What an Overly Pessimistic View of America Gets Wrong
Yascha Mounk and Eboo Patel discuss how religious differences strengthen America’s civic fabric.
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Eboo Patel is the founder of Interfaith America and the author of We Need to Build: Field Notes For Diverse Democracy. Patel also served as an advisor on faith to President Barack Obama.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Eboo Patel discuss why it’s so common for faith-based organizations to serve communities beyond their own; why Patel once embraced critical race theory but eventually moved beyond it; and the vital role of civil society organizations in the fabric of American democracy.
The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: You recently published an excerpt from your new book in The New York Times, which I thought expressed some of the spirit with which you approach your work. It also explained what critical race theory meant to you when you were in college, and how it helped to illuminate your own experience, but also how you soured on it in some important ways. Why did critical race theory speak to you when you first encountered it in college?
Eboo Patel: The New York Times piece is an excerpt from my book, We Need to Build, which basically tells the story of how I had grown up as a brown kid in the very white western suburbs of Chicago in the late 1980s and early 1990s experiencing an ugly and insidious form of racism—people making fun of my mom by painting dots on their head, even though we're Muslim and not Hindu. That was just the way to make fun of brown kids. I remember working at my parents’ Subway sandwich store one day, and a white person walked in and said, “I want her over there to make my sandwich.” I said, “Well, I'm perfectly capable of doing this. I know I'm young, but I'm experienced, and this is my parents' store.” And he leaned in and said, “You don't understand. I want her to make my sandwich.” The discernible difference was that the other employee was white and I was brown.
Growing up, I had no language for this kind of thing, which didn’t happen every day, but did happen often enough for me to be constantly on my guard. There was a conversation about racism in my high school classes, but it was always about slavery and segregation—very clear structural things. Eventually I went to college, and I heard terms like “white supremacy” and “critical race theory.” White supremacy was defined as the idea that cultures associated with white people are superior to cultures associated with non-white people. It just felt like a huge part of my experience fell into place, connecting a whole set of dots for me about what I had gone through. I basically swallowed the pill whole.
But a huge part of the problem of the “critique” approach to the world—whether it's about race or gender or anything else—is that it insists on only seeing the bad things. I went to an excellent public high school and an excellent public university, and grew up in a loving, professional middle-class family, prepared to be a worker in the knowledge economy. One of the ways I think about this is that if you are only focused on the elephant in the room, the bad things, you miss all the other animals in the zoo. I don't think it's good for human beings to only tell the worst story about themselves, or their worst experiences, and I don't think it's a good approach to social change to constantly be telling the worst story about a community, or a nation, or a people, in the hopes that that's going to make things better. I don't think it does.
Mounk: You have a really beautiful story about how you began to understand the need to build. Tell us this story, the one about your professor who put on a play when you were an undergraduate.
Patel: I did this independent study in critical theory with a wonderful professor, and we read bell hooks and Paulo Freire and a whole range of things that are generally associated with critical theory. She would try to get me to think of positive and constructive approaches to engaging with this set of issues. But when I was 19 or 20, I didn't want to do that. I thought sophistication meant only telling the most negative story possible, and this material gave me the tools to do that. This professor of mine was a professor of education and theater, and she put on a play with her graduate students about growing up, and she invited me to the dress rehearsal. And in the talkback session, I stood up in front of the audience and I just blasted the play. I talked about how one of the kids had his own room and that was classist and racist, because not all kids have their own room. And I thought that I was being a paragon of sophistication. I thought this is what intellectuals do: stand up and critique things.
The look on the faces of these graduates who were acting, and my professor—they were aghast and deeply hurt. That was the last thing that was said in that session. I had just laid on this critique, and it completely chilled the room. And a couple days later, I got this email from my professor saying, “I can't believe you did that. I expected more from you. You should try your hand at writing a play, because creating something is much more difficult—and frankly, more important—than critiquing it.” This was towards the end of college for me, and I remember sitting there and looking at that email, and just thinking that my professor had basically said, “Grow up.” Adults don't approach the world by telling other people what they're doing wrong all the time, but by saying how things can be improved. Put something into the world that improves it, whether it's a better novel, or a better play, or a better organization. Do I want to be an arsonist, or do I want to be an architect? That was an early experience of reflecting on what kind of social change agent I wanted to be.
Mounk: I understand that after college you went to England for grad school and spent a few years there, and then you came back to the United States and started what's now called Interfaith America. What was the idea behind it?
