One of the most common topics featured on the Church’s news sites this year has been interfaith outreach by Church leaders and members. A list of articles includes:
- January 17: “How BYU Is Creating an Environment of Respect and Understanding for Students of All Faiths”
- February 19: “Tennessee Young Women Build Interfaith Bonds with Muslim Friends by Holding a Ward ‘Hijab Drive’”
- March 3: “Latter-day Saints Join Other Faiths to Change Women’s Lives”
- March 9: “Prophet Meets Pope Francis at the Vatican”
- March 16: “Statement of Support for Muslim Communities and All Others Impacted by Christchurch Shootings”
- March 18: “Church Hosts Interfaith Musical Tribute in Tabernacle”
- April 18: “President Nelson Pens Personal Note of Sympathy to Pope Francis after Notre Dame Fire”
- April 30: “Florida Latter-day Saint Youth Host Jewish Friends during Chapel Tour and Get-to-Know-You Night”
- May 21: “President Nelson Announces Donation to Rebuild Mosques Damaged in Deadly New Zealand Attacks”
- May 23: “1879 Mass Held in St. George Tabernacle Commemorated by Latter-day Saints and Catholic Leaders”
- May 28: “Muslim and Christian faiths join effort in promoting interfaith harmony and unity”
- June 5: “Muslims and Christians in Singapore Collaborate in Historic Iftar”
- June 6: “In Jerusalem, Apostle Encourages Interfaith Listening and Learning”
- June 7: “Elder Cook Addresses Commonalities of Latter-day Saints and Jews in Jerusalem”
- June 30: “Apostle and Catholic Cardinal Speak at Freedom Festival”
- July 2: “Cardinal Dolan Speaks on Religious Freedom, Meets with Church Leaders during Visit to Utah”
- September 4: “Latter-day Saints and Other Volunteers Combine to Help Asylum Seekers in Albuquerque”
- September 24: “Muslims and Christians Build Bridges of Unity in Georgia”
- October 18: “FamilySearch Donates 400 Years of Digitized Catholic Records in the Philippines”
- October 25: “Church Leaders Visit New Zealand Mosque”
- November 6: “First Presidency Welcomes Leader of Muslim World League”
- November 14: “Muslims and Latter-day Saints in the Pacific Are Committed and Caring, Say Sister Eubank, Craven”
That’s 22 posts about interfaith events and initiatives being featured on the main news outlets of the Church this year alone. Granted, a few of them are different coverage of the same event or updates to the Church’s ongoing efforts, but this still represents a sustained effort on the part of the Church, both from the top and at the local levels, to engage in interfaith events and service projects.
One of the most significant trends shown in this list is that over one third of these news reports focus on efforts to build connections to Muslim communities around the world. Most frequently, they referenced the Church’s efforts to offer consolation and aid to help rebuild after the tragic shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand. President Russell M. Nelson highlighted this during this October General Conference, noting that: “We had the honor of meeting with imams from two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. … Our meeting with these Muslim leaders was filled with tender expressions of brotherhood.” There are, however, several other events focusing on positive relationships with Muslims as well, such as involvement in an interfaith Iftar in Singapore, local efforts by Church members in Tennessee and Georgia, and Church leaders recently hosting an important Muslim leader in Utah. Building bridges with Muslim communities seems to be an ongoing trend in recent years, and one that I hope continues. In a world where Islamic interactions with the West are often filled with mistrust and fear on both sides, these types of positive initiatives are incredibly important.
Why all of this effort into interfaith outreach? Some people might be surprised to see this much effort by the Church in cooperating with competing religions. One possible (but cynical) explanation was given by two scholars during the 1980s:
The Mormons’ claim to exclusive truth as the restored church is one of those core beliefs which militates against the ecumenical spirit. No matter how this position might be softened by conceding the possession of partial truths in other religions, Mormonism, in order to remain true to its original premise, must conclude that every other religion in the world is ultimately in error. Any ecumenical cooperation between the Mormon Church and other religious bodies is most likely to be viewed by Mormons as primarily an opportunity for them to accomplish some missionary work or to generate favorable publicity for the church.
While there are some shades of difference between the terms ecumenical and interfaith, it is possible that these twin motivations of good publicity and missionary work underlie the Church’s interfaith efforts. Jana Riess suggested a similar motivation earlier this year when she included a profound emphasis on interfaith outreach and cooperation from top LDS authorities as one of “20 changes the new Mormon president has made to appeal to Millennials and Generation Z.” Missionary work, good publicity, and retention are all possible explanations for Church leaders engaging in interfaith outreach and cooperation.
