WASHINGTON The number of Americans who view Evangelical Christians favorably closely rivals the number expressing favorable attitudes toward Muslims, a new analysis by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed.
Only 57 percent of Americans overall view Evangelical Christians favorably or mostly favorably a mere two percentage points higher than the figure received by Muslims, a full 20 percent lower that the number received by Jews, and 16 percent less than the figure received by Catholics.
The findings, released Wednesday at the first International Conference on Faith and Service in Washington, served to show that while some historical religious tensions in America have largely disappeared, challenges for inter-religious understanding and cooperation remain.
Americans have largely discarded their historical suspicions of Catholics and Jews, an excerpt from the analysis stated. But the news is not entirely positive other forms of religious discord persist and continue to pose a challenge for inter-religious understanding.
Dr. Luis E. Lugo, the executive director of Pew Forum, explained that such results highlight a need for continued dialogue, education, and discussions on the topic of religious tolerance.
The process of building religious tolerance in America has not been a smooth evolution; it has been extremely rocky, he said. The analysis provides enough good news to make [the Interfaith Conference] possible and enough bad news to make it necessary.
Other speakers at the conference challenged the 400-plus attendants to build bridges of understanding and focus on things that unite faith groups rather than the many conflicts that divide them.
Religious pluralism can bring us together in new and powerful ways, and can be an example to the world when we put faith into action, said John Bridgeland, President of Civic Enterprises and convener of the conference. The challenge is to enable each person to exercise their religious faith as passionately as they believe it, and to recognize that in each of our diverse religions there are common purposes that bring us together.
Rabbi Irving Greenberg, president of the Jewish Life Network, characterized the similarities in three parts: All three are monotheistic, believe man was created in the image of God, and hold onto the promise of God that evil will come to an end.
With so many similarities, we should all be friends, said Greenberg, who urged all people of faith to discover the image of God in one another as they strive for religious pluralism and tolerance.
However, he warned against taking pluralism too far and falling into an identity crisis.
I ask no one to give up their absolute claims but rather to be grateful for being a child of God, said Greenberg. You can go from pluralism to relativism, and I dont think thats right.
Were struggling to find a limit, he said.
Richard Cizik, vice-president of the National Association of Evangelicals, agreed that people of faith especially Evangelicals must find a balance between holding their distinct identity and respecting the beliefs of others.
Its not a contradiction to be an exclusivist and someone who respects someone elses faith, said Cizik. I adhere to the tenants of the Gospel in every respect, but I can still respect others and their faith.
Referring back to the Pew Forum findings, Cizik said he understands why Evangelicals could be viewed in a negative light. However, he assured the interfaith attendants that Christianity is not monolithic and that those who engage in angry rhetoric is increasingly being viewed as outcasts among Evangelical circles.
A great transition is occurring across American Evangelicals, said Cizik, who has been among dozens of Evangelical leaders taking up progressive issues such as environmental protection, poverty, civic engagement, and interfaith relationships. There is a saying that the right has to know what the far right is doing.
Evangelicals are undergoing a cognitive liberation and getting beyond the simplistic view that if Christianity is completely true, then those with other faiths are completely false, he explained.
Cizik, an ordained Presbyterian minister, also challenged Evangelicals to strive against coercive proselytism and warned them against becoming an offense to the Gospel.
It is one thing for the Gospel to be an offense and it can be but it is another to become ourselves an offense, he explained.
Do I want Muslims to come to know my Savior? Of course I do. he said after the panel discussions. But the manner in which we evangelize is in question. Go up to a point, and go no further.
At that light, Cizik exhorted Evangelicals to embrace the new type of interfaith dialogue that is taking hold around the world.
Interfaith dialogue as it has been done in the last 50 years largely by the National Council of Churches is dead and no one is interested anymore, he said. Today we are building dialogue that puts our deepest difference on the table, including evangelism.
What is the example of Jesus? He sat and taught not for the purpose of attacking but for the purpose of discussing and answering the deepest questions regarding truth, explained Cizik. This is what people want to talk about and this is what Evangelicals are interested in.