Health & Spirit

Who Speaks For Religion?

By The Three Wise Guys on

It's an age-old question: "Who speaks for [insert religion name here]?" There are nearly as many answers to this as there are varieties of religion and denomination. In this installment, the Three Wise Guys attempt to make some sense of the question, especially in regard to violent extremists who claim to do what they do in the name of a religion.

Imam: Often we see extremists making pronouncements in the name of a major world religion after they commit an atrocity. So, who truly should speak for a religion? And should the media give any credibility to deranged individuals who misrepresent the faith of millions or sometimes billions of people around the world?

Rabbi: Imam, that may be the most important question of our times in terms of the way people see religion. Those who are outside of Judaism do not have the ability nor the right to determine who represents Judaism. Instead, that should be decided by the legitimately appointed leaders of the various streams of Judaism. Sometimes there may be agreement amongst the streams of Judaism, and sometimes not. Therefore, we may not be able to say, "Jews (meaning all) believe thus and so."

Rev: Regarding Christianity, it is a very complicated question. In the Roman Catholic Church, there is a fairly clear line of authority; the pope speaks for the church based on a number of variables. Within the non-Catholic traditions, which includes well over a billion people, there are literally thousands of variations on who speaks for the particular religious group in question.

Imam: Before the mass media was created, people always understood that faith groups have acknowledged leaders, scholars and doctors of religion. These people were understood to speak for and represent their faith tradition. Increasingly, with the introduction of social media, anyone and everyone can make public declarations, and sometimes it's difficult to know if they even belong to the faith for which they purport to speak.

Rev: It seems to me the responsible journalists often do a good job of sorting out the rabid extremist from the honest person of faith. While mass media is sometimes ill-equipped to handle the nuanced specifics of religion, I have to say that it has a responsibility to report on items that are newsworthy. Some of that has to do with people who claim very extremist positions in regard to their claims of religiosity. Perhaps it would be better at times if the media did not follow stories about extremists, but I would not support any notion of censorship. I don't believe our problem is an overzealous media but rather too often an ignorant general public.

Rabbi: Since the time of King David some 3,000 years ago, Judaism has not had one person representing the faith. On top of that, our textual tradition is filled with debates amongst the rabbis that has led to various opinions on any given subject. This has continued today, represented by different branches of Judaism -- these being Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and the list goes on and on.

Rev: Within Christianity, it has never been simple. The entire Reformation -- which began in the 16th century with the 95 Theses of Martin Luther -- is a testament to a decision not to allow a single authority to speak for people of faith. There was a strong and clear rejection by a large swath of Christianity to the idea of a single authority. There is much more interest in freedom of inquiry and thought regarding one's faith. This creates a lot of complications, of course.

Imam: While in Islam there is no single authority, our faith has clear principles of peace, love, mercy, compassion, justice and so on. Those who desire to speak for Islam should not just carry the label of "Islam," but must actually embody and live out its principles. By definition, Islam is peace, and a Muslim is peaceful. So, when a person is committing an act of terrorism or violence, he has no right to speak for over 1.8 billion Muslims.


Rabbi: We all agree that those on the outside should not determine who represents the religion, but the question still remains: Who should? Are we concluding that in the case of our three faith traditions, no one person or group does represent the whole religion?

Imam: Rabbi, I think the responsibility is with the reader, listener and viewer to be selective and to choose only reliable sources when trying to understand the honest and faithful voice of the religious tradition. Today more than ever, we all have to verify the truth and source of information to avoid giving credibility to unreliable individuals out there whose actions and ideas are incompatible with our basic teachings and beliefs.

Rev: I agree, Imam. "The proof is in the pudding," so to speak. In other words, if one's actions are not consistent with love, peace, repairing the world and the care of all creation, it cannot represent any kind of honest faith.

Rabbi: As we say on our show, none of us represents our entire religion. However, when speaking more generally, we believe that a person represents a religion by acting upon the values and basic teachings of that religion.


The Rev. Bryan Fulwider, Rabbi Steven Engel and Imam Muhammad Musri are The Three Wise Guys. Their website is at You can email them at

(c) 2019 Rabbi Steven Engel, Imam Muhammad Musri and Rev. Bryan Fulwider

Distributed by King Features Syndicate



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