Patel: The beginnings of Interfaith America happened just before I went to graduate school in England. And it was kind of a similar moment to the moment with the professor I spoke of earlier. Incidentally, I think that the kind of path that I've walked is a common path for activists, who are often initiated into activism by very black-and-white-striped voices. One of the calling cards is shocking people into a new way of looking at the world, and I think that there's some merit to that. But it can't last very long. You just can't have a gazillion people out there telling the worst story about things. When I was in college in the mid-1990s—an era that feels quite similar to today—a lot of my activism was around diversity issues. It wasn't called “wokeness” then, but there was a very heightened consciousness around race and gender and sexuality. I think there is a very positive story to tell about bell hooks and Cornel West being read everywhere. But towards the end of college, I realized that religious diversity is never a part of the conversation. I had become, at this point, more inspired by faith-based activists, particularly Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. The way I put it is that they loved people more than they hated the system. And it seemed to me that a lot of activists I knew hated the system more than they loved people.
I started going to interfaith conferences looking for the next generation of these great faith-based activists like Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Day, Pauli Murray and Martin Luther King Jr. What I found instead was old theologians talking. So I did what I was taught to do as an activist in college: I stood up, I raised my fist, and I called them out. This was June of 1988. I was probably 22, the firebrand young person on the floor, shouting people down. And a striking thing happened. This woman named Yolanda Trevino walked up to me, and she said, “What you're talking about—a movement of young people from diverse religious traditions, engaging in social action together—is powerful. You should build that.” The scales fell from my eyes. She presented to me two paths: one was to continue yelling at other people for what they were doing wrong; the other was to build what I thought looked right. This is at the heart of my book We Need to Build—a major characteristic of diverse democracies is the ability of identity groups to build organizations in the civic sphere that end up affecting policy and government in many major ways. That's the beginning of Interfaith America.
Mounk: There have been a few books trying to think about how to make diverse societies work and what the role of liberalism might be. Frank Fukuyama, who was on my podcast, has a really important book on this topic. My book The Great Experiment tries to puzzle through many of those themes. I think your book is very much in the same tradition.
Now, you have advanced a very polite kind of criticism about my book and about Frank's book as well, which is that we don't pay enough attention to the need for civil society. We don't talk enough about how civil society institutions are actually going to be key in making this work. That's a very fair critique— but since you have become, after your firebrand days, such a positive and polite guy, I don't feel you've ever given me this critique with full force and honesty.
What are we missing when we do not pay enough attention to civil society institutions like Interfaith America?
Patel: I would be honored for my book to be thought of as part of this kind of new, for lack of a better term, centrist way of thinking. And by center, what I really mean is rebuilding the great American big tent, from roughly three to four inches left of center to roughly two to three inches right of center. I think the way my book complements your book and Frank's book is to highlight that civil society is an absolutely essential element of this. One of the great gifts of democratic societies is the ability of individuals to create their own solutions to social problems, and to build them in the form of civic institutions. It’s the way most people in America participate in the public square.
In dictatorships, you don't have people who say, “I want to start a civic association”—even something as pedestrian as a Little League—because that civic association could easily serve, in the mind of a dictator, as an organizing unit for some type of opposition to the dictatorial government. Democracy invites its citizens to create health and identity associations for themselves as solutions to social problems. A structure that can be formally funded and have formal staff and address these things in deep and lasting ways is enormously powerful. One of the most remarkable and special things about American diverse democracy is that given the freedoms of speech, religion, and association, identity groups—principally religious identity groups—build hospitals, preschools, colleges, and social service agencies that are an expression of their own identity. It makes them better Catholics, better Muslims and better Jews to build these kinds of institutions, but they serve everybody. That is a remarkable facet of a healthy, diverse democracy. And you don't have diversity unless identity groups can express their particularity; otherwise, you have either homogeneity or a dictator who is suppressing everything. The definition of diversity is different identity groups being able to express their particularity.
Mounk: Let's go a little bit into why it is that this works relatively well in the United States, and why it is that these religious institutions end up serving everybody rather than turning people away at the door if you're not willing to sign on the dotted line of faith.
Perhaps you have a Jewish soup kitchen or orphanage for which there’s a very pressing need within the Jewish community in the early 20th century in the United States. But as there are fewer poor immigrants coming in from Europe who are Jewish, as the Jewish community integrates and succeeds, you have less need for further services within the community. And what does the institution do? It opens its doors further, remaining Jewish in some fundamental way but actually serving a community that is predominantly non-Jewish. The same is happening with some Muslim and Christian organizations and so on. Is that most of it? Or is there also a set of background norms, ideals, and aspirations which make the civic associations in the United States particularly open in terms of who they serve?
