Three Protestants, a Roman Catholic, a Muslim, a Jew, and a Buddhist are sitting around contemplating the state of American religion.
"How do you engage in civil dialogue with someone who doesn't want to talk to you?" one of the Protestants asks the venerable group of clergy and scholars.
"First I'd yell at 'em," says the rabbi, Arthur Hertzberg, who is also the former president of the American Jewish Congress.
The group erupts into good-natured laughter. It was just the kind of response this Civility Summit organized by the Interfaith Alliance this week in New York was hoping to encourage.
It's part of a growing movement designed to heal the rancor developing between various religious groups, within some denominations, and even at the heart of the religious right. That's the group many ecumenical leaders blame for the sometimes-hostile rhetoric in much religious political activism.
The problem is particularly acute, experts say, when emotionally divisive issues - from abortion to homosexuality to the relationship between church and state - get turned into matters of religious integrity.
"That creates a kind of holy war phenomenon - that if you disagree with me politically, I have the right to demonize you because you represent everything that's wrong from my perspective," says the Rev. Welton Gaddy, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, a Washington-based nonprofit group. "That could leave the community, our whole nation, in fragments."
Holy war phenomenon
American religious leaders across the spectrum contend that it's particularly important to deal with such rhetoric now, because deep-seated religious differences are at the heart of almost every major conflict in the world today, from Kosovo to Northern Ireland to the Middle East.
"Religious leaders, more than political leaders, need to put aside their own pride in their nations and work to engage each other civilly," says the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.
Dr. Campbell was one of the participants of the Interfaith Alliance's recent summit at New York's Riverside Church. It's one of more than a dozen such summits being held around the country.
The goal is to bring people of sharply differing beliefs together to talk about some of those most divisive issues, and in doing so, create a model in which such difficult conversations can take place.
"At a minimum, we must learn to respect the honest differences of opinion without demonizing, dehumanizing, or questioning the faith of those who differ from us," says Dr. Gaddy.
But no one from the religious right accepted the Alliance's invitation to join this summit. Cal Thomas, the syndicated columnist and one of the Moral Majority's early crusaders, dismissed it, contending there wasn't much concern about civility in the religious community until after Republicans took over Congress in 1994.
"When the Democrats were in control, it was 'shove it down your throat,' " says Mr. Thomas. "Now we have to be concerned about 'civility.' But I think people mistake deeply held religious convictions for mean-spiritedness."
Thomas has just co-authored "Blinded by Might," a book about the religious right's failure to produce the promised moral revolution.
Thomas contends that religious conservatives must "get back to the grunt work of bubble-up morality and to stop focusing on the clearly failed trickle-down morality that comes from Washington and through politics."
He is also critical of the negativity generated by the religious fundamentalists' foray into the political arena. And he made no secret of his concerns at a conservative cultural forum held in Washington this week.
"Conservatism is a positive message, the Gospel of Christ is a positive, redemptive message," Thomas says. "Instead of criticizing and condemning and being apocalyptic about everything from Y2K to the gay rights movement, I said, 'Why don't you guys focus on some positive stuff?' "
Religious scholar Huston Smith believes both liberals and conservatives have to take responsibility for their current cultural and religious clash.
One of the things that worries Dr. Smith the most is what he calls the religious right's "muscular Christianity" - its efforts to impose its views on the public by going after political candidates with whom it disagrees.
The Rev. David Waugh of the Metro Baptist Church in New York says such tactics have divided the Southern Baptist denomination.
Many conservative Baptists gravitate toward the Christian right, while others believe strongly in the separation of church and state.
Ironically, he says, that split has moved many Baptists like himself to reach out in a positive way to other religious denominations.
"There are new kinds of alliances being drawn up within the Christian community to speak to common issues," says Dr. Waugh. They range from local ecumenical councils to international interfaith humanitarian efforts.
Rabbi Hertzberg believes a more fundamental and important change is underlying both the concern about civility and the growth of the interfaith movement nationwide.
Hertzberg contends that, with the exception of fundamentalists of every faith, the mainstream religions have given up their "vehemently expansionist" hopes of converting the world to their one, true faith.
"They're universal faiths believing in one God, who is the God of all of the world, believing that at the end of time, they will be vindicated as the one truth," he says. "But their behavior now says, de facto, 'You leave me alone and I'll leave you alone - let's work it out in the meantime.' That is for real what's happening."