Too often, interfaith programs fail to attract broad participation and have little social impact. One major reason for this is that they tend to take place in an echo chamber of religious progressives.

Local and regional interfaith associations are typically made up of like-minded people from a smattering of progressive faith communities who periodically come together to tell each other how much they like and respect one another and how much they have in common.

Their annual conferences and dinner events tend to attract people who already agree with the interfaith agenda. They rarely reach people who harbor fears and suspicions about the religious “other.”

There is little, if any, participation by religious conservatives—especially evangelical Christians—or "nones” (people who have no religious affiliation).

Why should interfaith leaders care about engaging these two groups? For one thing, they represent sizable constituencies. Combined, religious conservatives and “nones” make up more than 40% of the U.S. population.

Even more importantly, both groups are implicated in some of the sharpest interreligious tensions in American society.

Consider the results of a July 2014 study by the Pew Research Center that gauged Americans' feelings toward members of other religions. Four of the eight groups that respondents were asked to rate—evangelical Christians, Mormons, Catholics, and Jews—received their lowest scores from people with no religious affiliation. (Atheists, a subset of the unaffiliated, are especially cold toward evangelical Christians).

On the flipside, the other four groups that respondents were asked to rate—atheists, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists—received their lowest scores from white evangelical Protestants. (White evangelicals are especially cold toward atheists and Muslims).

Last week, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne commented on the high degree of hostility between deeply religious and nonreligious Americans. He observed that both sides “feel misunderstood and under assault,” and lamented that “respecting each other on matters of faith and politics seems beyond our current capacities.”

This point is illustrated on an almost daily basis by faith-laced statements from conservative Christian presidential candidates and their scornful reception by elements of the secular left.

Without engaging the deeply religious and the staunchly nonreligious, the interfaith movement can do little to improve our current discourse about religion and public life—which, as Dionne noted, is marked by fearmongering and intolerance from both sides.

The Aspen Institute just released a new study describing innovative strategies for bringing conservative Christians and “nones” into the interfaith conversation. The report focuses on West Michigan, an area that has historically been a stronghold of conservative Christianity, but has recently seen a significant rise in religious diversity.

The West Michigan experience has interesting and important implications for other communities, especially mid-sized cities in the Midwest and South. 

Here are some key takeaways:

  • When interfaith events are held in houses of worship, conservative congregations rarely participate and “nones” rarely attend. To reach a larger, more ideologically and theologically diverse audience, interfaith leaders can partner with public institutions—e.g., museums, libraries, schools, theaters, and social clubs—and integrate interfaith content into their existing programming.
  • Some interfaith leaders advance the position that all religions are equally valid paths to the divine. This repels religious conservatives, who tend to have exclusive beliefs about the nature of God and the path to salvation, as well as atheists and agnostics, who have little theological common ground with theists. These groups are more likely to participate in dialogue that does not seek theological agreement, but rather mutual understanding and civility; or service projects that build a safer, stronger community.
  • Because many local newspapers are thinly staffed, they increasingly rely on community-contributed content. This gives interfaith leaders an opportunity to provide thought-provoking columns about tolerance and respect; diverse perspectives on faith; and news about interfaith events.
  • Evangelical Christian colleges are increasingly recognizing the importance of exposing their students to diverse cultures and viewpoints. Partnerships with evangelical Christian colleges appear to be an effective way for interfaith leaders to inspire dialogue between conservative Christians, religious minorities, and the nonreligious.

In our increasingly diverse nation and increasingly interconnected world, religious differences have tremendous potential to either enrich or divide us. If the interfaith movement is going to be relevant and impactful in the coming years, it must broaden its reach.

There’s no harm in feel-good discussions among progressives from different religious traditions, but in the current social context, interfaith initiatives that engage religious conservatives and “nones” would be far more useful. 


“1-in-5 Americans are ‘Religious Progressives’.” Public Religion Research Institute, July 18, 2013.

 “‘Nones’ on the Rise.” Pew Research Center, October 9, 2012, Polling and Analysis.

“Religious Groups’ Ratings of Each Other.” Pew Research Center, July 15, 2014.

“Five Facts about Atheists.” Pew Research Center, October 23, 2013, Polling and Analysis.

Dionne, E. J. “A Senator’s Faith – and Humility.” Washington Post, May 3, 2015, Opinions.

Noble, Jason. “Hopefuls Tailor Remarks to Social Conservatives.” Des Moines Register, April 26, 2015, News.

Obradovich, Kathie. “Who Stood Out at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Forum?” Des Moines Register, April 26, 2015, Opinion.

Gass, Nick. “Mike Huckabee: U.S. Moving toward ‘Criminalization of Christianity’.” Politico, April 24, 2015.

Yuhas, Alan. “How Republican Presidential Candidates are Getting Away with Denying Evolution.” The Guardian, May 5, 2015.  

Interfaith Engagement in West Michigan.” The Aspen Institute, May 7, 2015.

Swidler, Leonard. “The Dialogue Decalogue: Ground Rules for Interreligious, Interideological Dialogue.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 20, no.1 (Winter 1983).

“Interfaith Projects Build Respect and Unity.” Habitat for Humanity. Accessed May 7, 2015.

Image: A religious tolerance-themed graffiti by an unidentified artist on a city centre building in Bristol, UK, Aug 31 2009; Credit for photo: 1000 Words / Shutterstock.comEditorial Use Only.

Author, Joseph DeMott, (M.A. 2012 in comparative religious studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem) is Project Manager of the Aspen Institute Justice & Society Program’s Inclusive America Project.

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Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud

Comment from Robert M. Franklin: 

I appreciated Joseph DeMott's May 14 Sightings article on "Religious Conservatives, Nones and Interfaith Dialogue." His insight regarding the use of secular public space as a safe meeting zone for mutually suspicious believers stirred my own history  of attempting to foster such interfaith dialogue and worship. I would urge conveners to consider Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday as a time for gathering both diverse believers and atheists around common ground ethical principles of justice, freedom and peace. We tried this successfully in Rochester, NY and held our MLK Day service in the civic center, followed by an interfaith march downtown and a common meal donated by a local supermarket (Wegmans). Historically, that service was held in a local black church with a few progressive Jews and Muslims on the program. I challenged the planning group to 'de-parochialize Dr. King' by taking his legacy and our witness to an unavoidable public space. Initially reluctant, local clergy supported it and it became a powerful uniting moment for a wonderful city that was divided mostly by class lines. The local public television station even aired the broadcast reaching thousands who might never venture out to a downtown event.

DeMott has been an inspiring leader on this subject. Last year, I had the privilege of working with him and two dozen interfaith leaders guided by the wise counsel of Madeline Albright and David Gergen and the Aspen Institute leadership team. Together, we produced a valuable report that could be of great use to people interested in this topic titled, "Principled Pluralism" (not included in the list of references) edited by Meryl Chertoff.