Patel: I think there are endless possibilities here. What you just described is really the story of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. It was founded in the late 19th century to resettle Jewish refugees from Russia, who were facing pogroms. But by the 1970s, the main refugee problem in the world was from Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and so on. So HIAS changed its scope of work to resettle mainly Buddhist refugees from that part of the world. What happened in the process of doing that is that HIAS began to reflect on its own Jewish identity. They didn’t principally think to themselves, “We resettle refugees, and it doesn't really matter where we resettle them from.” The way of thinking was: “We are a Jewish institution that is living out Jewish values: one Jewish value is safety for the Jewish people, but another Jewish value is safety for all people. If we have the opportunity to express our Jewish identity in that way, we're going to do it.”
And actually, we don't live in a world right now where the main refugee problem is Jews. We live in a world where the main refugee problem is largely Muslims. HIAS is doing most of its work resettling Muslims from places like Afghanistan. I think that's just remarkable. And I think that a significant part of the American experience is groups who feel excluded, who can't, for example, get health care and education and other institutions without feeling that there's significant bias or prejudice against them. They build their own institutions. This is very much the story of the Catholic universities, or how Jewish hospitals emerged. They write into their charters that they will not exclude anybody else in the way they themselves were excluded. Over the course of time, they serve more and more people from other identities. I would like to think that there's something in the American character and tradition which facilitates that.
Ben Franklin famously builds a hall in Philadelphia and he says the pulpit of this hall is open to preachers of any persuasion. He says that if the Mufti of Constantinople wants to send a Muslim to preach, this pulpit is open to him. That is there in the early American DNA, particularly this notion that we need to let multiple identities flourish, and those identities actually have to be in cooperation with each other. One of the things I find fascinating is that, for all of the talk that we have about important things like race, sexuality, and gender, religion is almost never a part of the conversation. I founded Interfaith America to elevate the role of religious diversity in the public conversation, and to train a generation of interfaith bridge-builders.
Why isn't religious diversity more a part of our public conversation about diversity and America? One reason, it seems to me, is that the Founders are people whose closest proximate intellectual experience was the European wars of religion, so they built a whole different kind of experiment: instead of following a course which ensconces a single religion in a nation, they say, “We're going to let a number of religions flourish in a single nation.” And for the most part, it has gone well, which isn't to say that we haven't had religious prejudice and conflict in America, but that it’s not of the kind that has wracked other parts of the globe. So why wouldn't we elevate the American story of cooperation between different faiths, and the fact that religious communities play such a central role in our civil society?
If every institution founded by a faith community in your city disappeared overnight, preschools, hospitals, and universities would be gone. YMCAs would be gone, places where AA groups meet would be gone. Half of your social services would probably be gone. It feels to me that religious identity diversity should be at the center of our national conversation, and I'm curious as to why it’s not.
Mounk: I think I might have an answer to that, and I'm intrigued as to whether you agree with it. We tend, in general, to speak about the things that aren't working, or the problems we really worry about. But I think the remarkable thing about the United States is the extent to which different religious communities do get along. Now, of course, there are moments in which that is less true. Obviously, the serious discrimination against Muslims, especially after 9/11, is one notable exception to that. But by and large Americans just don't worry that much about people of different faiths being able to get along. Now, I think it can be really productive to bring this into the conversation as a positive example, as one of the areas where this country's ability to encourage people from different groups to cooperate and to build is actually really inspiring. I think that's something that could make us feel better about our own country in a really productive way.
Patel: I think that's true. Robert Putnam and David Campbell wrote a great book about this called American Grace, where they point out that most nations that have religious diversity, and are not dictatorships, have conflict. The United States is an outlier in this regard. There are two things I want to point out here. One is a general social change strategy. My general social change strategy is to tell a story of increasing progress: you connect the dots in history that kind of tell a story of increasing progress, except where it is obvious that that is not the case, as in the Holocaust. But there is much less racism in 2022 than there was in 1922 or 1822. It is not hard to tell a story of progress on race, or really any other identity. And in telling that story, you start to foreshadow the next chapter. You are basically motivating your people to say, “Listen, you are part of a lineage of people who have fought for freedom, justice, inclusivity and pluralism, and your task is to write the next chapter.” That's the social change strategy that I believe in. I just don't understand a social change strategy that says, “Tell the worst story possible about the world, and then people will want to make it better,” or “Light a fire to the system, and on the other side of that fire will be paradise.” The other side of that fire is somewhere between Robespierre and the Ayatollah.
