Crossing Faiths and Building Bridges
Two friends, Matt Hawkins (a former policy director for the Southern Baptist Convention) and John Pinna (former Executive Director of American Islamic Congress) talk religion and politics. The podcast delivers weekly episodes featuring commentary on news, politics, multifaith experiences, and expert guests.
Their conversations build on almost a decade of their collaboration, advocating in Washington, D.C. for religious freedom domestically and around the globe. The two developed the podcast with a desire to share conversations that model friendship and collaboration despite deep differences in religion and background.
VantagePoints: You have both spent significant time advocating for religious freedom, despite your obvious cultural and religious differences. How did you meet and what are some of the initiatives that you’ve championed have over the years?
John: Despite the popular belief, Matthew didn’t lose a bet nor is this court-appointed. We met at the International Religious Freedom Roundtable about 10 years ago. Isn’t that about right, Matthew?
Matthew: Probably shy of 10 years.
John: Well, maybe longer, right? The challenge was that we were dealing with some really hard issues, the reauthorization of USCIRF, the 1996 US Commission on International Religious Freedom, and all different kinds of religious persecution issues. On some issues, sometimes we were able to collaborate openly, and sometimes we weren’t. But a lot of times, we did disagree, because we were representing each of our constituencies.
Matthew and I, even though across the table, even though we were disagreeing on a lot of different issues—we still collaborated and spent quite a bit of time beyond the International Religious Freedom Roundtable to discuss why we disagreed on such issues, and where we could support and help each other work out our issues where we could build more of a consensus.
I don’t know, is that about right, what do you think?
Matthew: That’s about right. For context, the International Religious Freedom Roundtable is a civil society gathering in DC that’s predominantly other NGOs, and predominantly religious groups that are seeking to collaborate on a whole host of issues related to this thing called ‘religious freedom.’ And we agree on very little, especially theologically, and certainly often politically speaking. On domestic issues, there’s even more disagreement on issues.
Roundtable participants all agree that in the worst places around the world for persecuted religious minorities, that there are things that the international community can do—and that the US government, in particular, has a role and a responsibility to advocate for and advance those issues. It’s those kinds of issues that John and I collaborated on most often.
No one went out and just picked a Baptist and a Muslim and said, “You guys, sit in front of a microphone.” This is a fruit of friendship, and a professional collaboration going back years.
John: At that time, you were the director of government relations for the Southern Baptist Convention, which is one of the largest, what would we call it?
Matthew: I was a policy director of the largest organization of churches in North America. Because we’re Protestants there’s not a hierarchy, like there might be in the Catholic Church. It’s all the Baptist churches to the extent that they collaborate within a convention. It’s all voluntary, and no church has authority over another. [The office is specifically called The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, that’s the big mouthful for you. Just for shorthand, it’s the public policy office of the Southern Baptist Convention. In Washington, [the ERLC is tasked to represent a mix of doctrine and consensus from our constituency.
John: At that time, I was the director of government relations for the American Islamic Congress, and it was my job to mobilize and unite the American Muslim constituency while coordinating both domestic international programming. I credit our relationship to a joke that I would [ask], it actually was a serious question, but everybody ended up laughing.
My question was, well, “What’s with the Northern Baptists? How come they haven’t been able to organize? What’s their game? What happens if they do?” See how he’s laughing? I didn’t realize how funny of a joke it was, but it actually is a humorous joke in your circle.
Matthew: Right. It’s kind of a joke in our circle because to be Baptist is [to be] one of a number of different expressions of Baptists. There’s no copyright on the word Baptist. There are about two dozen different kinds of Baptists in the States alone. And, the joke about that is—John was stepping on a landmine of history—because Baptists did, in fact, split North and South along those lines during the Civil War. My own convention of churches was frankly on the wrong side of slavery, and later, on the wrong side of segregation.
It was in the American South where the Southerners, mainline churches including Baptist, were frequently supporting missionaries abroad—who were supposed to be taking the gospel to foreign lands, including Africa—while at the same time supporting the stealing, the purchasing, the selling and the owning, and the brutalizing of African slaves. That’s a pretty dark history there. But, to John’s point, Baptists did split along those lines in history. The Northern Baptists basically became other expressions of Baptists, American Baptists and National Baptists among them.
VantagePoints: Your story is very compelling. How did you decide on a podcast format, and really, how did you conceptualize the Crossing Faiths theme?
