“Let us not be blind to our differences–but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” J.F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States of America
Ambassador Azmat Hassan read this quote to summarize the role of faith leaders in a session entitled, “Faith in Action at the Crossroads, The Role of Faith Leaders in the Public Square Today.” The dialogue was part of a three-day Global Peace Leadership Conference hosted by the Global Peace Foundation –USA and brought together diverse individuals united by the belief that faith plays a central role in directing the future of the United States.
The panel included former Ambassador of Pakistan and adjunct professor at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, Ambassador Azmat Hassan, Rev. Brenda Mitchell, director of the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the White House, Executive Vice President at the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, James Patton and President of Vision Africa, Bishop Sunday Onuoha.
The panel emphasized the importance of religious leadership in building a society that acknowledges the principle that every person is endowed with “inalienable rights from our Creator.” Furthermore, real religious leadership emerges when faith is put into action to secure those rights for every person.
Bishop Sunday Onuoha, who leads the Nigerian Interfaith Action Association (NIFAA), an interfaith coalition of Muslim and Christian leaders who work together to spread the use of bed-nets to reduce malaria-related deaths in Nigeria, shared his experience working side by side with Muslim leaders to combat their “common enemy,” the mosquito. The interfaith coalition has raised bed-net use from 18% to 75% over the course of a year. Bishop Sunday concluded “Even in doctrine, even in the same denomination, you will not get agreement, but we come together when we have a common enemy.”
Brenda Williams, director of the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships shared an initiative that the center has started with universities to foster interfaith action. Over 400 universities have signed on. Presidents of schools say that the initiative has helped with recruitment and retention, because it acknowledges that they value more than just academic performance. Moreover, the initiative illustrates the power of collective interfaith action rather than disparate, self-serving efforts. “Let’s get together and get to work,” Mrs. Williams said. “Put your heart and head into action and let’s get some of the hard work done in our communities.”
James Patton, Vice President of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy travels to areas such as Colombia and Pakistan facilitating dialogue between leaders of conflicting religious groups. He described religious leaders as people who “serve from the bottom up and provide alternative expressions of love and collaboration.” This holds particular significance in the increasingly polarized political landscape of the United States.
The United States stands at a defining crossroads. It can find a renewed conviction in its founding ideals and lead in the world, or it can continue to lose ground internationally as it remains in political deadlock. Mr. Patton commented on the waning international perception of the United States. “Despite what we would wish, frankly when people see the U.S. flag pulled up or they look at the United States what they think of are two characteristics, consumerism and militarism.” Bishop Sunday made a biting observation that the United States is responsible over educating the minds of international students and failing to recognize God. He connected the rise of corrupt and sometimes destructive leaders to the lack of moral education. “You give them scholarships but you don’t give them God,” he said in his call on America to take responsibility for this deficit.
As the panelists spoke, it became apparent that the authority of religious leaders comes from the principles that they seek to uphold and give substance through their example. The same holds true for the authority of a nation. The United States has been a global leader based on its commitment to upholding its founding principles. Thus, for a pluralistic society to work, and for the United States to navigate its way forward, the role of religious leadership is critical. And conferences such as the Global Peace Leadership Conference provide a forum to clarify these principles and construct ways to work together.