Brother, Where Art Thou?

The origins and development of the interfaith movement in America

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In contemporary Jewish life, the word "interfaith" is usually coupled with the word "marriage." However, the history of modern interfaith relations occupies a much broader plane, concerning itself with both private and public manifestations of religious tolerance and interaction between diverse religious groups. Over the course of the 20th century, interreligious dialogue has resulted in both fear and security, reinforcement of age-old values and lessons from new experiences. 

The Interfaith Idea

The idea of interfaith dialogue and cooperation is rooted in the liberal fabric of modernity. The same modern, liberal philosophies that led to Jewish emancipation (civil rights) encouraged religious tolerance. If all citizens were to be equal before the law, as modern western governments decreed, then the state could and must support a diversity of beliefs and opinions. How diverse citizens interacted with each other and the state varied across time and place.

The Interfaith Movement

America in the 1920s proved the time and place for the beginning of the interfaith movement. This may seem incongruous to those students of American history who remember the intense isolationism and nativism that characterized America in the 1920s. The decade after World War I saw the passage the 1924 immigration act that severely limited access to the United States, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the publication and dissemination by Henry Ford of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery that alleged world Jewish conspiracy.

And yet the 1920s were also the "age of goodwill." A sizeable number of American religious leaders judged the intolerance advocated by the KKK and others as un-American and un-Christian. In addition, WWI stimulated a sense of religious fraternity, as soldiers (and chaplains) of different faiths worked and fought side by side. Finally, many religious leaders realized that domestic harmony improved chances of more peaceful international relations.  

Interfaith activity in the past as well as today often centered around joint social-action or political advocacy projects. Protestant activists inaugurated this age of goodwill, coordinating efforts to improve industrial conditions, upgrade the quality of urban life, and foster international peace and justice.

interfaith movementThe Federal Council of Churches (FCC) was the Protestant agency that coordinated interfaith activities. The FCC invited representatives from Jewish and Catholic groups to participate in FCC-sponsored social-justice and research projects. These efforts sparked interreligious dialogue that led to the formation of new organizations dedicated to combating prejudice and promoting inter-religious harmony, including the FCC's Committee on Goodwill Between Jews and Christians, the Central Conference of American Rabbis Committee on Goodwill, the American Goodwill Union, and, finally, in 1927, the formation of an organization that continues to work toward community and justice to this day, the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ).

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Joellyn Wallen Zollman holds a PhD in Jewish History from Brandeis University. She was the History and Community editor of