Making space for different faiths is important in a strong democracy

Essay By
Learn more about William McKenzie.
William McKenzie
Senior Editorial Advisor
George W. Bush Institute
Learn more about Chris Walsh.
Chris Walsh
Director, Global Policy
George W. Bush Institute

Author’s note

This essay was originally drafted weeks in advance of Hamas’ attack on Israel. While our focus in this series remains an exploration of American pluralism, we realized this topic of religion, as well as domestic debates surrounding Israel and Palestine, connect our commentary to these current events, even if unplanned. As such, we wanted to address a few points at the outset.

Carnage continues in the Mideast after Hamas – an organization devoted to the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people – launched a surprise terror attack on Israeli citizens. Families have been left mourning the loss of their loved ones, while already tenuous political relationships in the region are being undermined. In the aftermath of Israel’s response to Hamas’ violence, however, political leaders in the Mideast as well as here in the United States should be committed to the long-term aspiration of building a durable peace between Israelis and Palestinians that allows both sides to coexist with dignity.

Efforts to bridge divides between Israelis and Palestinians (versus Hamas or Hezbollah) aren’t fantasy. For example, the OneVoice Movement has existed since 2002 and is working to do this very thing. In an interview on The Strategerist podcast, OneVoice Movement’s founder Daniel Lubetzsky shared the story of Awad Darawshe, an Arab-Israeli paramedic of Palestinian descent, who sacrificed his life to treat injured Israeli Jews during the October 7 terror attacks.

We also recognize that at least in the short-term, the present conflict will continue as the Israeli government seeks to dismantle Hamas’ terror infrastructure. Once that effort runs its course, and assuming Hamas’ capability for violence is sufficiently neutralized, the best path forward in the region and the wider world rests on a greater understanding of the need for pluralism, especially religious pluralism, in our individual and collective lives. And make no mistake, building such a culture will be the hard work of decades, perhaps more. But we are convinced it is the only path forward that eschews violence and oppression.

Tolerance of this kind stands as an alternative to extremism and a deterrent for radicalization. As we wrote in our introductory essay for The Pluralism Challenge, the concept provides space for people to express their views and practice their beliefs within the rule of law without reprisal, even when those views and practices conflict with those of others.

So, after watching the devastating outcome of Hamas’ attacks and the subsequent turmoil that has arisen, we debated whether or not it would be appropriate to release this piece now. Ultimately, we decided that we should publish it because religious pluralism and pluralism more broadly are part of the solutions to addressing the violence, challenges, and tragedies in our country and world. To that point, we’re reminded of wisdom imparted to us by New York Times columnist David French during a past interview in which he said, “…pluralism and classical liberalism are the greatest civil war avoidance mechanisms ever created by the mind of man.”

The building blocks of religious pluralism

Actively listening to those with whom we disagree. Presenting and discussing beliefs respectfully. Equipping young people with the skills of listening and engaging respectfully. Collaborating on common projects. Effectively leading fellow believers away from any bigotry. Developing relationships, including business ties. Recognizing the citizenship of others.

These are the essentials of religious pluralism, and they are evident in the work of the believers from very different traditions who comprise the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network (MFNN). They offer an antidote to the upheaval we see unfolding in newspaper headlines, on television networks, and through social media channels.

This multifaith network of self-declared “unlikely allies” offers an alternative to a dark perception of “the other.” Participants in the organization meet regularly in conferences to hear from speakers like Rabbi David Saperstein, a former U.S. Ambassador of International Religious Freedom; Dr. Bob Roberts, a Baptist pastor and President of the Institute of Global Engagement; and Dr. Mohammad Al-Issa, Secretary General of the Muslim World League.



Their purpose is to explore how followers of the three major Abrahamic faiths can individually and collectively build peace.

In March 2022, for example, the organization sponsored a conference in Fort Worth, Texas, to showcase how people from varying traditions apply their beliefs to common problems. Pastor Roberts, whose church hosted the event, emphasized then that such discussions fall apart if one side believes the other is trying to convert them. Many among the faithful won’t engage if they perceive there’s a cost of compromising their beliefs or values in doing so. It’s essential to dissuade people of that notion. With that understood, the work requires a willingness to listen, he and others explained.

Listening is a term you hear frequently from those who are serious about engaging with people who hold different views from themselves or who come from dissimilar backgrounds. In our reporting for The Pluralism Challenge series, we have heard people repeatedly emphasize active listening, where one party genuinely hears the other person’s story.

“You are there to hear the other, not rebut them,” Darrell Bock, Executive Director of Cultural Engagement and Senior Research Professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, told us.

