Church Interfaith Outreach in 2019

One of the most common topics featured on the Church’s news sites this year has been interfaith outreach by Church leaders and members. A list of articles includes:

That’s 22 posts about interfaith events and initiatives being featured on the main news outlets of the Church this year alone. Granted, a few of them are different coverage of the same event or updates to the Church’s ongoing efforts, but this still represents a sustained effort on the part of the Church, both from the top and at the local levels, to engage in interfaith events and service projects.

One of the most significant trends shown in this list is that over one third of these news reports focus on efforts to build connections to Muslim communities around the world. Most frequently, they referenced the Church’s efforts to offer consolation and aid to help rebuild after the tragic shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand. President Russell M. Nelson highlighted this during this October General Conference, noting that: “We had the honor of meeting with imams from two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. … Our meeting with these Muslim leaders was filled with tender expressions of brotherhood.”[1] There are, however, several other events focusing on positive relationships with Muslims as well, such as involvement in an interfaith Iftar in Singapore, local efforts by Church members in Tennessee and Georgia, and Church leaders recently hosting an important Muslim leader in Utah. Building bridges with Muslim communities seems to be an ongoing trend in recent years, and one that I hope continues. In a world where Islamic interactions with the West are often filled with mistrust and fear on both sides, these types of positive initiatives are incredibly important.

Why all of this effort into interfaith outreach? Some people might be surprised to see this much effort by the Church in cooperating with competing religions. One possible (but cynical) explanation was given by two scholars during the 1980s:

The Mormons’ claim to exclusive truth as the restored church is one of those core beliefs which militates against the ecumenical spirit. No matter how this position might be softened by conceding the possession of partial truths in other religions, Mormonism, in order to remain true to its original premise, must conclude that every other religion in the world is ultimately in error. Any ecumenical cooperation between the Mormon Church and other religious bodies is most likely to be viewed by Mormons as primarily an opportunity for them to accomplish some missionary work or to generate favorable publicity for the church.[2]

While there are some shades of difference between the terms ecumenical and interfaith, it is possible that these twin motivations of good publicity and missionary work underlie the Church’s interfaith efforts. Jana Riess suggested a similar motivation earlier this year when she included a profound emphasis on interfaith outreach and cooperation from top LDS authorities as one of “20 changes the new Mormon president has made to appeal to Millennials and Generation Z.”[3] Missionary work, good publicity, and retention are all possible explanations for Church leaders engaging in interfaith outreach and cooperation.

One of the main reasons given for engaging in interfaith efforts by Church leaders themselves, however, is that other religious organizations often share similar goals and beliefs with our Church. When President Nelson visited the Vatican this spring, he said that: “The differences in doctrine are real. They are important. But they are not nearly as important as things we have in common.”[4] During his meeting with Pope Francis, they focused on discussing common goals like strengthening families, humanitarian aid projects, and religious freedom. When Elder Quentin L. Cook spoke to Jews and Latter-day Saints in Jerusalem this summer, he discussed four areas of common ground in order to “seek understanding and build respect between our two communities.”[5] Similarly, at a historic Iftar event with Muslims in Singapore, Elder David F. Evans said that: “If we seek understanding and take time to look closely, there are many things that can and do bring us together. When observed with charity and understanding, these intersections of faith, practice, and custom can and will bring a feeling of unity and purpose.”[6] One specific principle he mentioned was fasting and donating money to help the poor and needy. President Thomas S. Monson once summarized this concept of finding similarities and working together when he said: “We have a responsibility … to work cooperatively with other churches and organizations. My objective is … that we eliminate the weakness of one standing alone and substitute it for the strength of people working together.”[7]

A second reason that is sometimes cited by Church leaders for engaging in dialogue with other faiths is that there are important lessons to be learned from people of other faiths. Joseph Smith once said that: “if the “Presbyterians [have] any truth embrace that. [Same for the] Baptist. Methodist &c. get all the good in the world. [and you will] come out a pure Mormon.”[8] When President Brigham Young’s son attended school in the eastern United States, he told him that he had no problem with his attending an Episcopal service, and “on the contrary, I would like to have you attend, and see what they can teach you about God and Godliness more than you have already been taught.”[9] In each of these cases, an important Church leader expressed his belief that we can learn lessons through engaging with other faiths.

