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Interfaith dialog: Global encounters in local spaces

In November 1969, representatives from various mainline Protestant churches, together with several Roman Catholic priests and Jewish rabbis, came together to create a new organization, the Interreligious Council of Southern California (IRC-SC). The group’s purpose was to provide a forum for leaders across faith traditions to engage one another in dialog about issues of mutual concern, on a local, national, and international level. Many of the organization’s founding members had grown concerned over the parochial nature of the social witness of churches and synagogues, with mainline Protestants devoting much of their energy at the time to antiwar activism and Catholics focused on issues of abortion and sexual morality in the waning days of Cardinal McIntyre’s leadership of the archdiocese. For their part, Jewish groups were concerned primarily with issues relating to Israel and its fractious relationship with the Arab world. While the IRC-SC did not propose to mute the genuine social concerns of the various religious groups, the founders hoped that a broader social vision could emerge from a process of shared dialog and mutual exchange (Dart 1970a).

While the initial goals of the IRC-SC were modest, the fact that such an array of religious leaders were meeting at all was historic. During Cardinal McIntyre’s long tenure as the Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, little progress had been made in forming ecumenical and interfaith initiatives that involved the top leadership of the Church, despite grassroots efforts that had coalesced around issues of fair housing and civil rights in the 1960s. In 1970, McIntyre retired as archbishop and was replaced by the more moderate Timothy Manning, who was far more open to cooperating with other religious leaders on a range of civic issues. The full participation of the Catholic Church was a crucial step in the growth of the IRC-SC, which, in a few years’ time, would admit representatives from Buddhist temples, the local Vedanta Society, and the Baha’i tradition, as well as other groups (Dart 1976).

The establishment of the IRC-SC was only one example of the broader turn of Catholic and ecumenical Protestant churches to issues of ecumenism and religious pluralism in the postwar decades, but most especially after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) had cleared the way for the Catholic Church to more fully engage with other Christian churches and with faith traditions other than Christianity. Mainline Protestant churches had long been committed to ecumenical activity, but they too grappled with issues of pluralism and diversity in new ways, beginning in the 1960s. This deeper engagement of the Catholic and ecumenical Protestant churches with the ramifications of ecumenism and pluralism was global in scope, involving international church bodies such as the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches, and the influence of theological currents emanating from parts of the world where Christians were a decided minority, most notably Asia. As these Christian churches and their leaders became increasingly aware of Christianity as a global faith, questions about the role of Christian faith in a pluralistic world moved to the forefront of their theological reflection and social concern.

However, an important dimension of the encounter of the Catholic and ecumenical Protestant churches with a diverse and increasingly pluralistic world is the manner in which this engagement developed locally and within specific contexts that challenged the churches in distinctive ways. Los Angeles had long been known for its racial, ethnic, and religious diversity, but after the immigration reform of 1965 brought thousands of immigrants from Latin America and Asia to the city, the city was transformed, as were its churches. Despite the persistence of racial and economic segregation in the city, many of Los Angeles’ neighborhoods changed dramatically after 1965, especially through the rapid rise of the city’s Spanish-speaking population which was no longer confined to its longtime home on the Eastside. As centers of community life, churches often found themselves on the frontlines of demographic change which brought with it both opportunities and immense challenges.

These developments not only brought Catholic and ecumenical Protestant churches and their leaders into relationship with representatives from other faiths, but also involved a grappling with racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity within the churches, as new immigrant groups and changing neighborhoods brought rapid change to congregations across the city. Demographic change in the churches, and in the racial and ethnic composition of the city at large, led the churches in Los Angeles to build interreligious coalitions such as the IRC-SC, and also to pioneer new ways to minister to immigrant groups in culturally specific ways. Moreover, many individual congregations in Los Angeles remade their social outreach to correspond with the changing urban landscape outside of the church walls, resulting in ministries in which the traditional dividing lines of race, language, and even denomination became increasingly porous in the globalized space of the metropolis.

After its establishment in 1969, the IRC-SC quickly expanded its membership beyond the Christian churches and Jewish groups to include the Islamic Foundation, which represented the majority of the Muslims in Southern California, as well as the Hindu Vedanta Society, the Buddhist Church Federation, the Sikh Brotherhood, and the Greek Orthodox Church, among other religious groups. Meeting monthly with staff and office space provided by the American Jewish Committee and the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the group set out to engage in high-level dialog about moral and political issues of common interest for the leaders of organized religion in the region. Observers at the time noted that it was the most inclusive and diverse interreligious organization in the country, far surpassing comparable efforts in other cities, undoubtedly owing to the extraordinary religious diversity of Southern California (Dart 1973).

