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We Need to Build: an Interview with Eboo Patel

It’s hard to know how to improve America since so many people are constantly angry at people on the other side of religious, political, and ideological divides.

This week Eboo Patel, a Muslim pioneer in interfaith work, joins David French and me to discuss his book, “We Need to Build.”  The former faith adviser to President Obama had some interesting thoughts about:

  • The need to allow people of different faiths to be able to bring their whole selves, including real and significant religious disagreements, to these conversations
  • Why it is so important to do more than criticize what we don’t like in the culture, but instead to adopt the more mature approach of actually building what we want to see in society
  • The importance of institutions for a healthy society as well as a call to create those institutions 
  • Why “Little League” is a miracle, and why it’s important that people of different viewpoints participate in these community activities
  • How to talk to people with whom you have profound disagreements

Eboo’s challenge is this: those committed to re-founding America as a just and inclusive democracy need to defeat the things we don’t like by building the things we do.

CURTIS CHANG: It increasingly strikes me that the frontier of religious pluralism is less about getting different faith communities to work together well, as important as that is.  The more urgent task is, frankly, to teach religious communities to embrace the values of pluralism in their own internal religious conflicts and disputes.  Evangelical Christianity is tearing itself apart right now. It doesn’t even have any energy, frankly, for questions like, “how do we relate to Buddhists? How do we relate to Muslims?” 

I think a lot of the values and insights you’ve birthed into trying to help different religious communities relate to one another need to get adopted, at least by evangelical Christians and how we relate to each other. 

Do you see that at all? Do you see any openings for that? And if so, what would that look like? How would religious pluralism values get adopted in internal religious conflict?

EBOO PATEL: So a couple of things here, Curtis. Number one, my first move with other religious communities – and, by the way, my own also – is to articulate what I admire. 

Evangelical Christianity helps tens of millions of people order their lives, and it helps them be decent human beings, decent husbands and fathers, decent wives and mothers, decent sons and daughters, brothers and sisters and neighbors. I saw this growing up. I grew up in Glen Ellyn, next to Wheaton College. I knew a number of people who became evangelical Christians who were coming out of experiences of alcoholism or abuse or just ugliness. So, I’ve seen faith positively order people’s lives. 

It is important for me as a Muslim to say that to you.

The second thing is you have built a set of remarkable institutions. So from World Vision to Intervarsity Christian Fellowship to the CCCU. And you ought to take great pride in that because it has formed people and helped them live better lives, and it’s also served so many people. 

I remember talking to Richard Stearns, the guy who ran World Vision for years and years, because we were on President Obama’s Faith Council together. I once asked him if there was a comfort level within World Vision for having non-Christian staff. 

He looked at me and said, “We have thousands of Muslim staff in Afghanistan and Pakistan. How do you work in those countries without Muslim staff?” He kind of gave me this look like “We do this all the time.”

Part of what I also want to offer to you is the ways in which the things that are going right in your communities. I always want to begin with “where is it going right?” It’s going right very often in Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, it’s going right very often at CCCU schools. It’s going right very often in the disaster relief operations of the Southern Baptist Convention. 

I understand there are problems with all these things. I’m not stupid. But I would really prefer to begin with what’s going right and ask the question, “How do we do more of that?” 

Human beings can only stand so much negativity, and we cannot constantly tell ourselves stories of ugliness and negativity and things going wrong. We have to tell ourselves stories of hope, of the ideal, and how we can get there, and examples of people that are doing that.

There’s this great quote by Woody Guthrie. He says, “I hate a song that makes you feel bad.

I hate a song that makes you feel down. I hate a song that tells you that you’re nobody, that you’re nothing, that good for nothing and you’ll never get anywhere. I will never play those songs. I don’t care how much people pay me, I will never play those songs. Your radio is full of so many of those songs already.”

This is a deeply religious conviction and a deep religious seed bed: telling stories of possibility. 

[This excerpt was lightly edited for clarity.]

HOSTS: Curtis Chang and David French

PRODUCER: Kris Carter

The Good Faith podcast comes out every Saturday on The Dispatch. Listen and subscribe here or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Image Credit: Edwin Martinez City Island Little League ASG 014 via Flickr

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