Another major reason that Church leaders have stated for why they engage in interfaith efforts is a commitment to Christian love, kindness, and courtesy. Joseph Smith taught that: “the enquiry is frequently made of me, ‘Wherein do you differ from others in your religions views?’ In reality and essence we do not differ so far in our religious views but that we could all drink into one principle of love.”[10] Looking to a more recent time, President Gordon B. Hinckley has been noted as a particularly important figure in encouraging Latter-day Saints to seek friendship, display kindness, and to respect people with different beliefs.[11] During one of his first addresses as president of the Church, Gordon B. Hinckley stated that: “There is so great a need for civility and mutual respect among those of differing beliefs and philosophies. … We live in a world of diversity. We can and must be respectful toward those with whose teachings we may not agree.”[12] Elder Quentin L. Cook likewise once said that: “Respectful and sincere interfaith service not only builds our communities but also enables us to collectively and individually grow in our love of God and His children.”[13] Love for our fellow daughters and sons of God is an important reason to engage in interfaith dialogue and cooperation.

While we have seen an intensification of the Church’s involvement in interfaith initiatives under President Russell M. Nelson, this sort of thing is an ongoing commitment of the Church. President Nelson himself has displayed a long-term commitment to interfaith dialogue and activities, participating in the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions and giving several talks in general conference over the years that discuss the need to respect, listen to, and interact with people and organizations of other faiths. There are several reasons that may motivate our Church’s leaders to engage in these types of activities, but we also see grassroots-level initiatives of Church members on display in the list above. In a world more often divided and prone to conflicts than peace, seeing interfaith activities being initiated on all levels of the Church is heartening to me as a path towards greater understanding and peace.

 

References:

[1] Russell M. Nelson, “The Second Great Commandment,” CR October 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/10/46nelson?lang=eng.

[2] Gordon Shepherd and Gary Shepherd, “Mormonism in Secular Society: Changing Patterns in Official Ecclesiastical Rhetoric”, Review of Religious Research vol. 26, no. 1 (Sept 1984), 39.

[3] Jana Riess, “20 changes the new Mormon president has made to appeal to Millennials and Generation Z”, Flunking Sainthood, RelionNews.com, 18 June 2019, https://religionnews.com/2019/06/18/20-changes-the-new-mormon-president-has-made-to-appeal-to-millennials-and-generation-z/.

[4] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/church/news/1879-mass-held-in-st-george-tabernacle-commemorated-by-latter-day-saint-and-catholic-leaders?lang=eng.

[5] https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/elder-cook-jerusalem-transcript-june-2019.

[6] https://www.mormonnewsroom.sg/article/muslim-and-christian-faiths-join-effort-in-promoting-interfaith-harmony-and-unity

[7] https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/who-are-the-mormons

[8] Joseph Smith Diary report of Joseph Smith sermon, 9 July 1843, and Joseph Smith Diary report of Joseph Smith sermon 23 July 1843, in Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith, Kindle Locations 4599-4600 and 4718-4719.

[9] Brigham Young to Willard Young, 25 July 1871. Cited in Leonard J. Arrington, “Willard Young: The Prophet’s Son at West Point,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, V.4, No. 4 (Winter 1969), 42.

[10] “History, 1838–1856, volume E-1 [1 July 1843–30 April 1844],” p. 1666, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 13, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-e-1-1-july-1843-30-april-1844/36

[11] See Matthew Bowman, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (New York: Random House, 2012), 245-246.

[12] Gordon B. Hinckley, “This is the Work of the Master,” CR April 1995, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1995/04/this-is-the-work-of-the-master?lang=eng.

[13] See Quentin L. Cook, “Partnering with Our Friends from Other Faiths,” Aug. 9, 2010, patheos.com.

 

Additional Resource:

Betsy VanDenBerghe, “Becoming Better Saints through Interfaith Involvement,” Ensign December 2013.

8 comments for “Church Interfaith Outreach in 2019

  1. Hunter
    November 18, 2019 at 1:00 am

    “In a world more often divided and prone to conflicts than peace, seeing interfaith activities being initiated on all levels of the Church is heartening to me as a path towards greater understanding and peace.”

    Love that last line.

    This is a wonderful post. Loved seeing all those articles. It’s heartening to see what seems like real efforts to connect with other faiths. There is no doubt that many of our leaders and members feel a genuine kinship with our brothers and sisters of other faiths. I feel badly for the Church members and leaders who haven’t yet felt the power of such work. With time, hopefully the idea that “interfaith work is only for missionary work or generating favorable publicity for the Church” will diminish some. These efforts, including this post, help in that regard.

  2. SDS
    November 18, 2019 at 9:32 am

    Yes, this is a good post, and these are heartening developments.

