Interfaith Prayer Meetings Face Opposition; Some Religious Leaders Fear Pluralism


Southern Baptist and Lutheran fundamentalists expressed opposition to interfaith prayer meetings last week, according to news reports in the Orlando Sentinel and Religion News Service.

Interfaith dialogues and worship services spread across the nation following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as religious leaders sought better understanding and promoted tolerance. Leading the movement toward pluralism was President Bush, who spoke positively about Islamic faith and met often with non-Christian religious leaders.

But now, some Christian leaders are reacting publicly against acceptance of Muslims and even other Christian faith traditions.

Dwayne Mercer, the newly elected president of the Florida Baptist Convention, told the Sentinel that he would not attend an interfaith meeting. Mercer, pastor of First Baptist Church of Oviedo, feared that his church members might think he believes "that all these faiths are legitimate."

The Sentinel reported that the Southern Baptist Convention "holds fast to its long-standing policy of not praying with others."

Another Florida Baptist official told the Sentinel that he would participate in an interfaith panel but not a prayer meeting. James Fortinberry, executive director of the Greater Orlando Baptist Association, said praying with people of other faiths "might be misunderstood."

Meanwhile in Missouri, formal charges were lodged against the president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod for his participation in an interfaith gathering after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to RNS.

Gerald Kieschnick was accused of supporting "A Prayer for America" worship service in Yankee Stadium that included Christians, Jews, Muslims and other faith traditions. His accuser called for the termination of Kieschnick's membership in the Snyod, according to Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod News.

Neither RNS nor LCMS News mentioned if criticism was leveled against Kieschnick for his attendance at a White House interfaith meeting on Sept. 20, where religious leaders prayed for the nation.

Writing in Sightings about her involvement in the White House meeting, Jean Bethke Elshtain, ethics professor at the University of Chicago divinity school, said President Bush "spent over an hour talking and praying" with a diverse group of religious leaders.

"I found it rather extraordinary that the single most ecumenical event I have ever attended had been put together by the White House," she wrote. "All Christian orientations were represented, as were members from the Orthodox, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim communities."

"A Greek orthodox Archbishop was invited to lead us in prayer," she wrote. "We all joined hands in a prayer circle, including the president. It was a powerful and moving moment."

One of the members of the prayer circle was James Merritt, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, which abandoned interfaith dialogue in the 1990s.

But the SBC's communications arm, Baptist Press, understated the meeting in two accounts. In the first report, BP listed 26 of the attendees, but failed to disclose that the religious leaders held hands and prayed.

In the second article, BP again avoided the worshipful nature of the interfaith meeting. It did report that Merritt and five other ministers were invited to a special closed-door session with Bush after the larger interfaith meeting.

Citing Merritt, BP reported that "the religious leaders stood in a circle with the president, clasped hands, and prayed." BP did not report who the other five ministers were.

White House media affairs spokeswoman, Mercey Ziana, was unable to confirm who the other five religious leaders were. BCE learned from another news source that two participants included a Catholic archbishop and a Greek Orthodox archbishop.

While BP may not have known who the other five ministers were, BP may also not have wanted to share with its constituents that the SBC president prayed with those from different faith traditions.

Opposition to interfaith meetings results from a fear of religious pluralism.

Pluralism has become a watchword in many conservative circles for what is wrong in America. Within very conservative Christian camps, any interfaith activity gives credence to the notion that all religions are equal and afford adherents multiple paths to salvation.

Fearing the positive press given American Muslims in recent weeks and Bush's call for pluralism, one SBC leader attacked Islam in a seminary chapel address. He said Christians, Jews and Muslims did not serve the same God.

Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told seminary students that Islamic theology "kills the soul." He said Islam "lies about God" and "presents a false gospel."

He made similar comments about Catholics a year ago on a cable TV program. Mohler said the Roman Catholic Church was "a false church and it teaches a false gospel."

In the emerging age of popular pluralism, the move toward tolerance and dialogue will leave fundamentalism increasingly out of step with American culture, a position which fundamentalists savor at some points. But fundamentalist leaders crave attention from the White House so much that they may tone down their anti-pluralism rhetoric to stay in the good graces of the Bush presidency.

Fundamentalism faces a tougher issue, however. Will it instruct its followers to pray for their enemies without praying with them? How can fundamentalists claim to love their enemies (e.g. Muslims) without being willing to understand them through dialogue?

Authentic Christianity teaches love for neighbor, whether friend or foe. Loving neighbor includes respect and dialogue, even with those of different belief systems and values.

Robert Parham is BCE's executive director.

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