a time when many traditional faith groups are losing members and status as more Americans drop or switch spiritual affiliations and are less committed.

But in some ways, the challenges now faced by traditional interfaith organizations can be seen as a good thing, some interfaith experts and participants say.

Since the Interfaith Conference was founded in 1978, religious minorities have grown significantly in size and stature, and Americans now interact more easily with people of other faiths in their schools, offices, neighborhoods and even their immediate families.

In other words, more than dong interfaith, many Americans are living interfaith. This culture change has given rise to a burgeoning number of smaller, activist interfaith groups, some of which are only very loosely identified with faith traditions, if at all.

The old model was institutional big-wigs talking carefully to one another about theology. The understanding of what ‘multi-faith’ is and how to organize around it has broadened tremendously,” said Hartford Institute for Religion Research Director David Roozen, who has focused on interfaith research. “The dominant American attitude toward other faith traditions is indifference. . . . It can be a challenge for interfaith [institutions].”

Activist groups

Younger interfaith types today are more interested in activism, often in the form of focusing on particular policy issues. For example, some of the newer, small groups in Washington are Interfaith Youth for Climate Justice and Shoulder to Shoulder: Standing with American Muslims.

When these new, more activist groups are taken into account, the interfaith movement as a whole appears to be thriving. The Rev. Bud Heckman, who has been a leader of several key interfaith groups, said his research shows there are twice as many interfaith groups nationally as there were a decade ago. A recent Hartford Institute survey showed congregations are twice as likely to engage in interfaith worship today as they were 10 years ago.

“There’s a generational thing here. A lot of people are quite happy to be eclectic and take their insights from various sources. The interfaith councils we have now [the more traditional ones] solidify: ‘I’m no longer Heidi, I’m Heidi the Christian.’ I don’t think youth are interested in those boxes,” said Heidi Hadsell, who is president of Hartford Theological Seminary and has led several international interfaith organizations.


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