This is worth your time: a conversation between Rev. Tish Harrison Warren — an Episcopal priest and regular contributor to The New York Times — and Eboo Patel, an American Muslim and founder and president of Interfaith America, a Chicago-based nonprofit that aims to promote cooperation across religious differences. He served on President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships.
The headline for this piece (available in a newsletter to Times subscribers) is “Why We Shouldn’t Lose Faith in Organized Religion.”
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.