Named “one of America’s best leaders” by U.S. News and World Report, Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith America, the leading interfaith organization in the United States. Under his leadership, Interfaith America has worked with governments, universities, private companies, and civic organizations to make faith a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division.
Eboo served on President Barack Obama’s inaugural faith council, has given hundreds of keynote addresses and has written five books. He is an Ashoka Fellow and holds a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship.
Teri: I personally got to know Eboo Patel and his work while serving as the chaplain of Monmouth College in Illinois. We took groups of students to his organization’s Interfaith Leadership Institutes, and even brought him to speak at Monmouth College. I have learned a lot from Eboo, and I know you will, too. So I am really looking forward to this conversation. And Eboo, thank you for being here with us today.
Eboo: It’s great to be with you. I’ve appreciated our friendship for these many years. Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this. And I have to say that I’ve had conversations about the book with a number of Presbyterian leaders. You guys are amongst the best leaders of the book, in part because you are such excellent institution builders. So I know we’ll dive into the meat of that in the conversation, but I’ve enjoyed the engagement with a number of Presbyterians.
Teri: In your 2007 book, Acts of Faith, you asked: “In a world of passionate religiosity and intense interaction, how will people from different faith backgrounds engage one another?” You referenced W.E.B. Du Bois saying, “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” and added your belief that the problem of the 21st century will be shaped by the faith line. On one side of the faith line are the religious totalitarians, you wrote, people who believe only one interpretation of one religion is legitimate. On the other side are the religious pluralists, people who believe that we can hold different beliefs and belong to different faith communities, yet work together for the common good.
The work of your organization, Interfaith America, focuses on strengthening religiously diverse civic spaces, places where people who fundamentally disagree on politics and ideology can come together and work on something cooperative that they generally agree on.
How has that work evolved since the beginning of your career?
Eboo: Interfaith America has been through something like four big cultural moments. One was the immediate 9/11 moment in which Acts of Faith was written. That was the kind of Islam versus the West moment, where the notion of a faith line emerges.
The second cultural moment we’ve lived through is the Obama moment, where diversity is considered sacred. It’s an optimism about America, the sense that we have more in common than what divides us. There’s an earnestness about it.
The third moment was the racism of the Trump White House. The parallel of anti-racism becomes kind of king on the progressive side. On the very conservative side, it’s the rise of Christian nationalism. I’m clearly not on that side. But I’m also not a resistance person.
I’m hoping we’re entering a new phase, where social change is more about what you’re building than what you’re calling out. It’s not a more ferocious revolution. It’s a more beautiful social order. It’s cooperation across differences, not the oppressed versus the oppressor.
Teri: How does this work play out?
Eboo: In my book We Need to Build, I define the civic. I call this the American genius — the civic spaces in our society. Spaces that gather people from diverse identities and divergent ideologies in activities that have generally agreed-upon aims and that guide cooperative relationships. So that’s kind of a geeky definition. I carry the baggage of graduate school.
But think about Little League.
People generally agree on Little League. At the most granular level, “I want my kid to have a constructive activity on Saturday afternoons.” At the highest level it’s about health and wellness and teamwork and cooperation. You generally agree upon that. And you might have somebody who’s pro-Palestinian, somebody who’s pro-Israeli, who have kids the same age, who want ’em to play on a baseball team. So they co-coach the team. And when they’re coaching, their views in the Middle East are not the most important thing. Their ability to teach kids how to swing and pitch and catch is the most important thing. That’s the cooperative relationship.
We take [this kind of common aim] for granted, but actually, many societies don’t have that. In We Need to Build, I write about the city of Mostar, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which there are fire departments started by different religious communities that do not respond to fires on the other side of town. When the Muslim home is burning, the Catholic Fire Department does not respond.
That is so alien to us as Americans, but it’s actually how most of human history has gone. Particular identity groups build institutions to support their identity, and those institutions are more likely to cultivate hostility rather than cooperation with other groups. But a civil society is made up of civic institutions which gather diverse identities and divergent ideologies in activities with common aims that guide cooperative relationships. Not only is that kind of stunning, but also, so many of our civic institutions were founded by a particular faith.
We don’t sit back and think to ourselves, “boy, Monmouth College is founded by Presbyterians and it goes out of its way to recruit Jews and atheists and Catholics and Muslims and to nurture cooperative relationships between them. And it calls that part of its Presbyterian identity.”
Teri: It feels normal.
Eboo: I think we should recognize that as a serious achievement of American civil society. We should celebrate and strengthen it. That is the approach of the work of Interfaith America. Not only is the glass half full. But somebody created the glass and filled the water. And we ought to be grateful to those folks.