Listening provides opportunities for people to express their beliefs without fear of being attacked. Providing opportunities to be heard is an essential part of “practicing pluralism.” True listening requires curiosity, too. In addition to giving people space to share, it allows the listener to learn more about a person’s background and values, potentially highlighting ways the two are more similar than they think.

At the same time, multifaith dialogue doesn’t happen if the participants “skirt the elephant in the room,” as Imam Mohamed Magid told the 2022 MFNN gathering. Followers of the three major Abrahamic faiths particularly face controversial theological topics that could easily inflame divisions. The story of Mohammed is different from the story of Jesus, as Pastor Roberts points out. The concept of redemption may vary from faith to faith. And sacred texts may require practices that seem foreign or alien to those who don’t adhere to them.

Still, listening to different beliefs is the first pillar of religious pluralism. The practice can produce a powerful, even geopolitical result: Respectful listening is a first step in keeping differences from becoming a weapon for extremists. Believers can become “a fertile field for extremists in their own community” if they cannot live out their faith in their country or if they lack hope because their nation oppresses them, Ambassador Saperstein says.

“Listening provides opportunities for people to express their beliefs without fear of being attacked. Providing opportunities to be heard is an essential part of ‘practicing pluralism.’”

An equally crucial pillar is presenting and discussing differences in a respectful way. As an example, Christians and Muslims shouldn’t shy away from expressing their contrasting views about Jesus and Mohammed. Doing so in a way that explains a point of view rather than expecting agreement can defuse tension.

When possible, presenting and discussing differences is best done through in-person meetings. That way, Roberts says, you are not hearing about the perspectives of others from a member of your own tribe or the media. You are hearing directly from the person who holds views different from your own.

This relates to what the East Texan describes as the evolution of the four stages of multifaith relationships. At first, there can be contempt of “the other.” Competition between the two sides follows, then conversation, and finally collaboration.

The last stage – collaboration – is what matters to Roberts and is a crucial part of authentic religious pluralism. Collaboration occurs when followers of different faiths make genuine friends with each other and break through barriers, even while disagreeing on fundamental theological points. He described to us how his Keller, Texas, church raised money for a Lahore, Pakistan, mosque after floods crippled the latter city.

Working together on common projects is another key to breaking through barriers. A shared task brings people together despite their contrasting values. Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith America, contends that hospitals are one of the best icebreakers around. A patient may be treated by a Muslim doctor, a Jewish anesthetist, a Catholic nurse, a Hindu orderly, a Buddhist administrator, and an atheist. They all share a single goal: improving the patient’s health.

Commerce binds together people from different traditions, too. Creating business relationships allows us to see other people in a more complex way. As Roberts notes, dynamics change once people start buying goods and services from each other. They don’t necessarily see the person with whom they are engaged in a transaction as from a different religion or as “the other.” Rather, they see someone with whom they can purchase a needed product or as a customer to whom they can sell their own product.

Effective leadership certainly belongs on this list of essentials for religious pluralism, especially from leaders of individual faiths. Their platforms give them the opportunity and responsibility to speak out against bigotry and explain why discrimination doesn’t belong in their traditions. Leaders can show how to practice religious pluralism.

Roberts, for example, feels a particular responsibility as a pastor to engage his fellow evangelicals in building relationships with Muslims.

“The two traditions have a history of seeing each other in a negative light,” he told us. “We need to see each other as human beings and deal directly with each other. When you know someone, you are less likely to see them in a negative light.”

Creating relationships is a thread that runs through each of these pillars. In Roberts’ view, relationships lead to respect for one another, and respect leads to an understanding of one another’s citizenship. Understanding one another’s citizenship gets you to pluralism.

The point about citizenship is particularly important for people of faith who enter the public arena through political action, social media, public protests, or some other means. Professor Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary offers a guide for them as they enter that arena: Consider first whether you are entering that space as a citizen or one who believes they hold a privileged position.

The difference is important. Entering the public arena as a citizen puts each of us on equal footing. When we treat others as equals, we can have sharp philosophical or theological differences yet remain respectful of each other and appreciative of democratic norms.

“That will lead to a recognition that we share public space in a country,” Bock observed. “And that can shift to a discussion of the common good.”

On the other hand, entering as someone who assumes a privileged position based upon philosophical or theological conviction can lead to the temptation to dominate the other. An assumption of privilege can lead to an intolerance of others and, at the most extreme edges, violent extremism. “You try to make the world into a place it isn’t and won’t be,” Bock explains.

“When we treat others as equals, we can have sharp philosophical or theological differences yet remain respectful of each other and appreciative of democratic norms.”

