"Racism is a problem of the heart and an evil that must be eradicated from the institutional structures that shape our daily lives including our houses of worship," said the one-page statement released at a news conference Wednesday at Washington National Cathedral.
It has been endorsed by representatives of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Native American and Hindu-Jain organizations. The statement, along with other anti-racism initiatives, is part of ongoing work that began in 1998 when President Clinton sought the help of religious leaders in racial reconciliation efforts.
"Simply stated, an affirmation of this statement represents one step in our efforts to live out our conviction that people of faith must not allow racism to persist," said the Rev. Welton Gaddy, executive director of The Interfaith Alliance and the chair of the task force that drafted the statement.
The latest efforts complete about half of the initiatives that religious leaders pledged to work on during a gathering at the White House in March, said Sanford Cloud, president of the National Conference for Community and Justice, the New York-based human rights organization spearheading the efforts by religious groups.
He said the new initiatives are "grounded in the concept that racism is incompatible with God's intention for humanity."
The statement includes pledges that individuals will reflect on and resolve their own biases and work to be "consciously inclusive" of others. Other promises are to demonstrate repentance for racism, a desire for reconciliation and a commitment to promote understanding among different racial, ethnic and cultural groups.
Leaders, including Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Native Americans, often quoting Scripture from their own traditions, voiced their agreement with the statement.
"Racism's truly a wrongdoing that divides the nation and this bold initiative brings the nation together," said Imam Mujahid Ramadan, former president of the American Muslim Council. "The idea of racism is...in direct opposition to the unity of God."
"I think we need to say it's a sin," said Land, who is also a Beliefnet columnist.
In response, Gaddy said: "We were working on a statement that would bring a lot of different traditions with different vocabularies in the denouncement of racism."
In addition to the statement, the NCCJ has printed a "Directory of Faith-Based Promising Practices for Racial Unity and Justice." The 44-page document--designed to serve as a catalyst for future efforts to build racial reconciliation--highlights examples of Baha'i, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian and interfaith programs that have fostered dialogue and action on race-related issues. Among the programs are racism and ethnic sensitivity workshops established in the Archdiocese of Detroit and an annual conference in New Orleans that promotes black-Jewish relations.
The faith leaders' initiatives also include what they called action steps for greater inclusivity in the country, guidelines for holding interfaith forums on racial justice and reconciliation, and a "Congregational Diversity Evaluation."
The congregational evaluation suggests members of houses of worship spend two hours reviewing their congregation's commitments to reducing racism through diversity initiatives, leadership positions in the congregation, employment recruitment and religious education curricula. Christian Methodist Episcopal Bishop Thomas L. Hoyt of Shreveport, La., said he hopes the statement will lead to additional steps, such as acts of repentance and forgiveness.
He said he expects some houses of worship will "shy away" from direct steps such as a congregational evaluation, but he hopes religious leaders who are already sensitive to racial issues might be able to encourage such additional work.
Leaders of the NCCJ and a range of faith groups plan to continue their efforts by issuing a booklet of theological statements regarding racism next spring and holding a national summit at an undetermined date in the future.
Sullivan Robinson, executive director of the Congress of National Black Churches, said it was "vitally important" for the range of faiths to come together to address racism and she hopes their resolve will become "infectious" to others.
"It's going to make this a better nation," she predicted.
Chief Jack Swamp, leader of the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk Nation, who concluded the news conference with a prayer in his native language, said the process of drafting the statement gave him hope.
"All my life I've heard different faiths fighting one another over who is right, whose religion is more right," he said. "By bringing together these faith leaders, there was an indication that maybe the world's people are coming together."