The IRC-SC’s activities often centered on educating its members about the multitude of faith traditions represented in the group. Meetings often rotated between the different religious organizations, providing an opportunity not only for interreligious dialog, but for a deeper immersion in the practices of various traditions, with the goal of discovering, as one member put it, “the genuine values of each other.’’ The clergy and other religious leaders who comprised the group even took retreats together, to strengthen bonds of familiarity and respect and to facilitate greater cohesion within the organization (“Interreligious council supports United Way” 1972).

Dialog and mutual understanding were not the only goals of the IRC-SC, however. The members of the group also sought to formulate an interreligious social vision that would speak to the common moral concerns of various religious organizations in Southern California. One of the first joint actions of the IRC-SC was a commitment among the members to support the charitable efforts of the United Way, an organization that was itself the product of an earlier era of interreligious cooperation. The IRC-SC also lent its political and moral clout to practical, even mundane, issues affecting member institutions, including pressuring the State Division of Highways to spare the Vedanta Society’s temple from excessive traffic noise resulting from the planned widening of a freeway (Dart 1973).

Despite the rather modest mark that the IRC-SC made on the political scene in Los Angeles in the 1970s, the group was not without its detractors. Many conservative Christian congregations pointedly refused to join, including members of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Churches of Christ, which was the sponsoring church of Pepperdine University in Malibu (Dochuk 2012, 326—361). Also rejecting an invitation to join the IRC-SC were the Church ofjesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, many African American congregations, and the Missouri Synod Lutherans. When Rabbi Alfred Wolf, the first president of the IRC-SC, issued a Thanksgiving message in 1970 “in the name of the entire organized religious community,” he was asked by a reporter whether or not the evangelical Christians of Los Angeles would agree. With a knowing smile, Wolfs fellow IRC-SC member, the Methodist bishop Gerald Kennedy, answered the reporter’s query for him: “No, I don’t think they would agree with that” (Dart 1970b).

The resistance of evangelical Christian churches to the IRC-SC highlighted the distance, religious and political, between conservative Christians and their mainline co-religionists. Although the rift between these groups began in the nineteenth century with debates over biblical inerrancy and the theory of evolution, and deepened in the Social Gospel era of the early twentieth century, it was once again pronounced, and politically divisive, in the 1970s. At the time, many evangelical Christian churches were forging new alliances with the Republican Party and grassroots conservative political movements, especially in Southern California (Dochuk 2012, 81). The Church of Christ’s Pepperdine University, for example, was an important center for this amalgam of evangelical Christianity and conservative politics, providing intellectual and religious heft, as well as a cadre of dedicated students, to the cause of advancing a political agenda very different from that of the IRC-LA, focusing on “social issues” that included opposition to the sexual revolution and the expansion of the federal government.

Evangelical Christians of the period were committed to “Christianizing America” through the implementation of a conservative political agenda that stressed resistance to the liberalizing currents of American society, including reproductive rights, the growth of the federal government, and the banishment, as they saw it, of expressions of religious faith in the public square. To this end, conservative Christians increasingly lent political and financial support to politicians who would advance a Christian agenda, through organizations such as Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority that emerged in the late-1970s (William 2012, 159-186). Although moral concerns were the most obvious feature of conservative Christian politics at the time, a broader discomfort with American pluralism also marked the movement of evangelicals into overt political advocacy. Fearful that the United States was rapidly losing its identity as a “Christian nation,” which they dubiously claimed had been the founding principle of the republic, conservative Christians mobilized politically in order to promote a civic vision that placed Christian morality at the center of national concern (Kruse 2016, 3-34).

Despite conservative Christian claims to speak on behalf of all Christians, many non-evangelical Christian churches took a very different approach to forging a moral civic vision in the period. In some sense, the model put forth by the IRC-SC, which stressed tolerance, dialog, and mutual understanding among different religious groups was not so different from secular liberalism, which often made tolerance the most important social value. The proliferation of human relations commissions in many postwar cities, including Los Angeles, was a concrete example of the role that government institutions had long played in promoting a liberal, inclusive vision of American society that extended to issues of religious pluralism. In Los Angeles, Catholic and ecumenical Protestant churches and the city’s large and politically active Jewish community were often at the vanguard of these initiatives, lending moral and spiritual support to the social project of urban liberalism.

Often overlooked in assessing the role of religious institutions in promoting tolerance of diverse groups are the explicitly religious dimensions of this type of social engagement. The global encounter of the Catholic and ecumenical Protestant churches with pluralism and diversity within their own congregations and in the larger world played out on a local level, inspiring initiatives such as the IRC-SC that attempted to put into practice a theological vision that made room for people of other faiths. In Los Angeles, this resulted in the formulation of a strikingly different civic vision from the one promoted by evangelical Christians in the same city.

