It could be easy to be cynical about Neighborly Faith and the organization’s interfaith conference that took place on November 1 and 2 at Wheaton College. It sounded amicable in a Silicon Valley “disruption” and “innovation” sort of way, how to promote pluralism and outreach between America’s Christian and Muslim communities. In the age of President Donald Trump and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, cynicism abounds. But founders and co-directors Chris Stackaruk and Kevin Singer were well aware of that and ready for the skepticism that lay ahead of them.
The pair insist the project is not about Trump. “We started it when Obama was president, we saw it as a church issue,” Singer said. “We seem equipped and called to help the church engage faithfully with their religious neighbors in a way that really shows the love of Christ.”
But support for their work from some circles is certainly about the president. “A lot of progressives that support us didn’t necessarily believe that conservatives mattered until Trump won,” Stackaruk said.
“We don’t talk about immigration,” he said. “We talk about who’s here now, because there are plenty of people here now to love.”
Things got off the ground for them in 2015. Singer explained, “We would just have these talks where Chris would tell me about his experiences in the Middle East, and I would tell him about my experiences teaching world religion to community college students,” adding that “it felt as if God had really shaped us to speak to the church, the evangelical church, about these things.”
While Singer and Stackaruk weren’t at liberty to name the conference’s primary sponsor, they stated that “it was a private donor who believes very strongly in the importance of evangelical-Muslim friendship as one component to addressing our polarized society.”
“We’re kind of doing public theology,” Stackaruk said.
In Wheaton College’s Barrows Auditorium, I saw a group that hoped to be the future leaders of American evangelicalism. College kids—mostly female, mostly white—sat in scattered clumps, displaying an eerie fresh-faced wholesomeness as they leaned in to learn how to be better neighbors to Muslims in America. That audience featured the usual evangelical Protestant suspects: representatives from InterVarsity Press and Michigan’s Western Theological Seminary, students from Taylor University and Gordon College, and elsewhere. Most had been invited for their involvement with campus ministries, such as Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ).
It’s no secret that evangelicals like trendy ministries, and what could be more trendy for a new generation looking to differentiate themselves from the old guard than reaching out to Muslims? While Muslims still barely make up roughly a single percent of the US population, debate and concerns about their presence in America often outpace their demographics.
But according to Singer, “With Neighborly Faith, we don’t play identity politics. We don’t go down that road; we don’t use that language; we really focus on the simple power of friendship.”
The Foundation of Friendship
Matthew Kaemingk, an assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary and the associate dean of Fuller Texas in Houston, led the weekend with a survey of European and American responses to growing Muslim populations and an introduction to what he termed “Kuyperean Christian pluralism.”
Named for the notable Dutch politician and theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), Kuyperean Christian pluralism begins with the premise that if Jesus is King of everyone, then the church and believers are not. “To use political power to rule over other religions would be to take Christ’s throne away,” and would be to say, “Jesus needs me.” Faithful honoring of Christ’s kingship, Kaemingk argued, means accepting that the political realm is entirely contingent on and in God’s hands, which leaves you with the task of loving your neighbor through hospitality. This understanding was embodied in Kaemingk’s statement that “Christ is glorified when you defend a mosque.”
Kaemingk set up one of the weekend’s takeaways, sounding similar to American Conservative blogger Rod Dreher: “As time goes on, we’ll find we’re more happy to have Muslim neighbors than secular neighbors.” Later, during our interview, Kaemingk added, “The assumption in the room is that the future of America is going to be one of deeper religious plurality, and that that’s inevitable, and that we as Christians have a responsibility to think about how to respond to that faithfully.” There is a pragmatism that informs this pluralism: “If I don’t defend the religious freedom, then that inherently endangers my own freedom as well.”
Someone and something builds the public square and sets the terms on which we participate in it. Kaemingk thinks it is globalism itself—the hegemony of Hollywood, and finance, and the consumer market, the entirety of secular liberal “culture.” Mixing metaphors, the ship of state is relatively small and powerless in that ocean, and Kaemingk believes we will not be able to find relief in politics alone: we must look to faithfulness and friendship.
Grace on Display
If Kaemingk addressed and admonished the conference as an evangelical insider, Saturday’s keynote by Shadi Hamid provided an outsider’s perspective. Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Providence contributor, argued that our differences are an opportunity for grace to be on display and for democracy to work.
“There’s a liberal faith, in America, but also in Europe, you hear time and time again, that we’re all basically the same,” he said, rejecting it. “Democracy and democratic life, in general, is inherently conflictual; conflict is part of being alive.”
Surprisingly, though a Muslim, Hamid also favors a Kuyperean approach to situating politics. “If perfection is not possible here, but only in the next life, then perfection is not possible in the here and now. It allows us to lower the stakes,” he said. “We don’t need to have final victories in this world.”
Hamid, too, sees the potential for religious conservatives to make common cause in the face of increasing secularization. “People who come from a secular background, they see religiosity in the public sphere as a challenge,” he said. “Wokeness has become a kind of religion.”
The Challenge Ahead
The call to action (Make Muslim friends! Love your Muslim neighbor) might seem simplistic. But everyone involved was on the same page about the significant issues presented at Neighborly Faith and the challenges that lay ahead. Stackaruk compared civil society to a quilt and said Neighborly Faith’s goal was to equip the future leaders of evangelicalism to embrace differences and the opportunity for dialogue.
“We really don’t think that the people right now preaching pluralism are able to knit it together,” he said. “It excludes conservatives. I think it elevates a lot of progressive causes that are excluding to many, many people. And I see students like this being the ones that can knit together consensus around important policy issues.”
But the most challenging question remains, even if consensus around important policy issues is possible: Can there be a common good if we abandon a common source defining that goodness?