How Useful Is Religion in Defusing Conflicts? A Funder Gives Big to Find Out

Too often today, religion is used to justify violence, sometimes horrifically, as in recent beheadings by the so-called Islamic State. On the other hand, every one of the world's major religions talks up peace. Consider a small thing: Israelis and Palestinians, divided though they are by conflict, greet their comrades with mirror image phrases, in Hebrew with "shalom aleichem" “peace be with you,” and in Arabic with “as-salaam-alaikum," “peace be unto you.” 

Tapping the power of religion to live in peace is the intent of an $805,000 grant offered by the GHR Foundation to the Alliance for Peacebuilding

"At a time when religious differences are being used as fuel to fan the flames of violence, the role of faith-based initiatives and organizations in building peace could not be more crucial. Inter-religious action can play an important role in developing social cohesion—a key factor in building resilient, peaceful societies," said Alliance for Peacebuilding (AfP) President and CEO Melanie Greenberg.

Of course, this is hardly the first grant that aims to use religion as a tool of peace. But an interesting twist here is that the three years of funding from GHR Foundation aims "to sharpen the effectiveness of inter-religious peacebuilding by focusing on improving measurement," in the foundation's words.

The key to the initiative is measuring the success of various methods, a daunting task because so many factors, such as poverty and a lack of established institutions, influence whether or not peace can be established. And obviously, if God speaks directly to protagonists in a conflict, that could influence how they think about things, but good luck finding a metric for that. 

AfP has been working to get a handle on assessing what works in ending conflicts through its Peacebuilding Evaluation Consortium (PEC) an effort that dates back a few years and has been advanced in partnership with the U.S. Institute of Peace. Core partners include Mercy CorpsCDA Collaborative Learning, and Search for Common Ground. The aim of the PEC is “Developing methodological rigor, improving the culture of evaluation and shared learning, and using evidence to inform peacebuilding policy.”

Now that approach will be applied to the specific role of religion in conflicts—very interesting. 

"We know that engaging faith leaders and communities is a powerful way to improve development outcomes," said GHR Foundation Chief Executive Officer and Chair Amy Rauenhorst Goldman. "We are pleased to support work that will help measure impact and ultimately result in increased funding by governments, aid agencies, faith-based groups, and local communities."

Since it was incorporated in 2003, the AfP has grown into a 15,000-member global network of government, academia, and non-governmental organizations active in 153 countries.  

The GHR Foundation keeps a low profile. It was started in 1965 by Gerald A. Rauenhorst and his wife Henrietta. One of eight children, the son of tenant farmers, Rauenhorst was a self-made man who earned his fortune as the founder of the Opus Group, a Minneapolis-based consortium of commercial real estate development, construction and design companies. Married for 60 years, the Rauenhorsts had seven children. They did their best to adhere to deep-seated Catholic social values.

The GHR Foundation’s focus is on health, education and development. It recognizes that war is one of the biggest obstacles to all three. In 2013, the foundation awarded $16 million to its grantees. GHR’s peace efforts derive in part from Catholic liturgy, “Dona nobis pacem,” Grant us peace.