Paul Eppinger describes the “foundation stones” of the Arizona Interfaith Movement in three words: “understanding, respect, and support.” The Arizona Interfaith Movement (AIFM) brings together individuals and religious organizations in the Phoenix area to share and apply the Golden Rule. The AIFM is uniquely successful and sustainable as it shares the message of the Golden Rule through partnerships with state government and local businesses.
The seeds for AIFM were planted in 1995 when Eppinger, now AIFM’s executive director but formerly a Baptist pastor and director of the Arizona Ecumenical Council, was inspired by a Mormon community member who was vocal about his commitment to living his life by the Golden Rule. Eppinger saw this man reaching out to religious leaders of various traditions in order to better understand their respective faiths and practices. In his role within the Arizona Ecumenical Council, Eppinger organized a meeting of eight colleagues from diverse religious traditions. That group became the Board of Directors for the Arizona Interfaith Movement. Early on in AIFM’s history, the Golden Rule became a unifying theme around which excitement for the organization’s goals coalesced, encouraging understanding, harboring respect, and building support between members of different faiths. One initiative in particular, the creation of the Golden Rule license plates through the state of Arizona’s Motor Vehicle Department, has served to help sustain the AIFM, and increase awareness about their work and the Golden Rule within the broader community.
According to Eppinger, the license plate idea can be attributed to the same man who initially inspired his interfaith work. The Golden Rule license plates depict an iconic Arizona landscape of the Grand Canyon, Sagauro cactus, and a sunrise. The words “Live the Golden Rule” shine out below the license plate number. The AIFM’s license plate project faced challenges in the beginning, namely because government officials were hesitant to agree to support something with such religious undertones. Eppinger explains, “they got all wrapped up in the separation of Church and State.” His response to this concern? “[T]he Golden Rule is not a religious practice from one particular faith tradition that we are trying to force down the throat of anybody else; rather, it is a life principle and . . . the Golden Rule is in the scripture and teaching of every faith and is included in many secular organizations as a part of their ethical guidelines.”
Once the AIFM convinced government officials of the neutral, universal message of the Golden Rule, the license plate was approved by the Arizona House of Representatives, the State Senate, and the governor in a process that took several months and a large financial investment on the part of the organization to complete. AIFM found that the pre-existing personal relationships of the organization with members of the Arizona government proved to be a huge asset in the project’s success. Furthermore, the AIFM’s extensive community networks enabled the organization to quickly raise the large sum of money that was necessary to begin making the license plates. While there was great risk involved in this initiative, it has proven quite successful: Eppinger estimates that there are thousands of Golden Rule license plates on the road, virtual traveling advertisements for the movement. In addition to increasing the visibility of the Golden Rule, the AIFM receives $17 per license plate sold; proceeds are earmarked for Golden Rule educational purposes.
The success of the license plate initiative allowed AIFM to launch a high-impact awareness campaign at local cinemas in 2010. The organization produced a minute-long video clip featuring children from several different faiths stating the Golden Rule from their religious or secular tradition. Eppinger explains that the commercial is “a beautiful little thing . . . we had a little Sikh boy with his little turban telling the Golden Rule from the Sikh scripture and then we had a little Muslim child, and then a Christian child, and then a Buddhist, Jewish and Secular child.” This commercial was played before featured movies began and was viewed by nearly two million people when it aired from mid-December to mid-January in eighteen regional theaters. The AIFM strategically chose to invest in airtime during the weeks surrounding the winter holidays—a peak time for moviegoers with more vacation time. They mounted a similar campaign in 2011 that included a picture of the Golden Rule license plate.
Statistics are not the only evidence of AIFM’s success. The organization’s direct impact on numerous religious communities remains key. AIFM hosts multiple events throughout the year, including an annual Golden Rule Awards Banquet and Experience Interfaith. The organization also supports religious communities in times of need, and creates forums in which people of various faiths can engage. Members of the AIFM are truly exemplifying the message it shares.
AIFM models for future Golden Rule initiatives potential partnerships with governmental and business sectors that seek to build momentum for the interfaith movement. The organization has taken many risks including making sizable financial investments in the license plates and Golden Rule commercial. They have been innovative, and it is paying off in the fulfillment of one of the organization’s primary objectives: to spread the word about the Golden Rule. In July 2011, the Arizona Interfaith Movement was able to share this message with interfaith leaders from around the United States when they hosted the 2011 North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) conference in Phoenix. Through these initiatives, AIFM continues to see incredible returns on investment that allow for the sustainability and future growth of the movement they are shaping.