Recent reporting on polarization in the United States typically focuses on political affiliation. But other forms of identity are equally, if not more, important when it comes to understanding divisions in American life. In recent years the Pew Research Center has surveyed Americans to see what role religion plays in polarization. The news is mixed. Between 2014 and 2017 the data reveals positive trends in American sentiment toward religious groups. As measured on a 100-point scale, with higher numbers corresponding to higher positive sentiment, scores increased for all religious groups except Evangelical Christians which remained flat at 53. Positive sentiment towards other groups not only increased but, in many cases, increased substantially. For example, positive sentiment increased by 8 points when it comes to Muslims and Hindus increased by 8 points, and by 7 points towards Buddhists. Relations between other groups are less positive. This was especially true concerning Evangelical sentiment towards Muslims. In 2017 only Evangelicals’ sentiment towards Muslims averaged 37 on the 100-point scale. Data from a 2023 Pew survey was no better with 20% more Evangelicals expressing positive versus negative sentiment towards Muslims.
This negative sentiment not only fuels polarization but prevents engagement across lines of religious difference. A 2019 Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU) Report found that the divide between Muslims and Evangelicals proves to be a significant barrier to improved interreligious engagement in America. The report goes on to state that both religious groups recognize the need to build personal connections with the other group to achieve increased understanding.
Despite the need for such engagement, interfaith programming at colleges and universities has historically failed to include students with conservative religious beliefs, including Evangelicals and Muslims. This is especially unfortunate as such students are often the ones who could benefit the most from opportunities to increase their knowledge of and engagement with other religions.
To encourage improved relationships between Evangelical and Muslim college students, AVDF awarded a two-year $200,000 grant in 2021 to the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an Evangelical campus student group. The AVDF grant supports Intervarsity’s Peace Feasts program which brings together Christian and Muslim undergraduate students for a shared meal with facilitated dialogue.
“InterVarsity has a successful track record of coordinating meaningful conversations between Evangelical Christian and Muslim students resulting in respectful and meaningful engagement. InterVarsity is now able to scale and enhance the Peace Feasts program to reach a greater number of students and create a replicable model of interreligious relationship building that leads to higher religious literacy,” said AVDF CEO and President Michael Murray.
As part of the Peace Feasts program, InterVarsity is partnering with the Muslim Student Association (MSA) and providing grants to up to 54 college and university campuses to host the meals. The program’s aim is to spark authentic discussions between Muslims and Evangelicals, so it leads to increased awareness of each other’s faiths and continued discussion between the two groups.
“In an increasingly polarized country, it is essential that religious groups take the lead in demonstrating that understanding and relationship is possible even when you fundamentally disagree on core issues,” said Gregory Jao, InterVarsity Executive Vice President of Communications & Mobilization.
Jao added that the Peace Feasts use the shared meal experience as a gateway to student interfaith dialogue.
“Almost every religious group sees breaking bread and sharing a meal together as an act of hospitality, welcome, and relationship building. We hope the Peace Feasts will lead to mutual respect and ongoing conversations,” he said.
InterVarsity provides training and support materials to the college and university chapters selected to host the Peace Feasts. The organization supports each campus through prepared conversation guides to help leaders facilitate respectful discussions about meaningful topics. Additionally, InterVarsity created an online video curriculum that guides participants on how to build trust in interfaith contexts.
“The training materials are designed so students without any experience in interfaith programming have the tools they need to engage relationships, publicize the events appropriately, host it graciously, and foster connections,” Jao said.
The InterVarsity Peace Feasts program is a model to other faith communities on how to create opportunities for valuable and constructive dialogue between groups of different religious beliefs. The shared meal events help foster the learning of other faith traditions and relationship-building between groups of different religious backgrounds.