Matthew: I want to credit John with coming up with the idea to do a radio thing, a podcast thing. I left Washington about a year and a half ago. I have a background in broadcast and in radio. I guess he found that interesting, and we continued to pursue this idea. We brainstormed about it and talked about what it might look like. I think where it came out of is the fact that we had years of private conversations where he and I were both allowed to ‘heckle’ each other, basically, about each other’s beliefs and faith and politics, and that kind of thing. I think developing that trust and rapport over the years makes this podcast possible.
No one went out and just picked a Baptist and a Muslim and said, “You guys, sit in front of a microphone.” This is a fruit of friendship, and a professional collaboration going back years.
John: This is the continuation of a long-standing dialogue between two guys from different religions, different cultural backgrounds. And the fact is, we’ve always pinged each other on the down-low to find out when we had a question. I think, Matthew, I think you’d agree that we both created that sort of safe space for us to interact. Of course, we didn’t pull any punches. If you ever listen to the podcast, the whole thing about the crucifixion—regardless of whether I think Jesus is the Savior, the fact is, that we had a long-standing dialogue. We made sure that if we had a question, we asked each other, and then we also facilitated answers. And the sexy part about it was, I think, we used to exchange lunches, right?
Matthew: Yeah. I think we split a sandwich, didn’t we?
John: We actually did. And then, we started to build a relationship [based] on who we are, and who our families are, and how we interact. We know quite a bit about each other personally and professionally. We moved from people representing constituencies to colleagues, to friends and colleagues. We know the business of international religious freedom and religious freedom. We know about all the players and the characters. We’re talking about all this stuff.
What’s the innovative component here is, that there’s no Muslim and Christian talking about politics and religion on a regular basis. I appreciate Matthew crediting me with this, but this is an idea that was forged out of our conversations. We just figured we’d bring to the public. With Matthew leaving Washington, there is a real deficit in the two faiths interacting in an open and public forum, as well as behind closed doors.
VantagePoints: You’ve started answering my next question already. What is the intended impact of the Crossing Faiths podcast?
Matthew: John and I both obviously have particular professional interests—namely international religious freedom, multifaith collaboration, American politics, and geopolitics—and there’s a whole subject matter of interest and national security. We have pretty wide-ranging interests.
While we want to advance conversations about those issues with the podcast, as John indicated—we want to drag our private conversations into public for the sake of modeling a conversation between two people who have deep theological and cultural differences—to show that we can talk about these things in public and still remain friends. I think there’s something of value in that, especially given our current political moment in American history.
John: Right. You’re Southern and a Baptist evangelical, and I’m a Northerner that’s Muslim. As you said, there is no Muslim and Christian speaking to each other on a regular basis. Then, we have the lens of the current administration where we have an evangelical advisory board. Where Pastor Paula White officially works for the president, and in the Faith and Opportunity Initiative. She’s leading the initiative for the White House.
It’s a profound moment in the Baptist culture, and evangelical culture and community right now—and, it highlights the differences within the community. We thought it was a profound moment for us to really start the podcast, and that was part of the impetus of the decision on making it happen.
Matthew: We see some clergy doing events in public, you might have an evangelical pastor and an imam do something together. [They] might host an event. I know there are movements for evangelicals and imams to just become friends with one another in America. The other aspect is that John and I, in some sense, we’re laymen. We’re not on staff at a church or a mosque. So, we’re maybe amateur theologians at best? I’m enrolled in a seminary and pursuing a Ph.D., but we’re not clergy in the same sense you typically see multifaith conversations or dialogue happen. I think there’s an added uniqueness to that.
John: The other element is that the NSS, the National Security Strategy has international religious freedom as a focal point. I helped draft part of that segment. The challenge is that this administration is focusing on international religious freedom and religious freedom as a cornerstone. That means that it’s very relevant for this dialogue to come into the public space so that we can make sure that component of the National Security Strategy is sorted appropriately for all religions, and not just pandering to one faith.
This administration has done a tremendous job of engaging the different multifaith communities and so forth. We have to stay vigilant and maintain the status of our communities, and I don’t just mean Christian evangelicals and American Muslims. I mean all faith groups to make sure that we are talking about the issues in politics. We just had our first guest speaker, [who] was an Orthodox Priest.
We come together to collaborate—not in spite of our differences, because we recognize we have to dialogue and talk to each other—because we disagree on so much.
