Eboo Patel wants to tell a better story about religion in America.
Patel, an American Muslim and founder and president of Interfaith America, a Chicago-based nonprofit that aims to promote cooperation across religious differences, served on President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships and has written five books, including his latest, “We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy.”I met Patel at an Interfaith America gathering last year and was struck by his buoyant enthusiasm for religious groups in America and his comfort with diversity and disagreement. I asked him to speak with me about religious identity, diversity and institutions in America. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tish Harrison Warren: What worries you about the state of religious discourse in America now and what encourages you?
Eboo Patel: Here’s what worries me: Half the time when I’m giving a public presentation, the first question about religion is a negative question. What do you think about Islam and violence? What do you think about the Catholic Church and the pedophilia crisis? Why do so many people of faith hate gay people? Particularly in the areas of America where people have higher levels of education, those are their first questions. It is considered sophisticated and educated to know only the bad stuff about religion. Of course, that’s ironic because to only know the bad stuff is to not actually be educated. So that is discouraging.
I’ll tell you what I find encouraging. Catholic sisters just keep on doing what Catholic sisters do, which is taking care of poor people. There are 10,000 migrants in Chicago that leadership recently welcomed into the city. But they had not adequately prepared for where those people would sleep. Well, guess who’s taking care of them? Largely, Catholic Charities and other faith-based organizations.
Our society relies on religious communities to take care of people, to do addiction counseling, to do job training, to do hunger and homelessness work, to do refugee resettlement. We just don’t often tell the story of them doing that work. And I think that that’s a big problem.
At many interfaith gatherings I’ve been to, I see mainly religious progressives talking about progressive causes. Your organization reaches out to moderate and conservative religious people as well, including white evangelicals. How do you bridge those progressive/conservative divides that seem so deep now?
It’s actually so much simpler in practice than it is in theory. I’ll give an example: In any hospital in America at any hour, there are people from very different religious identities — a Muslim surgeon with a Jewish anesthesiologist, with a Mormon nurse, with a Jehovah’s Witness social worker, with a Baptist who is sanitizing the room at a hospital started by a Catholic social order like the Dominicans or the Jesuits, that is run by an agnostic who grew up Buddhist. And every single one of them before they walk into a surgery is having their own kind of moment of prayer or reflection or connection with what they call God. That’s what we see as interfaith work.
People from diverse religious backgrounds — who may disagree on some fundamental things about abortion or where to draw the line in Jerusalem or doctrinal matters like the nature of Jesus — who are working together on other fundamental things. That is the genius of American society. We call that civic cooperation. It takes place everywhere all the time.
Think about refugee resettlement. Six of the nine refugee resettlement agencies in America were founded by faith communities. And virtually all of them spend most of their time resettling refugees from a different religion. So you have Jews who founded the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS, in the late 19th century to resettle Jews from Russia. Then, by around the 1970s, most of the Jews who want to be resettled somewhere, whether it’s the United States or Europe or Israel, have been resettled. So does HIAS close? No! They start resettling Cambodian Buddhists. And now they’re resettling Somali Muslims. I think that’s the most inspiring thing in the world. In America, people build institutions — hospitals, social service agencies, colleges, whatever — out of the inspiration of their own faith identity, but the institution serves people of all identities. That is not a common ethos in human history.
But that’s the story of America. That is American pluralism at its best. That is civic cooperation. And I think that we should marvel at that every day.
One thing that you bring up in your writing is that religious identities are often not taken as seriously as other identity sources like race, sexual orientation or gender. You argue that diversity and inclusion conversations should include really diverse religious beliefs and identities. What do you think about the role of religious identity in America?
Stephen Prothero wrote the book “Religious Literacy,” about theabsence of religious literacy in American civic life. We know less about our country, less history, less about the world civilizations, less about our neighbors, if we don’t engage in positive, productive conversations about religion. Few people truly recognize the role that religious communities play in America’s civic infrastructure — hospitals, social service agencies, our colleges, our K-through-12 schools. Did you read Jessica Grose’s series on people leaving a religion? I wonder how many people who are reading that have alarm bells going off about the state of American civil society. If people stop going to church, who’s going to support the little Catholic school where half the students are under the poverty line? Fewer people in religious communities is a bad thing for American civil society. American religion has long been entrepreneurial, and American religion will likely adapt in ways that increase religious participation in the medium to long run. I don’t think we’re going to live in this cultural moment forever. But I fear that American society and social services will suffer in the short run.
You write a lot about the role of institutions in society, especially in “We Need to Build.” You recently wrote in an article, “A healthy sector cannot have 100 arsonists for every architect.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
You can’t have a critical mass of people going around basically telling other people what they’re doing wrong and constantly undermining existing institutions if better ones aren’t replacing them. In popular discourse, there’s a model of social change that seems to say that if I tell you how much I hate you and totally delegitimize you, then something better will rise up from the ground. That’s craziness.
So, for instance, I would much rather have a conversation about what is a just ecosystem of public safety that involves multiple actors — from youth organizations, religious communities, schools, social services and law enforcement. That’s a positive framing of the conversation, as opposed to trying to rip down one institution, the police, instead of having a robust conversation, plan and strategy to build a positive, healthy ecosystem of public safety.
What is needed to help people become more constructive in their approach to social change?
I’m a big believer in the stories that we tell. This is my understanding of religion, of pluralism, of social change: If you tell an inspiring story, people will want to move in that direction. If you only tell a terrible story about America, then people will think that terribleness is inevitable. You tell a terrible story about Islam or Christianity and people will think that terribleness is inevitable. Which is why I think that call-out culture and cancellation culture is wrong in both theory and practice. It is the wrong approach to social change. We want to encourage people — whether schools or churches or entire religions or nations — to be doing more of what we think is beautiful and healthy.
Can you define healthy pluralism? What’s harming that and what’s helping that now?
Our framework for healthy pluralism is: respect, relate, cooperate. Respect for people, for diverse identities, even if you disagree with them. Relate positively across communities. Cooperate on common projects that serve the common good. And the truth is, in America, we do this all the time. We do this in our refugee resettlement. We do this in disaster relief. We do this with social services. We do this in athletics. It is actually the central dynamic of our civic culture. But we do not talk about it as building pluralism.
Do you think that is becoming more or less possible in the United States?
I think we are in a moment of transition. The last few years seemed so challenging. I think there’s a day when people wake up and they’re like, “You know what? I don’t care that my dad voted for Trump. I’m going to call him anyway.” In other words, some of this is just a paradigm shift and you’re like, “I’m just not going to let X stop me from engaging in Y anymore.” It’s that simple. I think we could be at the end of oppositionalism and anger, despair and fear. And then all of a sudden, collectively, something new happens.
When it comes to religious diversity, specifically, American pluralism is mostly inspiring and generally the envy of the world. And we ought to be proud of that. For all of the mistakes and sins of the European founders, their understanding of religious identity and diversity was totally inspiring, both in 1776 and in 2023. And it’s our job to try to live into that vision.
Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”