Teri: Our audience is predominantly from the Presbyterian church. Although that space may not be religiously diverse, there are different forms of diversity. We’re talking a lot about “purple churches” — the blend of red Republicans and blue Democrats. These purple churches are having such a hard time cultivating any sort of meaningful conversation, let alone action on societal problems to which our Presbyterian faith calls us. What strategies have you found successful to help people act cooperatively?
Eboo: Number one, you should enter into a situation recognizing that diversity is not just the differences you like. It’s also disagreement.
The only way to have diversity in a community or an institution is to be able to disagree on some fundamental things and work together on other fundamental things. Anybody who’s married or has a family knows that you do that all the time.
And the other part of this is that you just learn things. You learn things from people who see the world differently. Why wouldn’t you wanna learn more things?
One of the stories in my book, when Obama gives the commencement speech at Notre Dame, there were screaming protests outside for days about Obama’s pro-choice stance. Notre Dame is coming out of a Roman Catholic tradition that is pro-life. But Obama doesn’t shy away. Also, Notre Dame, to its great credit, does not pull the invitation. They welcome him to the podium. And Obama tells stories about what he has learned from Catholics who he admires and disagrees with.
He says, look, our disagreements really matter. And there’s parts that are unbridgeable. But there are parts we can bridge. Like, nobody wants more abortion in the country. Right. Let’s work on ways of reducing abortion. But there’s parts of this that are probably unbridgeable. We’re just gonna have to live with that. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from each other or like each other or cooperate.
Teri: In We Need to Build, you name our tendency to make sweeping generalizations, assuming that we know what everyone in the other group believes or how they might act. I think it was at one of your Interfaith Leadership Institutes where I learned the strategy of using “I” statements, to not speak for all Presbyterians or all Christians because I can’t do that. But also not expecting others to speak for their whole group. And approaching these conversations with a kind of humility, understanding that we may not know what the Republican thinks, or the Democrat or the Independent until we engage in conversation.
Eboo: Also, what happens when somebody of your preferred identity does not hold your favorite view?
Teri: Right. We’re all just so much more nuanced and complex.
You reference Michelle Alexander’s New York Times essay “We Are Not the Resistance” in your book, summarizing her concern that resistance is a defensive posture geared more toward opposition than f lourishing. It does not dream big enough, and it does not do enough to build new structures. But, honestly, there’s just a lot of anger. That resistance comes from somewhere. We’re really angry at the injustices that we’re seeing perpetuated. How can we transform that anger, so we can be builders of something better?
Eboo: I think part of my frustration with this particular moment in social change is that it is considered intellectually sophisticated to point out all of the bad things of the world.
The term marginalized is a relative term. You are marginal to somebody else’s center.
I am not saying that things are not harder for some people than other people. Things are harder for women than for men. Things are harder for Black people than White people. Things are harder for gay people than straight people. We should work to make things as equal as possible. But there’s a difference between some things being harder and being oppressed. A billion and a half people in the world have parasitic worms. Half of the world, that’s 4 billion people, lives on under $7 a day.
If we have a sense of perspective, we might find it easier to discover the momentum to move forward. It’s not about stopping to complain, it’s about appreciating the opportunity to improve our own lives and the lives of others. Like, glass half full. What is my role and responsibility in filling it up more?
If we have a sense of perspective, we might find it easier to discover the momentum to move forward.
We need more people to be builders. And the way people do that is not by priming them to talk about how little agency they have. It’s by priming them to discover what amazing agency they have and how they can be inspired to do more.
My friend Eric Lui wrote a book called You’re More Powerful than You Think. That used to be what we talked about in social change. Big billboards in Chicago for the international organization CARE, picturing women with hijabs that said, “I am powerful.”
It used to be the center of progressive social change, to highlight how people in challenging positions were still powerful. And now the center of social change is to tell people how marginalized and vulnerable they are. And I just kind of don’t know what good it’s doing.
Teri: You acknowledge that it is easier to offer critique or even be self-critical than it is to do the work of building. The rhetoric today does seem to be about critiquing and challenging systems that in my mind legitimately need to be challenged. But the language we’re using is deconstructing, decolonizing, and defunding systems and structures that have been oppressive. Presbyterians have been institution builders. We don’t want to start all over. We say we are from a Reformed tradition and always being reformed. What is the role of reform in this building work?
Eboo: I am constantly talking to Interfaith America about where we come from.