VantagePoints: It’s clear that you don’t always agree, but your dialogue is surprisingly candid, good-humored, and rather productive when you discuss these topics in religion and politics. How can the rest of us—professionals in related fields, including other lay people—engage in more productive conversations about these topics?
John: I think that one of the first things is, is to participate in the podcast. We want as many guest speakers and input as possible on subjects that we should be addressing. Because we don’t want to just be operating in a vacuum. One of the innovations of the podcast is that it doesn’t have to be just two people talking. We want to make sure that we have a space that is participatory, not just from a listening perspective, garnering support from different communities—but making sure that they see it as space for anyone to come and talk about the issues of the day, and utilize that format in that space.
I think the second is that one of the things that we’re both passionate about is interfaith dialogue. So, I’m very passionate about a panel, groups of Muslims speaking together and because no one Muslim represents the entire Ummah community. And I know that Matthew and I’ve talked about that happening with different Christians. The third element is, really this is a movement. It’s a movement to bring the dialogues that happened within the Beltway, related to politics and policy and religion, and bring them into the open space without preaching. Really trying to suss out the differences so that we can understand.
Matthew: One of the terms that sticks out to me is translation. What I realized I was doing in DC a lot of the times, was an act of translation. I was trying to translate my culture and constituency to a wide variety of audiences. Number one, Capitol Hill staff and people in government, and folks like John, who were running other NGOs and came from different faiths and different backgrounds. Even though we all speak the same language, technically speaking, there’s a whole lot of [cultural] translation that needs to happen. I don’t think we often understand that—and realize the work and the listening it takes to accomplish that. As a government relations advocate, I wanted to faithfully represent my constituency of Southern Baptists, while at the same time, productively communicating to people on Capitol Hill.
People on Capitol Hill are not terribly familiar with Southern Baptist doctrine and belief, certainly even less Muslim doctrine and belief. What you have to do is represent your faith tradition—so that they recognize you if you were speaking—but also translate that in a way that Capitol Hill folks, people who are outside your tribe, can understand. John and I are trying to do a lot of that. Each episode we’re trying to translate for each other, each other’s tribes. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to always agree, but at least we understand each other accurately. And from my perspective as a Christian, I am recognizing John as one of my neighbors, which is a key tenant of our faith.
We know quite a bit about each other personally and professionally. We moved from people representing constituencies to colleagues, to friends and colleagues.
VantagePoints: You mentioned that your first interview featured an Orthodox priest, what are some of the other current topics that are featured on Crossing Faiths?
Matthew: People ask which first one to listen to, I always point them to the very first episode or pilot episode, and it’s titled, ‘An Evangelical Walks into a Wudu Space.’ Well, I had my first masjid experience, and I tell John about that. And, he gives me insight into what I did right and what I did wrong, and what I should do in the future. And then, John tells me about his own his first evangelical prayer circle. People gathered around him and prayed, laid hands on him, and he was kind of freaking out in his head. We have a good laugh about that. We’re each swapping our own multifaith experiences.
We spend an episode on 9/11 and John told me about the experience of his family, as an American Muslim family after 9/11. Another episode we talked about self-flagellation in some corners of the Muslim faith. We talked about Hindu Muslim joint prayer, which surprised both of us, I think. We delved into a really controversial subject about people who try to claim what is true Islam versus what is a fake Muslim. We talked about impeachment, and we talked about houses of worship; after a lot of gun violence in America, trying to figure out their security protocol at the local level. It’s wide-ranging subject matter, but I think we have a fun time throughout.
VantagePoints: You certainly cover a lot of ground and you don’t shy away from challenging topics. What are your goals for Crossing Faiths moving forward?
John: If we can earn a living doing this, we would. We would love some support from the larger community and that doesn’t just mean financial but getting people to come in and really challenge us with different subjects. We may know the answer, we may not. If we don’t, we can find out, and we can bring that issue into the public space and really create a public dialogue. We belong to the International Religious Freedom Roundtable—that’s been around for 10 years in Washington, and with Ambassador Brown there, it’s wonderful, there’s a very dynamic dialogue. But, in large part, those conversations still stay in a room, in Washington and they never see the light of day.
This is one of the few forums for dialogue where two people that differ go back and forth, and we would love more participation from the community. And that means religious communities, non-religious, secular communities, to help challenge and help shape this, so this becomes more of a movement. We need more content. We need more people to participate so it maintains that dynamic quality.
