America’s Hidden Strength
Religious groups, from Christians to Muslims, don’t limit their benevolence to members of their own faith.
by Eboo Patel
In March, the Inner City Muslim Action Network—a community development organization on the south side of Chicago—marked its 25th anniversary by opening the Go Green Community Fresh Market in Englewood, a neighborhood where nearly half the population is food insecure. Most of IMAN’s staff, board and donors are Muslim. Most of the recipients of its many programs, from its health clinic to its prisoner re-entry initiative, are not Muslim. And this is precisely what makes IMAN such an exemplary Islamic institution.
The Qur’an encourages Muslims to be “a special mercy upon all the worlds,” which means that I am a better Muslim when I work with other members of my faith to serve people of all identities. Of course, many Americans are involved in similar religious organizations meant to serve the broader community. In Detroit, San Francisco and Montgomery, AL, almost 50% of social services are provided by faith-based groups. In Amarillo, TX, it’s over 70%. Six of the nine largest refugee resettlement organizations in the United States were founded by religious communities. Not a single one restricts their resettlement work to their own identity group. Our private universities were largely built by faith communities—Lutherans, Catholics, Methodists, and Presbyterians. Virtually all of them now accept students and employ faculty of all identities.
Each of these organizations contributes to what I call “civic pluralism”—the social ethos that emerges where there is a critical mass of spaces and institutions in which people from different backgrounds come together in shared activities that promote general well-being and guide cooperative relationships. Civic pluralism is important because it allows people with diverse identities and divergent ideologies to live together in a single society peacefully and to mutual benefit. We often focus on the political institutions and processes that hold diverse societies together. Fair elections, civil rights, separation of powers, and due process are indispensable. But the foundations of diverse democracy are built as much on civic spaces like volunteer organizations and college seminars as on Supreme Court rulings.
Civic pluralism is so common in America that we rarely pause to appreciate how remarkable it is. Consider what civic life looks like in the city of Mostar, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. If you work for the Croat Catholic fire department, you don’t respond to the burning buildings of Bosnian Muslims, even if you happen to be closer. And if you work for the Bosnian Muslim fire department, you let the flames engulf Croat Catholic homes. If you are Catholic, you go to school from 7:30 am to 1:30 pm. If you are Muslim, you study in those same buildings from 2 pm onwards. There are two soccer teams, two garbage collection companies, and two hospitals. These lines of division are not explicitly enforced by the government; they are a result of the norms in civic life and self-segregation.
For most of human history, separation along identity lines has been the norm, not the exception. This balkanization is perfectly natural when considered from the perspective of a particular community whose main purpose is to propagate itself across generations. But in a contemporary, diverse democracy, identity-based balkanization is the opposite of civic pluralism, and it would tear the society apart.
Considering the polarization and tribalism in contemporary American political life, we should not take our country’s civic pluralism for granted. Our ideological divide is evidenced by where we live (rural vs urban), by the news channels we watch (Fox vs MSNBC), by the sports we love (NASCAR vs the NBA), by the music we listen to (country vs hip hop), and even by where we drink our coffee (Blue State Coffee vs Black Rifle Coffee Company).
The great danger is that these divides will continue to grow, eventually overwhelming our civic pluralism; that the faith-based disaster relief organization, which used to proudly serve everybody, might now only serve the people the church agrees with ideologically; that people with different bumper stickers on their cars might refuse to work side by side in hospitals founded by faith communities; that liberals and conservatives who once volunteered alongside one another at food banks might deliberately avoid shifts with people who hold different political views.
To steer clear of this danger, we need to stop taking civic pluralism for granted. Instead, we should acknowledge and share its many achievements (here is my attempt), tell its stories, support its institutions, and nurture its future leaders.
What does that look like in practice? It is the Parent Teacher Association, co-chaired by people of different religions, organizing a fundraiser together for the school play. It is the Little League team, coached by adults who have different views on abortion and are still committed to their ball club having a winning season. It is the volunteer fire department, where the firefighters have deep disagreements on immigration policy, but the arguing stops when the fire alarm rings.
I have a very personal reason for supporting the ethos of civic pluralism: it is the reason that my family is in this country. In 1842, during a time of rampant anti-Catholicism, a group of French Catholic priests built Notre Dame University for the purpose of educating poor midwestern Catholic boys. Yet, in the mid-1970s, Notre Dame admitted my father, an Ismaili Muslim immigrant from India.
Why would a university originally built by and for Catholics welcome a Muslim? I had the opportunity to ask that question to Father Hesburgh, a legendary Catholic leader and president of the university for 35 years. He told me that “there is a large ‘C’ Catholic, which stands for a particular path to God. And there is a small ‘c’ catholic, which in Greek means ‘universal’. For our faith to be strong, we need to be both rooted in our particular identity and embrace the diversity of the world.”
For our democracy to be strong, we need to do the same.
Eboo Patel is Founder and President of Interfaith America (formerly Interfaith Youth Core) and author of the new book We Need To Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy from which this essay is adapted.