We stand on the shoulders of giants. I tell the story from my own faith community. Aga Khan IV, the current imam of the Ismaili Muslim community laying the first stone for Aga Khan university in Karachi Pakistan in the year 1971 because his predecessors laid the stone for our university in Cairo in 970. And he’s saying, we come from this tradition. We are a tradition of people who build universities.
Other people have come before us and built things that made a difference in their era. How are we building things that make a difference in our era? Some of the things that made a difference in previous eras are no longer useful. They might well have done harm. But the 75 Presbyterian colleges and universities that your community built have lasted for many, many eras. And do they need to change? Absolutely. But the fact that they’ve lasted for generations already is remarkable.
White mainline Protestants are too busy criticizing themselves right now to say we have built some remarkable things and now we need to build more remarkable things, some of the things we built need to be reformed. Some of them probably need to be let go.
And by the way, honestly, if I can say this with love to you and your people, I’ll speak at a White mainline Christian conference in 2010 and it’s like 90% White people and all the talk is about anti-racism. I’ll come back and speak in 2018 and all the talk is about anti-racism and it’s like 91% White people.
I’m not sure the method is working. I’m just not sure reading Robin DiAngelo is gonna get you there.
Teri: Or just reading Robin DiAngelo and not looking at other examples and seeing what other communities are modeling.
Eboo: If the question is, how do we have a more racially diverse church in which more people of color, Black and Brown people are in leadership positions, there’s actually people who’ve done that. Why don’t you go ask them what they’ve done well? What are they doing right?
Teri: It’s a best practices approach. Look at who’s doing it in a way that you want to emulate, study that, and try things. You have a chapter in the book called “Campus as Crucible.” And our college campuses are absolutely places that can foster the skills young people need to go out and be builders in the world. How can our religious communities help develop people who are builders?
Eboo: I think it’s what religion does best. Because what religion does is articulate an ideal — the kingdom of God. And it builds institutions which seek to approximate the ideal. Every Presbyterian institution, every college, every hospital, every social services agency, every church is an attempt to approximate the kingdom of God and to move the world closer to it.
It is an approach to social change which anchors an ideal and builds institutions to that ideal. As opposed to an approach to social change which seeks to critique and dismantle the system.
With current modes of social change, you have ideals without institution. I’m living this in Chicago.
When Governor Abbott in Texas and Governor DeSantis in Florida had the jerky idea of sending migrants and refugees by plane and bus to New York City and Chicago, Lori Lightfoot, the mayor of Chicago basically said, bring ’em, we’re gonna welcome them. Okay. So that’s an ideal. An ideal that I support, by the way.
Now it’s six months later and can I tell you where those migrants are sleeping?
In police stations and park districts. There are 10,000 migrants in Chicago.
Our political leaders at the time had an ideal around how we should welcome the stranger. Good for them. But they had not built the institutions to actually welcome the stranger. A critique without an alternative is a problem. An ideal without an institution is a problem. By the way, Teri, can you guess which nongovernment sector is leading the way in figuring out how to house and treat the migrants decently?
A critique without an alternative is a problem. An ideal without an institution is a problem.
Teri: The religious institutions in Chicago.
Eboo: Right. The religious communities are constantly taking a battering, particularly from progressives. But at the end of the day, you Christians, we Ismailis are the ones figuring out how to get shampoo and soap and peanut butter and graham crackers and housing and bedding to these people. This is not to say that critics of religion are doing nothing. But at the end of the day it is going to be we who have built the faith-based civic infrastructure who support people like this.
Teri: Eboo, I really appreciate that you’re a champion for religion — all religion, not just your own. You are a champion for America’s religious democracy. In the book you acknowledge the devastating statistics about religious decline in America, and the rise of the “nones,” those who claim no religious affiliation. Yet you highlight the durability and adaptability of religious institutions. What feeds that hope?
Eboo: Religion is going through a down time. But cultural winds change all the time. You would never have guessed from the Tiger Woods and Michael Jordans of the 1990s, people who downplayed their racial identity, that in the 2010s people would be up-playing their racial identity. The same could happen with religion.
We need to be who we are. We need to do the work of helping people and telling hopeful stories and lifting folks up and building communities.
We need to be who we are. We need to do the work of helping people and telling hopeful stories and lifting folks up and building communities.
We can model a better way of living. I think living in a way that’s humble and hopeful and being something that other people look at and say, I want that in my life. I wanna be the kind of person who is cared for and is giving care to the people right around me.
Things do need to change. But as Bill Clinton used to say, “I believe that what’s right with America can change what’s wrong with America.” What’s right within Islam can change what’s wrong within Islam. What’s right within the Presbyterian church can change what’s wrong within it. We should find inspiration in that and find hope in that and we should tell that story.