We want to make sure that we have a space that is participatory, not just from a listening perspective, garnering support from different communities—but making sure that they see it as space for anyone to come and talk about the issues of the day, and utilize that format in that space.
Matthew: That’s a really good point, John. Our production will be a better production with increased audience participation. For non-Christians what questions do you have about evangelicalism, Southern Baptists in particular, or Protestant Christianity? I would love to try to explain that. If I don’t know how we’ll bring someone in like Father John, because I wasn’t going to fake an answer as you’ll hear on that episode. I wasn’t going to fake an answer for John. I wanted to find someone who really knew he was talking about, instead of a Google search. Part of what we’re trying to do here is introduce each other’s tribes to the other, to try and reduce the misunderstanding and the fear that a lot of us have across faith lines and political lines.
In the interfaith space—people who do dialogue and collaboration between religions—there are two dominant models. There is the secularized model, and the ‘interfaith’ model, which tends to be just a descriptive thing. It typically draws theological progressives or theological liberals together from across different faiths. So, if you’re a liberal Christian, or a liberal Jew, or a liberal Muslim, it’s really easy to get yourself into the interfaith thing. Sometimes, that looks like a shared prayer service or trying to see where the liturgy lines up and how the faiths are really similar. That’s one model. It’s a little easier to draw together on the front end.
I think John will agree, the secularized model is what the model of the State Department at least used to look like. Nobody really understood religion, and especially in the diplomatic space—and, nobody trusted religious actors to communicate about theological differences and cultural differences without fighting. That secularization model welcomes people in to talk about things in the ‘secular’ arena but isn’t religious. Both John and I would basically have to pretend as if we’re not Christian and Muslim. We could only talk about things that are supposedly secular. So, we couldn’t talk about our faith differences.
Part of what John and I are trying to do is an example of a third way, which is what we call a ‘multifaith collaboration’ that respects theological differences. We come together to collaborate—not in spite of our differences, because we recognize we have to dialogue and talk to each other—because we disagree on so much. That is a more fruitful way in the long term. It’s harder to pull together in the short term. It helps that John and I engage each other while we still look like our respective tribes, right? I don’t have to shed my religious identity for the sake of being at a dialogue table or collaborating, right?
My faith, my own faith group still recognizes me when I walk and talk with John. And likewise, for John, the Muslim community—I expect would still recognize John as part of their fold, right? He does not have to water down his faith, like the interfaith model, and he’s not having to hide or pretend he doesn’t have a faith in the secularized model. The multifaith model is part of what I think informs the Crossing Faith ethos.
John: Well, it is a tightrope a little bit. We always are very careful, because we want to make sure that we bring the issues to light and challenge ourselves in the communities and each other, without getting too personal with different individuals or calling two people out to the floor. It’s certainly not where we’re sensationalizing specific issues. There are differences between tolerance and respect, and really just having a conversation where you want to know. A lot of times we have these respectful conversations within our own faiths, and we don’t know the answers.
When it comes to different faiths like evangelicals or Muslims, we’re chatting back and forth and we’re just doing it openly. We’re doing it safely, respectfully, but we’re not afraid to talk about the issues, get into it, and say, “What do you mean by that? Why does your faith do this?”
I think that’s something different than what [usually] comes to the multifaith space. Everybody is to a certain degree, almost too respectful—to the point where no one really knows what they are getting into, why faiths do what they do, and how they are similar. We just had a show about the differences and similarities about training, how we learn about our religions. Is there a Sunday school in Islam, for example? We talked about the M word, madrasas, and we find out that there are a lot of similarities in how we go through learning about religion. That was something that was just a personal question.
That’s one of the things that’s different about us, we’re not afraid to talk about things, and we’re not thin-skinned with each other at all. That’s the meaningful part of this, that we generally disagree on a lot of things and we’re tackling it, but we need more information.
VantagePoints: What concerns you most about the world today, and what brings you hope?
John: The biggest thing that worries me is pandering to individual communities. That’s the biggest thing that worries me. If you’re going to focus on religious persecution, for example, we tackle the issue of the ‘most persecuted’ community in the world.