One more key building block of religious pluralism involves educating young people about the necessity of religious tolerance. This doesn’t mean ignoring religious differences or assuming that all faiths are alike. Rather, the focus should be on helping young people at an early age understand how to present their beliefs, respect the views of others, and resolve to work on common goals with those who don’t share their sectarian convictions. Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, told us in an interview that he reminds leaders “educating your young people to an open-minded, creative way of thinking is a vital part of your future.”

Perpetuating this idea through our children benefits society broadly. But perhaps more importantly, it benefits our own faith traditions by creating a system where individuals can practice their spiritual lives without fear of persecution from the state or elsewhere.

When practiced, these fundamentals of religious pluralism can breed social tolerance among individuals and groups with different backgrounds, views, or beliefs.

The need for religious pluralism

Of course, putting the building blocks of religious pluralism into practice doesn’t happen easily. Eboo Patel reports in Out of Many Faiths that a friend of his likes to say that dealing with diversity isn’t rocket science; it’s harder.

Practicing pluralism is particularly hard when dealing with religious diversity, which involves human beings’ deepest beliefs about the world and beyond. There is no escaping that real distinctions exist among the world’s major religions. “Not only do religions differ in areas like doctrines, religion, and law,” Patel writes, “but the expression of one can sometimes be an insult to, or violation of, another.”

The opportunity for insults or violations to occur is intensified now that people of different and even competing faiths are no longer largely isolated in their own countries or regions. The modern ability and freedom to move from country to country means they often occupy the same geography, as Roberts says. This creates an immediate need for a deeper understanding of religious faiths.

Without a deep understanding, it is easy for neighbor to turn upon neighbor and for nations to spiral into religious conflict as extremists within one faith try to dominate followers of another tradition. As former Prime Minister Blair told The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute, “Anything that stands in the way of the freedom of your people to express themselves in the way that they believe is appropriate and right in terms of their religious belief, that is not just wrong in itself, it’s an obstacle to the development of a country.”

“Practicing pluralism is particularly hard when dealing with religious diversity, which involves human beings’ deepest beliefs about the world and beyond.”

Disagreements also exist – sometimes sharply so – within faith traditions themselves. Evangelical Protestants are in the middle of a debate over the direction of their decentralized movement, as writers like David Brooks, Russell Moore, and David French have chronicled. At the outermost edges, this split has led some to adopt a Christian nationalism that can boil over into violent extremism.

“The committed activist class is in a sense of existential angst,” French, an evangelical himself, told the Religion News Service in 2021. “To the extent you can relieve that, it will rely on an appeal to faith in a powerful and personal way that starts to remind Christian believers of the toxic effects of fear and the reassuring reality of God’s sovereignty – that God preserves and protects his people, not the Republican Party, not Donald Trump, not the Democratic Party.”

But, as French emphasized, putting religious pluralism into practice doesn’t require anyone to compromise their beliefs.

“Pluralism acknowledges the existence of permanent and profound differences,” he observed in a Bush Institute Democracy Talks interview.

Putting religious pluralism into practice

As hard as it may be to learn how to be a good neighbor, practicing religious pluralism can happen. That’s why we led with the encouraging example of the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network.

Beyond larger events, the organization hosts retreats to develop bridge-building skills. Participants are asked to attend three lectures, join in small-group discussions about any religious question they ever wanted to ask, and agree to five commitments over the next 18 months. Those commitments are sharing a meal, socializing as a multifaith community, partnering in projects, standing up for each other during a crisis, and recruiting other clerics to join in this commitment.

These practices have played out in real life. When a gunman held hostages inside a Colleyville, Texas, synagogue in January 2022, MFNN members were among the first to rush to offer aid and support. As Pastor Roberts said, his friend, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, was among the hostages being held.

Eboo Patel’s organization, Chicago-based Interfaith America, also stands out for its work in practicing religious pluralism. The Oxford University graduate and the team he leads operate from the conviction that religious diversity is one of the nation’s foundational strengths. They see their job as “unlock[ing] the potential of America’s religious diversity,” as he told us.

A primary focus of their work is on college campuses, where they have partnered with 600-plus universities to promote respect for religious identity, relationships between different communities, and cooperation on projects for the common good.

“When practiced, these fundamentals can breed social tolerance among individuals and groups with different backgrounds, views, or beliefs.”

The identity element is key. Patel, an American Muslim, contends that expressing one’s religious identity requires being committed to freely expressing that identity. As he explained in a Bush Institute Democracy Talks interview:

“Catholics have to have the freedom to start Catholic churches. Muslims have to have the freedom to start mosques. Evangelicals ought to have the freedom to preach the Gospel, should they want. Jews should have the freedom to host Hanukkah celebrations and not feel a sense of political coercion or civic or social coercion.