While the IRC-SC was never overtly partisan, it often made its political priorities well known by engaging in advocacy on behalf of education, welfare, housing, and anti-poverty efforts, as well as providing educational resources for use in public schools in order to promote greater religious tolerance in Los Angeles. The organization continued in this decidedly low-key capacity of coordinating charitable contributions, addressing issues of common concern to the religious community, and fostering a deeper awareness of Los Angeles’ religious diversity throughout much of the 1970s. Although it never became a force for social change the way of more social-justice-oriented religious organizations, it nevertheless provided a framework within which a very different social and religious vision from that of conservative Christians could thrive (Dart 1973).

As the IRC-SC grew in size and influence, however, it did occasionally wade into more controversial political waters. In 1986, the organization promulgated a code of fair campaign practices code, aimed directly at conservative Christian candidates who explicitly invoked religion in order to gamer political support. Moreover, the IRC-SC’s campaign code called on political candidates to refrain from implicitly impugning an opponent’s morality because of difference in religion, race, or ethnic identity. In publishing the code, the IRC-SC maintained that “universal beliefs” such as love, honesty and respect for life “predatefed] the establishment of the Christian church,” and should not be claimed as the special preserve of Christian politicians (Dart 1986b).

The IRC-SC’s campaign code, despite being couched in general terms, had a specific context in Southern California politics in the 1980s. In 1984, Rob Scribner, a lay minister of the evangelical Four Square Gospel Church, ran an unsuccessful campaign to unseat Mel Levine, the Democratic congressman from California’s 27th District, which included the liberal bastion of Santa Monica. A year later, a letter that Scribner had written to would-be supporters was made public, in which Scribner claimed that Levine was “diametrically opposed to everything the Lord’s church stands for in this nation,” citing his voting record that scored a zero on a conservative Christian “report card.” The letter went on to suggest that conservative Christians unite to unseat Levine and “take territory for our Lord Jesus Christ.” In 1986, Scriber was once again the Republican choice to run against Levine, and the IRC-SC was deeply concerned that he would once again resort to campaign tactics that evinced Christian triumphalism combined with a thinly veiled anti-Semitism (Dart 1986b).

Representatives of the IRC-SC, including those from the Catholic and ecumenical Protestant churches, deplored Scriber’s invocation of Christian faith in order to unseat a Jewish opponent. They were even more concerned that Scribner’s tactics were becoming commonplace within the Christian Right, and made the decision to leverage their own religious influence to push back against political campaigns cloaked in the language of Christian faith. Not only did the members of the IRC-SC consider such tactics to be immoral, they also saw them as an existential threat to the civic vision that the organization was attempting to promote and which differed so starkly from that of Scribner and his conservative Christian allies. Rather than arguing for the United States as a Christian nation, the council instead suggested that the country’s truest principles were “religious and political liberty,” that was predicated on an acceptance of religious pluralism (Dart 1986b).

The civic vision of the IRC-SC was an early manifestation of a changing religious and demographic climate in Los Angeles and across the country. Religious studies scholar Diana Eck has written about what she calls the “new religious America” that developed largely after the 1965 immigration reform brought thousands of new immigrants, and their religious faith, to the United States, significantly recasting the religious identity of the country (Eck 2002, 26-89). The presence of a vast array of religious organizations in the IRC-SC, from Christians and Jews, to Buddhists and Hindus, highlights how much the religious fabric of Los Angeles was changing, especially with regard to non-Western religions. The early Cold War emphasis on “Judeo-Christian” moral values could no longer be taken for granted after the 1960s, as Los Angeles and the rest of the nation grappled with a new, interreligious reality in which dialog among diverse groups became vital to the liberal political project.

Although conservative Christians viewed religious pluralism with suspicion, many other Christian denominations embraced it, as their active participation in the IRC-SC reveals. Moreover, the civic vision that the IRC-SC attempted to promote throughout the 1970s and 1980s had deep roots in the churches’ own encounter with pluralism, both globally and locally. In important respects, therefore, the interreligious social engagement of the IRC-SC was just as “Christian” as the conservative social witness of the evangelical churches of the same period. For many Catholic and ecumenical Protestant churches, the best way to promote Christian values was to take seriously the contributions of people from other faiths, and to work together to promote social justice and the common good.

While the IRC-SC was conceived as an opportunity for the diverse religious leadership of Los Angeles to have a forum for mutual dialog and social action, Catholic and ecumenical Protestant churches also encountered issues of diversity and pluralism at the level of individual congregations and in Los Angeles’ rapidly changing neighborhoods. These local encounters would prove to be just as important as the work of the IRC-SC in developing a Christian social vision that embraced the possibilities and challenges of an increasingly diverse city.

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