First of all, with persecution, it doesn’t matter who’s the most [persecuted]. There’s a lot of misinformation about the most persecuted that’s not concerned about that specific issue, but the pandering to a specific community. It is very troublesome because essentially, it’s not multifaith, it essentially is not religiously free. You have to give the same attention to the most and even the least persecuted communities—if you’re going to be fair, and follow ethics, and rules when it comes to working toward and dispensing religious freedom throughout the world. That’s not happening in a fair and impartial manner these days. That concern weighs heavy on me, which is one of the main reasons why I pressed for this podcast to happen.
I’m not sure there’s anybody else that could be doing this other than Matthew from the Christian community. He’s such a fair guy, he’s so good with me, handling my back and forth on the podcast. From a knowledge basis, and also a practitioner’s basis, I think it’s really important, and that’s the second concern I have. There are not enough practitioners in the industry, in the religious freedom game, and there need to be more practitioners and less theological, or theoretical people. Then, the last thing is, that there needs to be more pluralists that happen to be something.
I’m a pluralist who also happens to be Muslim. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t come first in my life as a practicing Muslim, but there’s not a lot of pluralists that are operating in this space.
The business of international religious freedom sometimes gets in the way when people are pandering to each one of their communities. So, those are the three major concerns on my part. What do you think, Matthew?
Matthew: For my answer, there could be a lot I share a lot of John’s concerns. My concern is the extent to which my own theologically conservative Christian tribe has slid from a pragmatic rationalization of candidate Trump to an almost total allegiance to President Trump such that it really compromises the beliefs and values we’ve been preaching for the past 20-30 years. On the one hand, it doesn’t surprise me that lots of evangelicals voted for President Trump. I think there are a lot of non-theological, not terribly surprising dynamics about the US and what happened during the Obama administration that explains why so many Americans voted for Trump.
It disturbs me that my tribe has been so closely associated with the worst parts of the Trump era, including anti-immigration sentiment, and racism—all of a sudden going quiet Trump’s abusive relationships with women earlier in his life. Not to mention, the rhetoric that comes out of the President’s Twitter feed that is not terribly uniting for America. It troubles me that my own religious tribe has been so caught up in that.
John: Well, I’m a generally positive person, even though I’m a New Yorker, a cynical optimist. I think that from a hope perspective—I travel quite a bit and [see] there are faith communities cooperating and collaborating on a scale which is largely unnoticed by the world—particularly, the international religious freedom community. If you stick in the Beltway, and you listen to what’s being said by the mouthpieces there, you might think it’s a lot of gloom and doom. The thing that’s repeated is that 70% of the world are faith communities, and 80% of that community is religiously persecuted. But the idea of religious collaboration—I would talk about it just as communities living in a healthy, respectful, and progressive manner.
There’s quite a bit happening, and quite a bit of innovation. There’s quite a bit of really thoughtful engagement happening. And this isn’t a sell for the podcast, what we’re doing is pretty amateur hour considering what’s happening in places like Kurdistan, or what’s happening and in Egypt, and what’s happening in Tunisia—with different faith communities around the world. It’s not being celebrated. There’s a lot of wonderfully dynamic NGOs that are out there doing things. It’s the communities that are on the ground, based around the world that are providing to me a tremendous amount of hope for the future.
Matthew: What gives me hope is that the thrust of growth, the growth of Christianity is not tied up in white evangelicalism. The Christian movement as the center of gravity, so to speak, is no longer in North America. It’s flourishing in South America, and in places around the world where it’s really difficult to be a Christian. My theological understanding and hope is that Christ’s kingdom will continue to grow. Alongside that, I’ve found friends like John who have this capability of engaging the religious other and collaborating despite deep differences and can continue to be friends.
John Thomas Pinna is an American Muslim focusing on faith, security, and development. He is the Vice President at the Mitchell Firm, President and Founder of Muslims for Muslims (M4M), host of the first Muslim Christian Podcast Crossing Faiths and is also a national security and foreign policy advisor to the United States Government Executive Branch, Department of State and Commerce, Pinna has served as a faith and contextual training in Islamic at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI) from 2011-2013. Follow him on Twitter at @jtpinna & listen https://www.crossingfaiths.com/
Matthew (Matt) Hawkins is a PhD student, podcaster, and writer. Most content focuses on the intersection of religion and politics. His current podcast projects include as cohost of Crossing Faiths: A Christian & a Muslim Talk Religion & Politics, and as associate producer of a forthcoming legal podcast from WORLD Radio.