“The freedom to express identity also suggests something deeper, which is that everybody has a right to their identity. Evangelicals have a right to believe that Jesus is Lord and Savior, son of the living God, and no one comes to the Father except through Him. Muslims have the right to believe that Jesus is a prophet of God and not the son of God and not the savior in the way that evangelicals view Jesus.’’

Jews and Christians Together in Word and World is an undertaking that brings together scholars from Judaism and Christianity who are deeply committed to their own traditions and yet are open to dialogue with others. The initiative, which Jewish lay leaders Sandy and Camille Kress and the journal First Things launched, involves the scholars exchanging papers on fundamental religious topics like forgiveness and then gathering to discuss them from their respective perspectives.

Bruce Marshall, a Co-Chair of the group and Professor of Christian Doctrine at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, explains that the scholars are committed to exploring how their beliefs affect how they live in the world and how they relate to each other.

“We are trying to understand each other better,” he says. “The essentials to making that happen are a commitment to value our own traditions, goodwill towards the other that is motivated by our traditions, and deep intellectual in learning about each other’s faiths.”

Despite today’s situation in the Mideast, practicing religious pluralism can happen internationally. The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has attempted to build leaders who eschew extremism and value social cohesion within their nations. Through its Supporting Leaders program, the institute’s site reports, the organization has worked with local groups in Nigeria and Kenya to “train 172 trainers and facilitators, empower 361 religious leaders and reach more than 29,000 local community members.”

In our own North Texas community, the Dallas-Fort Worth Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council takes on shared struggles as well as issues that impact each community in the region. As one example, the relationships created through the council have allowed members to unpack with each other what terms like “sharia” or “Zionism” mean to both Muslims and Jews. Both Joel Schwitzer, Regional Director of the Dallas American Jewish Committee, and Mohamed Elibiary, a member of the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, emphasized to us the importance of those local relationships and conversations. They build resilience when larger international issues become disruptive, or national movements create tension between different groups.

Elsewhere in North Texas, grassroots organizations like Friends For Good promote religious understanding. The partners include members of a Dallas Unitarian Church, a North Texas evangelical church, an Islamic association, and a Dallas synagogue.

They meet over four meals a year, where they participate in directed discussions so they can hear from each other about their differences. The goal isn’t to eliminate or minimize their differences. The aim is to allow those differences to be expressed while listening to each other. And, as the title suggests, become genuine friends who have their own informal lunches and work together on common service projects.

“Practicing religious pluralism happens internationally, nationally, and locally, sometimes all at once.”

Thanks-Giving Square is a living embodiment of religious pluralism in the heart of downtown Dallas. Launched in 1976 under the late Dallas businessman Peter Stewart’s guidance, an interfaith chapel is the physical centerpiece of Thanks-Giving Square. The square itself is a gathering place, particularly during turbulent moments. When Dallas suffered the slaying of five police officers in July 2016, hundreds of people from multiple faiths and political views gathered the next day for a vigil at Thanks-Giving Square.

The spiritual centerpiece, if you will, is a devotion to developing a spirit of gratefulness among people of different faith traditions – or of no tradition at all. Throughout the year, Thanks-Giving Square Foundation hosts events and projects like A National Day of Prayer, Faiths in Conversation, and Faith Forward. The goal is to build up a spirit of gratitude among people from varying backgrounds, cultures, and faiths so they can come together to work through their differences.

Similarly, the DFW Alliance for Religious Freedom sponsors multifaith gatherings across the Dallas/Fort Worth region so attendees can deepen their understanding of each other and promote the value of religious freedom. In early October, the organization’s annual conference brought participants together to discuss such topics as religious accommodations in the workplace and religious freedom in the military.


These examples underscore that the fundamentals of religious pluralism are being practiced in numerous places and ways across the world and here in the United States. Each of these examples show us how to put these practices into work in our communities.

Of course, the larger society needs a healthy commitment to pluralism in general for religious pluralism to take root. If diverse identities can coexist in the nation as a whole, then people of different faiths will find room to express their beliefs without reprisal.

Cementing a greater appreciation for pluralism is why we launched The Pluralism Challenge series. The need for social tolerance for different and even opposing religious views is a major component of the larger idea of pluralism. The concept applies to the traditions and practices of those who fear violence or persecution, as well as to those who are criticized by mainstream culture.

And we recognize that some religious beliefs can promote exclusionary practices that may offend those who believe in the power of inclusion. That can be difficult for some to look past. Still, the imperative remains to learn how to understand and respect those with whom we disagree, including and notably on matters of religious faith. If we don’t develop those kinds of relationships, as Bob Roberts concludes, we’re all in trouble over the long haul.