I think the second part of this is that diversity work in the past several years has become about the “oppressed” opposing the “oppressor.” It's all about power relationships. That's not principally how I think about diversity work. I think about diversity work as cooperation across differences and disagreement. I think it is remarkable when a Muslim heart surgeon who supports a liberal immigration policy, and an evangelical heart surgeon who supports a conservative immigration policy, perform a heart surgery across that deep political difference. That for me is diversity work: cooperation across difference.
Mounk: What do you mean by this “oppressor and oppressed” paradigm? How is that informing academic approaches to this topic, on the one hand, but also Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion workshops and other sorts of practical work in the field? How can we have an approach that tries to encourage forms of cooperation rather than forms of division?
Patel: I do think that there is value to critical theory and naming power relations. I think that the problem comes when we understand all issues as either nothing or everything: either you never talk about race, or you only talk about racism. I'll offer a personal example. My kids have come home saying that a camp counselor or a teacher asked them how they feel oppressed as a Muslim, and how Islamophobia has affected them. And on the one hand, I appreciate that, because Islamophobia exists, and it is an ugly thing. It's not a pogrom, but it is an ugly thing, and it shouldn't exist. And yet, the question is posed as if Islamophobia is what makes Islam important. In my mind, that notion is saying, “Your identity has no content, unless somebody else is prejudiced against it, or opposing it, or discriminating against it.” But Islam has a lot of content, and I would much rather my kids be approached about how their Muslim identity inspires them to be better people, how it inspires them to contribute to society, and how it inspires them to serve others.
And I think a major problem with the oppressor-oppressed approach is that it’s so hard to designate who the oppressed and the oppressors are. How do you take into account somebody's level of education, or whether their parents love them? It's just impossible to assign power relations based only on race, gender, and sexuality. But I think the biggest problem with it is that it assumes that identities don't have content, that they are made important by somebody else's prejudice. And I just think that that is a deep, deep violation of every identity, all of which have content that is not all based on the oppression that they've experienced.
Mounk: You’re saying that when you have this oppressor-oppressed framework, the emphasis is often placed on how your identity makes you suffer, rather than what you are bringing to the table with your identity (to use the potluck metaphor).
But these aren’t mutually exclusive. Sadly, growing up as a Muslim in United States, discrimination will likely be a part of your experience. But a much healthier way for Muslims to experience their identity (and a much easier way for me as a non-Muslim to relate to them), would be to ask, “What's important to you about your identity? Tell us a cool thing about it, or something that you think your classmates will appreciate.” That's actually a way to build much more genuine mutual understanding, and to make people feel like they have something in common.
Mounk: Let me ask you one more question to round off our conversation. When I look at cable news, Congress, or what I've come to think of as a kind of “cultural civil war” of the elites, I'm pretty pessimistic about the future of America. But when I look at what's actually happening on the ground, I tend to be pretty optimistic. I think American public opinion on most issues is very reasonable. Most Americans appear to be very decent people trying to puzzle through what they think is right. You're somebody who spends much of your time talking to communities and organizing. Are you more optimistic or pessimistic about the future of America?
Patel: I am by nature an optimistic person and positive person. A huge part of that is my character and my religion. The Prophet Muhammad, many times in his career, was close to being harassed and hounded to death, and God saved him every time. And the Prophet Muhammad says, “If you have a sapling in your hand, and the world is going to end tonight, plant the sapling.” That shapes my cosmic vision of the world. I also think that things have gotten better when it comes to American history. Lincoln fights the good fight during the Civil War and then tries to knit the country back together. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jane Addams built a civic institution, Hull-House, that is really the mothership for so many movements that strengthen American democracy from labor, to health, to youth, to education, to recreation. I think America is constantly producing Jane Addamses. I think we are constantly producing Obamas. I think we are constantly producing Julius Rosenwalds, the Jewish philanthropist who partnered with black communities to build five thousand black schools. I think we're constantly producing these remarkable people through our civil society, and they rise to national prominence, and have an opportunity to tell a new narrative to the nation, and to build a new layer of democracy. I know it's an enormously hopeful vision. But that's my character, and I see it in Interfaith America programs. I'm not looking at the worst of humankind, and I'm not submerged in the crazy cable news discourse. I am constantly witness to remarkable young people and remarkable civic religious leaders who are leading towards cooperation, who are leading towards pluralism, who are building a potluck nation and an Interfaith America. And that's the train I want to be on.
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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.
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