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The Accidental Theist

Interfaith Relations: 5 Defining Events

From Nostra Aetate to Social Media
Important Events in Interfaith History
Published on May 14, 2010 : 2 comments

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Recently, I gave a presentation to a group of clergy about the complexity of interfaith relations in which I traced the development of the modern interfaith movement. As I was sharing highlights of all that has and is unfolding in the U.S. and our world in terms of interfaith relations, I was struck by what an incredible time it is to be living in. Some of the most encouraging and challenging interfaith events to ever happen have occurred in the past fifty years alone (just a drop in the sea waters of time).

Here are five of what I think are some of the most formative events to have shaped interfaith relations in the U.S. and beyond in the past fifty years—let me know what other events you think belong on this list:

1. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed the national origins quota system that had shaped immigration to the United States since its institution in the 1920s. The national quota system assigned limits to the amount of people who could emigrate from each country and disproportionately favored Western Europeans, with 70% of all immigration slots designated for individuals from just three countries (the United Kingdom, Ireland and Germany).

But that radically changed with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The new legislation removed the various nationality criteria, replacing them with an emphasis on family reunification and employment needs. In doing so, it enabled large waves of immigrants from Asia and Latin America—many of whom were Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist, as well as of many other religions—to immigrate to the United States. This immigration reform is often credited as one of the key reasons why the United States has become the most religiously-diverse country in the world.  View this legislation’s text here [pdf].

2. Nostra Aetate (October 1965)

Pope John Paul at the Western WallPope John Paul at the Western WallThis simple yet revolutionary document came out of the Roman Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council and launched the modern interfaith movement. Nostra Aetate (meaning In Our Age in Latin) explicitly addresses the Catholic Church’s relationship to several of the world’s major religions, including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, and invites interfaith dialogue, stating:

Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, together with their social life and culture.

Subsequent Church documents affirmed and clarified these relationships. This document had its greatest effect in transforming Catholic-Jewish relations. It repudiated the centuries old charge that all Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death and reaffirmed the eternal bond between Jews and G-d. Its issuance also caused Protestant denominations to re-examine their relationships with other Christian denominations and with non-Christian religions. It set the stage as well for future interactions between the Catholic Church and the mentioned world religions, including important public responses such as Dabru Emet, a pivotal statement on Jewish-Christian relations from scholars and leaders in the Jewish community, and A Common Word Between Us and You, a groundbreaking document on Muslim-Christian relations from scholars in the Muslim community. 

Now obviously, not all was hunky dory just because this document was issued, but you have to start somewhere, and this was a heck of a way to start. View Nostra Aetate here.

3. The Internet and Social Media

Chart of Social Media ChannelsChart of Social Media ChannelsThe advent of the internet and the flood of social media sites, like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, just to name a few, has enabled any individual or group to publish and disseminate their views and beliefs to a global audience and has several important implications for interfaith work:

1) It provides opportunities for anyone with internet access to participate in interreligious and intercultural learning and dialogue, regardless of where they live.

2) The ability for anyone to post any message they want means that we are seeing social media used as a vehicle to perpetuate stereotypes and spread misinformation. 

This forces us in the interfaith movement to have to step it up in terms of the types of experiences, information, and messaging that we provide online because there is an increased sophistication in the content, formatting, and distribution of online sites and misinformation by hate groups and other who oppose interfaith work. We also need to encourage people to critically consider the sources from which they are consuming information. 

Case in point, if you Google Jew, the third site listed (Jew Watch) is a white supremacist site—not my idea of a credible source for information about the Jewish community or on Judaism. For other insights on how social media is shaping interreligious and intercultural relations, read a newly-released report on this very topic by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

4. September 11

The modern interfaith movement in the United States has continued to grow since its launch in the 1960s, spurred by the increasing plurality of religions in our country. However, Jewish-Christian dialogues and encounters still dominated the movement through the 1990s. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks sparked a greater interest in Islam in this country and pointed to the need to actively work to include members from religions other than Judaism and Christianity in interfaith activities. As a result, many interfaith organizations have intentionally sought out partnerships with Islamic organizations and Muslim community members as well as individuals and groups of other faiths. However, we still have quite a ways to go until the interfaith movement is truly inclusive of the full spectrum of religious and cultural diversity.

5. Revival of the Parliament of the World’s Religions

The original Parliament of the World’s Religions took place in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. It marked the first time that religious and spiritual leaders from Eastern and Western traditions came together in a formal gathering to dialogue and is heralded as a watershed event in the history of interreligious work.

Its revival in 1993 in Chicago attracted over 8,000 attendants from across the globe and signaled to the world a renewed commitment by religious leaders, academics, and community members to interreligious and intercultural understanding and exchange. The Parliament continues to convene every five years, each time hosted by a different city, and is still seen as a formative place for the birth and convergence of ideas, relationships, and activity in the global interfaith movement. Read more about the Parliament here.

Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893

bethkatzBeth Katz is founder and executive director of Project Interfaith and a self-professed interfaith junkie. You can reach her at, find her on Facebook or follower her Twitter: @bethkatz.


Roger Fransecky (not verified) says:

May 24, 2010 : 14 years 4 weeks ago

Roger Fransecky's picture

How smart and encouraging…my thanks!

Anonymous (not verified) says:

January 14, 2011 : 13 years 23 weeks ago

Anonymous's picture

There is no point in having any religion if we mix them altogether into one interfaith. This is the true goal of the interfaith movement and it does not honor God. Working together on common goals is one thing, but to claim all worship the same God is heresy. If the differences of faith didn’t matter or had no weight, they would have been one faith from the beginning.