    Here is a question, though: would it be possible for us to come to a point where instead of “this is the only true church” (or at least “this is THE true church,” definite article, allowing that other religions also contain a measure of truth), we might be able to see our church as one among many ways in which a God whose power and love exceed our understanding works in mysterious ways to bless His children? Or would that kind of more open and inclusive understanding be too enervating, depriving us of our story and our reason for existence? Maybe it would, in which case I think our interfaith efforts will inevitably be pretty limited.

  3. Chad Nielsen
    November 18, 2019 at 10:01 am

    Hunter and SDS, thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

    SDS, I am doubtful that we would come to the point that we give up the “only true church” idea. As you suggested, the narrative of the Great Apostasy and Restoration is pretty deeply embedded in the collective psyche of the Church as our story. There are still ways, I think, that we can look at there being a Church of God that is broader than specific organized religions (an idea that B.H. Roberts and a few other people have mentioned before), or at least that God works through more religions than just our own (what was it Gregory Prince said? Something like: “I see the hand of God in Mormonism, but it’s above my pay grade to tell Him that He can’t be involved elsewhere”). I will likely touch on that in an upcoming post. In the hypothetical situation where we do embrace more of a “one among many” viewpoint, we would find ways to adapt and embrace that as part of our story. From what I know, I think the Community of Christ is a great example of a Latter Day Saint religion that has made that transition and done okay.

  4. Nathan Whilk
    November 18, 2019 at 12:51 pm

    Will the Church ever renounce D&C 1:30? No, I don’t think so.

    Is the Church more and more being blessed by the vision, eloquently described by Elder Orson F. Whitney, that God “is using not only his covenant people, but other peoples as well, to consummate a work, [too] stupendous, magnificent, and altogether too arduous for this little handful of Saints to accomplish by and of themselves”? Yes, I think so.

  5. Not a Cougar
    November 18, 2019 at 2:59 pm

    Our stake leadership has put a lot of effort into interfaith activities, including hosting a Night of Thanks celebration. I honestly have not seen any specific positive impact from the efforts. Perhaps opinions of the Church in our community have become more positive, but I have no way of knowing that. We’ve also been encouraged to try to coordinate our service and activities with our local organizations, and, to be honest, we haven’t tried doing that at all. I think the main reason is that it’s not been necessary for the level of service we’re trying to perform, and that planning at a level that might require hundreds of volunteers requires a level of skill and forethought that most wards don’t practice. Not to mention, our activities aren’t really exciting enough that I’d want to invite another organization to attend (that’s more of a ME problem than anything else). In fact, we gave up on our big stake service activity where we had involvement from other churches. No official reason was given, but word is that members were tired of supporting it, despite the fact that it was a huge hit in the community.

  6. Timely & Well-seasoned
    November 18, 2019 at 8:03 pm

    A fascinating post and discussion. I’ve followed this topic for years and have come to these conclusions:

    1) For a church of ~16 million, we participate in a very small number of interfaith activities. It’s not a high priority for most local leaders, they’re not equipped to engage with other faiths, and there’s no church-wide push to do more in that area.

    2) The majority of interfaith outreach events LDS are involved in are one-off events with zero to minimal long-term impact. True, there are isolated examples of long-term engagement through local or regional interfaith councils. But look closely at the 22 links above: “church president pens note of sympathy to the pope.” a one-off “chapel tour and get to know you night.” “statement of support for shooting victims.” An apostle gives a speech to a small gathering in Jerusalem. Etc. Very few if any of those 22 examples will have made any real impact on anyone. They aren’t structural or systemic or long-term efforts designed to teach or change minds or hearts. Imagine, by contrast, if the Ensign had a regular column on what other faith traditions actually believe and practice. That could be more impactful than those 22 PR links put together.

  7. lastlemming
    November 19, 2019 at 10:53 pm

    Will the Church ever renounce D&C 1:30? No, I don’t think so.

    But it could repunctuate it by omitting a comma between earth and with. The punctuation is not part of the handwritten revelation. Actually, if it were up to me, I would render the verse as follows:

    Original

    And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually

    Lemmingese

    And also that those to whom these commandments were given might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness–the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth with which I, the Lord, am well pleased (speaking unto the church collectively and not individually).

    This leaves room for other true and living churches, which I interpret to mean churches that can deliver what they promise and adapt to changing circumstances. But the Lord remains “well-pleased” with this church because it promises more; i.e., exaltation.

  8. Chad Nielsen
    November 20, 2019 at 9:19 am

    Timely & Well Seasoned, you bring up some good points. There is definitely a lot of room for improvement in the Church around this issue.

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