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The last several years have tilted the United States and much of the world toward a kind of chaos that has historically often led to some form of authoritarianism.
But the author Eboo Patel hopes the U.S. can emerge from these uncertain times into an even more robust pluralistic democracy than we have now, rather than descending into a tyranny born of disorder.
Patel, president of Interfaith America, says one way to do this is to make religious faith more welcome in public life, not less so.
Surveys show that Americans are becoming less religious, and that this growing secularism has provoked a reaction among some on the right who want Christians to take control of the government and enforce moral codes.
Patel says making the United States “more Christian” is not the answer to what ails the country. At the same time, he still wants people of faith to have a loud voice in the public square.
The path forward, according to Patel, is to recognize the power of religious faith, acknowledge that faith can be a force for good but also sometimes for ill, and build a culture that respects all faiths and solicits contributions from adherents of each.
“Interfaith work happens in the United States all the time. Most people consider it positive. They just don't consider it interfaith work,” Patel said in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast. “When your grandfather is going through a triple-bypass surgery at a hospital started by Jesuits, with a physician team that is Muslim and Jewish, and the anesthesiologist is Hindu, and the person sanitizing the room is a Jehovah’s Witness, and the person who runs the hospital is a secular humanist who grew up Buddhist, that's interfaith work.”
“Every single one of those people, their faith is involved in that procedure, because they're all literally all whispering the prayers of their faith or the hope of their humanist philosophy as they walk in,” Patel added.
His book “We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy” joins a catalog of recent works that seek to steer the United States away from a regression into savagery and self-sabotage. Yuval Levin’s 2020 book “A Time to Build” made the case for restoring a focus on institutions as key tools to strengthen the nation. Jonathan Rauch’s 2021 book “The Constitution of Knowledge” pointed to a system for producing agreement among competing views that was developed in Europe to stem centuries of bloodshed over religious questions.
Patel’s book is a call for Americans to stop complaining and get to work. It is a hands-on tour of his own evolution from a snarky and cynical activist to the leader of a nonprofit institution that argues that “religious diversity is a foundational American strength.”
Patel wrote in the New York Times in May about how he built an identity in college around being a “victim of racism.” As a Muslim and the son of Indian immigrants, he has since moved toward an embrace of constructive activism and institution building.
“Responsible citizenship in a diverse democracy is not principally about noticing what’s bad; it’s about constructing what’s good. You need to defeat the things you do not love by building the things you do,” he wrote in that column.
Interfaith America was founded in 2002, and Patel’s book tells the story of how the organization grew in fits and starts.
It is at times a manual for building community organizations. But there is also a focus on the U.S. higher education system, to which Patel’s organization has dedicated much of its attention. A former Rhodes scholar, Patel writes in his book that universities should be “civic spaces that specialize in teaching people how to engage in … conflicts through language and politics, rather than violence.”
Patel favorably quotes the comment of the Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre that “a central purpose of higher education [is] to initiate students into conflict.” It’s an idea that runs counter to an increasingly dominant and censorious belief system on many college campuses, where students and faculty alike have attempted to shut down debate around contentious subjects.
Patel also said that universities need to do more to train students in how to solve problems, rather than just pointing them out.
“Educators and the adults on campus have a role to play in telling students that they're responsible for things, not just for breaking things, and not just for telling other people what they're doing wrong,” he said. “We've had a five- or six-year period in American social, political and cultural life which is off the rails. And so I think that there needs to be extra emphasis on not just initiating people into anger, but in shaping them into problem solvers.”
Patel’s hope is that out of the chaos of the last several years, the United States can experience a “refounding” that moves the country toward greater religious and ethnic diversity and tolerance that “respects identity, that builds relationships between different communities, and that cooperates to have a common life together.”
Interfaith America creates curricula for educators aimed at increasing student awareness and dialogue around the role of faith and the importance of pluralism for a healthy democracy, along with courses for nonprofit and for-profit organizations, to help them value the ways that employees can draw on their faith constructively.
“I don't think of interfaith work as a cure,” Patel said. “I think of it really as the fabric of our society. I do think that you strengthen that fabric and a set of good things happen, and a set of bad things are less likely to happen.”