One of the main reasons given for engaging in interfaith efforts by Church leaders themselves, however, is that other religious organizations often share similar goals and beliefs with our Church. When President Nelson visited the Vatican this spring, he said that: “The differences in doctrine are real. They are important. But they are not nearly as important as things we have in common.” During his meeting with Pope Francis, they focused on discussing common goals like strengthening families, humanitarian aid projects, and religious freedom. When Elder Quentin L. Cook spoke to Jews and Latter-day Saints in Jerusalem this summer, he discussed four areas of common ground in order to “seek understanding and build respect between our two communities.” Similarly, at a historic Iftar event with Muslims in Singapore, Elder David F. Evans said that: “If we seek understanding and take time to look closely, there are many things that can and do bring us together. When observed with charity and understanding, these intersections of faith, practice, and custom can and will bring a feeling of unity and purpose.” One specific principle he mentioned was fasting and donating money to help the poor and needy. President Thomas S. Monson once summarized this concept of finding similarities and working together when he said: “We have a responsibility … to work cooperatively with other churches and organizations. My objective is … that we eliminate the weakness of one standing alone and substitute it for the strength of people working together.”
A second reason that is sometimes cited by Church leaders for engaging in dialogue with other faiths is that there are important lessons to be learned from people of other faiths. Joseph Smith once said that: “if the “Presbyterians [have] any truth embrace that. [Same for the] Baptist. Methodist &c. get all the good in the world. [and you will] come out a pure Mormon.” When President Brigham Young’s son attended school in the eastern United States, he told him that he had no problem with his attending an Episcopal service, and “on the contrary, I would like to have you attend, and see what they can teach you about God and Godliness more than you have already been taught.” In each of these cases, an important Church leader expressed his belief that we can learn lessons through engaging with other faiths.
Another major reason that Church leaders have stated for why they engage in interfaith efforts is a commitment to Christian love, kindness, and courtesy. Joseph Smith taught that: “the enquiry is frequently made of me, ‘Wherein do you differ from others in your religions views?’ In reality and essence we do not differ so far in our religious views but that we could all drink into one principle of love.” Looking to a more recent time, President Gordon B. Hinckley has been noted as a particularly important figure in encouraging Latter-day Saints to seek friendship, display kindness, and to respect people with different beliefs. During one of his first addresses as president of the Church, Gordon B. Hinckley stated that: “There is so great a need for civility and mutual respect among those of differing beliefs and philosophies. … We live in a world of diversity. We can and must be respectful toward those with whose teachings we may not agree.” Elder Quentin L. Cook likewise once said that: “Respectful and sincere interfaith service not only builds our communities but also enables us to collectively and individually grow in our love of God and His children.” Love for our fellow daughters and sons of God is an important reason to engage in interfaith dialogue and cooperation.
While we have seen an intensification of the Church’s involvement in interfaith initiatives under President Russell M. Nelson, this sort of thing is an ongoing commitment of the Church. President Nelson himself has displayed a long-term commitment to interfaith dialogue and activities, participating in the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions and giving several talks in general conference over the years that discuss the need to respect, listen to, and interact with people and organizations of other faiths. There are several reasons that may motivate our Church’s leaders to engage in these types of activities, but we also see grassroots-level initiatives of Church members on display in the list above. In a world more often divided and prone to conflicts than peace, seeing interfaith activities being initiated on all levels of the Church is heartening to me as a path towards greater understanding and peace.
 Russell M. Nelson, “The Second Great Commandment,” CR October 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/10/46nelson?lang=eng.
 Gordon Shepherd and Gary Shepherd, “Mormonism in Secular Society: Changing Patterns in Official Ecclesiastical Rhetoric”, Review of Religious Research vol. 26, no. 1 (Sept 1984), 39.
 Jana Riess, “20 changes the new Mormon president has made to appeal to Millennials and Generation Z”, Flunking Sainthood, RelionNews.com, 18 June 2019, https://religionnews.com/2019/06/18/20-changes-the-new-mormon-president-has-made-to-appeal-to-millennials-and-generation-z/.
 Joseph Smith Diary report of Joseph Smith sermon, 9 July 1843, and Joseph Smith Diary report of Joseph Smith sermon 23 July 1843, in Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith, Kindle Locations 4599-4600 and 4718-4719.
 Brigham Young to Willard Young, 25 July 1871. Cited in Leonard J. Arrington, “Willard Young: The Prophet’s Son at West Point,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, V.4, No. 4 (Winter 1969), 42.
 “History, 1838–1856, volume E-1 [1 July 1843–30 April 1844],” p. 1666, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 13, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-e-1-1-july-1843-30-april-1844/36
 See Matthew Bowman, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (New York: Random House, 2012), 245-246.
 Gordon B. Hinckley, “This is the Work of the Master,” CR April 1995, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1995/04/this-is-the-work-of-the-master?lang=eng.
 See Quentin L. Cook, “Partnering with Our Friends from Other Faiths,” Aug. 9, 2010, patheos.com.