An Interview with Eboo Patel

Eboo Patel is an author, speaker, educator, and interfaith leader who founded the Interfaith Youth Core. For over 15 years he has worked with governments, social sector organizations, and college and university campuses to help make interfaith cooperation a social norm.

Read more about his work and philosophies below in an interview between Eboo Patel and PACH Director Crystal Clarke.

Crystal Clarke: Could you tell me more about the work you do at the Interfaith Youth Core, in your own words?

Eboo Patel: The big idea of IFYC, which is the organization I founded about 20 years ago, is to fully embrace the breadth of America’s religious diversity — from atheists to Zoroastriana. And to help create what we call an interfaith America. That is, a nation that respects its various religious identities, including the ways that those identities intersect with things like race, gender, and sexuality and nurtures positive relationships between different communities and that is inspired towards building a common life together.

C: How do you believe your work fosters connections or a common humanity?

E: So much of what is on the front pages about religion is the opposite of connection — it’s division. And it’s the opposite of common humanity — it’s the oppression of one group by another. So much of what I have found inspiring about religion, and many people find inspiring about religion, is precisely its ability to help people connect across lines of difference and its ability to articulate a world in which all of us can practice, what Jane Adams would call a cathedral of humanity. It feels to me like those of us who care about world-building and human connection and a world in which all of us can thrive, if we are unable to connect with those dimensions of religious traditions that have nurtured this ethic for literally millennia, then we lose a store of human wisdom and it makes our task of building a common life together a lot harder.

“So much of what I have found inspiring about religion, and many people find inspiring about religion, is precisely its ability to help people connect across lines of difference and its ability to articulate a world in which all of us can practice.”

C: I’d like to go a little deeper into that. You just mentioned the power of religion to build bridges across differences. Can you talk a little bit more about how religion plays that role?

E: I think about at least two parts of how religion plays a role in bridging difference. One is sociological. Religious communities are probably the most important repository of social capital in the United States, and that’s from Robert Putnam’s work at Harvard. He wrote about that 20 years ago in “Bowling Alone” and he reiterates that in his book “The Upswing.” So the first part of what religion does is it gathers human beings into groups, and then it has the ability to nurture positive interactions between those groups. The civil rights movement is a singular example of this: people from Catholic and Protestant churches, people from synagogues and mosques, coming together to, for example, march in Selma. There’s also many more prosaic examples: disaster relief is a great example, where people from religious communities are working together to help people after a hurricane, or an earthquake, or a tornado. Soup kitchens are an important example of this as well. Any part of what we think of as our civic life very often has diverse religious communities partnering together at the center. So the sociological part is one way religious communities nurture bridges. The second is the vision of the community, like the notion in the Qur’an that God made humanity into diverse nations and tribes that we may come to know one another. There’s a version of that across religious traditions, and I think there’s something deeply inspiring about cosmic language and sacred scripture that gives us a sense of who we are meant to be in the world, and what it looks like for us to achieve that vision.

C: I love this sense of cosmic language being uniting in that way. Can you pin down specific strategies your work calls on that brings people together across differences or across social divides? What would be the strategies?

E: You mean the organizational strategies?

C: Yes.

E: A lot of what we do is work with higher education. So we work up and down a campus structure and across the ecosystem of higher education. We help college administrations develop interfaith strategic plans. We help students create interfaith student groups. We work with faculty to develop interfaith study courses. We work with a network north of 500 campuses. There are over 300 courses in Interfaith Studies across the country, there’s hundreds of interfaith student groups and we bring them together in what’s called the Interfaith Leadership Institute every summer when there isn’t a pandemic. A big part of the strategy is that higher education can be a laboratory and launching pad for a network of interfaith leaders and for the idea of interfaith America. And so much of what we do in this — I write about this in my book “Interfaith Leadership” — is to say we can’t leave religious diversity at the door when we engage other issues of identity, and so often it is left at the door. One of the things I like to say when I go to a college campus is think back to your First Year Orientation, those three or four days when you first arrive at campus and the college administration is telling you what the college is about. Think about how much of that has to do with identity and diversity — typically it’s about half of First Year Orientation. And now think about how much of the diversity part of your orientation dealt with religious identity and diversity and the answer to that, unless you go to Notre Dame or Wheaton, is virtually zero.

C: Right.

“We can’t leave religious diversity at the door when we engage other issues of identity.”

E: That means the colleges and universities are simply ignoring a mass store of human wisdom, because so much wisdom is within these religious traditions. So many teachings, so much language for connection, and the irony is that so many of these traditions helped build America’s colleges and universities. A lot of what we do at IFYC is say that you have to take religious diversity seriously and into account when you’re dealing with other matters of identity and diversity or when you’re dealing with American history, when you’re dealing with social change movements, when you’re dealing with social infrastructure etc. Additionally, you can’t just look at the bad stuff. You can’t just look at the way religion divides and oppresses, you have to look at the ways it connects and creates the idea of a world in which all of us thrive.

C: It’s curious to think about religion playing such a fundamental role in the creation and foundation of our institutions and systems and morals and values and yet there’s such a resistance or lack of awareness or attention to religion explicitly in these spaces. Why do you think that is?

E: Part of it might be secularization theory hangover from the 1960s, when people thought religion might go away. Part of it might be the increased salience of LGBT identity, and the fact that religious traditions have, to their discredit, not been on the cutting edge of positive progress on welcoming people from gay and lesbian identity backgrounds. That’s a problem, but it’s not the whole story. Peter Berger would say that the faculty room at the University of Chicago is the exception not the norm. So in this case, the type of people who ignore religious identity and traditions are the exception, not the rule. That’s an issue. It can be rectified, but you need to identify it as an issue.

C: Could you speak a little bit about how your work relates to addressing injustices in society that often get in the way of building across social differences? In other words, what role do you believe religion plays in justice or addressing injustice?

E: Religious traditions speak about justice all the time! All the time! Ruth Bader Ginsburg had the lines of Jewish scriptures in her office, “Justice justice you shall seek.” Justice is at the heart of the Muslim tradition, it’s at the heart of Christian tradition. It is across traditions. It is literally impossible to speak of a justice movement — from abolition to civil rights, without the sociological dimensions of religion at the center, which is to say, religious communities. That is where people got their inspiration to work for justice. Right now, I’m finishing up a book that’s about the importance of building better institutions for a better world, and I’m going back through the history of SNCC and how SNCC comes to be. What’s interesting is the typical take on SNCC is that it was Stokely Carmichael’s secular sword versus Martin Luther King Jr.’s clerical collar. The truth is Ella Baker, who hosts the first conference of SNCC, says that the reason that she got active in the civil rights movement is because her mom is active in the field of religion, and she is very much nurtured in the galaxy of Black women’s religious institutions. The other people involved in SNCC in those early years, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, all of these people talk about the centrality of the Christian tradition and the church as a sociological institution to nurturing their commitment to justice. Not just the cosmic language of justice in scriptures, but also the sociological reality of the institutions that nurtured social justice, which are often the institutions that are part of the galaxy of this world.

“You can’t just look at the way religion divides and oppresses, you have to look at the ways it connects and creates the idea of a world in which all of us thrive.”

C: I want to shift to talking about your work and you in particular. Specifically, what has brought you to this work? Can you tell me about a time or a moment or an experience that shaped your interest in the work you’re doing now? What’s your “why”?

E: I was an angry activist in college. After a couple years of that, I realized the anger I had was not burning down oppressive structures; it was just burning up my insides. Right around that time somebody introduced me to Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. It literally was a random encounter where someone mentioned Dorothy Day to me and said she founded something called the Catholic Worker Movement, which the person said is the most radical thing you’ll ever see and there isn’t a shred of anger in it. There happens to be a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality in my college town. It was true. I went there and here are all these people living in solidarity with poor folks and there was this sense of joy along with justice. These folks appeared to me to be doing more than the angry activists that I knew. They were helping more people and with a spirit that I just deeply admire. It was my first step down the path of the way that faith could inspire social action. You take that step and it doesn’t take very long to find other figures like Dorothy Day across religious traditions and then to notice they have something very deep in common, which of course they already realize. For example, King learned from Ghandi, Gandhi learned from Jainism and Leo Tolstoy, Nelson Mandela talks about how struggling against the apartheid was very much an interfaith movement. That’s how I got my start in this. What struck me was that so much energy was going towards addressing issues of race, gender, sexuality and class, which are all important, but almost no energy going towards addressing religious diversity. It felt to me like there was a contribution to be made here.

C: While you’re speaking it’s making me think about how in my world there are conversations about religion not being radical, and hearing you speak makes me think about how radical the use of religion has always been. What would be your take on religion as radical versus “traditional”?

E: I used to confuse radical with angry. Radical doesn’t mean angry, radical means ‘to the root.’ You can find anything you want in the Bible — if you’re looking for division you will find it, if you go in seeking hatred for other people you will probably find it. But if you go in thinking about how to connect across lines of difference you will find that also, if you go in looking for a vision that is highly inclusive you will find that also. So I don’t think it is useful to think about religion in their essentialism. Christianity can and has meant very different things to very different people. But there is absolutely a radical dimension in religion, which is to say, a thinking that goes to the root and a proposal for an alternative way that people can live together. If you look at the Catholic worker of Dorothy Day to the confessing church of Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Hindu ashrams or Sufi tariqas, it is a model for alternative ways that human beings can live together. That is radicalness.

“Radical doesn’t mean angry, radical means ‘to the root.’”

C: In the circles I’m in there’s a lot of conversation about religion not being progressive enough, or being too traditional, so I love what you’re saying about what it means to be radical — meaning to get to the root. My last question is what change in the world do you hope your work leaves behind?

E: Thank you for that. I’ll use this as a reference point. People usually refer to the United States as a Judeo-Christian nation and actually, it tends to be more conservative people who use that language now. It is used with some frequency to exclude other people Muslims, atheists, etc. The term Judeo-Christian nation is evoked so often that you would think Thomas Jefferson wrote it in the Declaration of Independence or that Moses got it on Mount Sinai. It feels like it was just always there. But the truth is it wasn’t always there. The term Judeo-Christian was invented in the 1930s for progressive reasons. It was invented because up until that time the United States was thought of as a Protestant nation and Catholics and Jews were not thought of as welcome even as recently as the 1930s! A group of civic leaders came together and built a group called the National Conference of Christians and Jews and made a term that offers a new chapter in the American narrative of religion — Judeo-Christian. One of the things I’d like our work to do is to write the next chapter in that story. We are clearly beyond Judeo-Christian. There are almost as many Muslims as Jews in America, there are twice as many Muslims as Episcopalians. We are now an interfaith nation. In addition to the on-the-ground programs to help institutions become laboratories for interfaith collaboration and helping to inspire and train thousands of young people to be interfaith leaders, a big part of what we want to do is to shape the American narrative. We want to think of ourselves as an interfaith nation that welcomes the contributions and dignifies the identities of everybody from atheist to Zoroastrian such that there are positive relationships between them and it inspires people towards the idea of a common life together. That’s one of the ways I think about success in our work.

To learn more about Eboo Patel’s work and organizations, visit the IFYC website or follow him on Twitter @eboopatel.

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