Eboo Patel’s latest book, Out of Many Faiths, explores the daunting challenges and encouraging possibilities at work amid America’s religious diversity.
In what might be the book’s most important contribution, Patel explores the history of America’s wrestling with religious diversity through an alternative and revealing lens—the Muslim American experience.
As a Muslim himself, Patel considers many illuminating themes and episodes from Islam’s complex history in America. He uncovers how Islam itself was repeatedly discussed by the Founding Fathers in their earliest deliberations about the nature of religious freedom in America. Countering a popular fear that Muslims came to America with dreams of dogmatic dominance, Patel reminds us that many of America’s earliest Muslims arrived on our shores in slave ships. Far from an invasion, it was a kidnapping.
Invoking another important historical episode, Patel discusses the complex and illuminating relationship America had with the great boxer Muhammed Ali and his Muslim faith. He examines the numerous ways in which Ali had to navigate being both beloved and vilified, accepted and rejected in his path toward inclusion in the greater American story.
Patel goes on to examine how Muslim Americans attempted to establish a community center in lower Manhattan after 9/11. Their original hope, he explains, was to serve not only their own Muslim community but the greater city of New York itself. That said, their hopes were frustrated by their fellow Americans, many of whom saw the community center as a disrespectful and intrusive act of religious aggression in the former shadow of the twin towers.
Patel skillfully uses the lens of American history to help illuminate our country’s current debates over Islamophobia and religious diversity. Our current distrust of Muslim immigrants, he argues, is not a new or novel phenomenon. Americans have always distrusted religious newcomers and minorities. During the 19th and 20th centuries, it was Jews, Catholics, Mormons, and a host of religious “others” who were perceived as a threat to American culture, security, and faith. Patel argues that throughout American history religious minorities haven’t just needed to overcome the challenges of religious bigotry; they have all needed to find a way—little by little—to write themselves and their story into the larger American narrative. This, he argues, is the current challenge for Muslims in America.
Our National Symphony
It is here that we come to a central aspect of Patel’s argument, which deals with American “civil religion.” For Patel, civil religion is a powerful, dynamic, and quasi-spiritual force that has formed America’s collective sense of national identity and mission ever since the nation’s conception. It is a powerful conglomeration of American values, traditions, stories, beliefs, heroes, and holidays that animates and directs the national spirit. Civil religion, he argues, has inspired citizens to do a great many wonderful (and terrible) things throughout America’s history. And civil religion is what Patel proposes as his modest solution to the challenges of religious diversity and division in America.
One way to understand Patel’s conception of civil religion is to think of it like a complex and spirited national symphony—a musical score that all Americans are (ideally) invited to play. According to Patel, the musical notes of religious equality, tolerance, and cooperation have always been present within America’s symphony of civil religion. That said, during our nation’s darker days these notes of religious hospitality were quieter, if not nearly silent.
The solution, Patel argues, is to play those notes of tolerance once again. America must revive the old musical notes of equality, diversity, and pluralism, all the while developing new melodies of interfaith cooperation to complement the old symphony.
Patel encourages America’s citizens to highlight the national heroes, stories, and values of American tolerance found throughout the nation’s history. By raising up these examples, he believes, Americans will start to develop new civic habits of hospitality and a new spirit of tolerance. In the end, he argues, it is in our collective interest—as citizens—to work for the renewal of the civic, spiritual, and cultural landscape of American tolerance and interfaith generosity.
Before I mention my cautions about Patel’s work, I want to offer one final note of commendation. At first blush, Patel’s account of the Muslim experience in America will feel quite foreign to many white evangelical readers (like myself). After all, Muslims have long been on the margins of the American story, while evangelicals have long been central and even privileged.
That said, as evangelicalism continues to lose its dominant cultural position in America, there may come a day when Muslims and evangelicals discover some surprising points of contact and commonality. In the years to come, evangelicals might come to recognize themselves in Patel’s account of anxious Muslim parents worried about raising pious children in an increasingly secular and hedonistic culture. Evangelicals might identify with Muslim citizens who feel marginalized for holding counter-cultural perspectives on sexuality, gender, and abortion. Evangelicals might hear a note of resonance with the Muslim urgency to foster institutions that can carry on their beliefs, traditions, and ways of life. Evangelicals might even empathize with the frustration Muslim families feel with when secular moderns portray them as overly conservative, rigid, irrational, dogmatic, and joyless. While many things still separate the Muslim and evangelical experience in America, a charitable reading of Patel’s account might go some way toward bridging some longstanding divides.
The Cross and the Common Good
With that, I want to close with a brief list of cautions about Patel’s argument. These should be read in light of my deep gratitude for his work and my commendation of this book.
First, I fear that I don’t share Patel’s optimism about the prospects of interfaith agreement or cooperation in American life. I fear that his book has not yet fully plumbed the depths of the yawning religious, political, and cultural chasms dividing America today.
Second, if Patel had, in fact, considered the true depth of cultural fragmentation in our country, I doubt he would be quite so optimistic about the ability of American civil religion to bridge what currently divides us.
Third, I’m not nearly as confident as Patel that there is such a thing as a “common good” that different religions can agree upon and seek after. His claim leads me to wonder: Who gets to define the common good? Who gets to direct our collective efforts toward this common good? It appears that, for Patel, this task would fall to American civil religion. The problem, of course, is twofold: Many of America’s faiths are suspicious of and resistant to the persuasive powers of American civil religion, and many of these faiths will not be able to come to an agreement on the substance of this proposed “common good.”
Take me, for example, I’m an evangelical Christian and an American citizen. I believe that Jesus Christ—his cross, resurrection, and reign—is, in fact, the common good for America. My immediate problem, of course, is that the cross of Jesus Christ is a public scandal in America, something not to be discussed in polite, political, or mixed company. My Muslim, Buddhist, and atheist friends do not accept my conception of the common good. What I am to do? The cross, after all, functions as the core of my private and my public life. The cross cannot be removed from how I think about the common good.
The scandalous particularity of my faith is a real challenge for me in a pluralistic society (and I think it is a real challenge for Patel as well). I believe that the God of the universe made space for me in a very particular and specific way. Through a singular execution, atop a precise hill, outside a specific Jewish city, on a particular piece of wood, through a unique Galilean carpenter—that is how the God of the universe made space for me. God does not love me in a vague, common, or diffuse way. He loves me, instead, through very real and very scandalous particularities.
That very particular event (the cross) and that very specific person (Jesus) direct how I see the common good and how I live as a citizen of the United States of America. This particular person (Jesus) gives me a compelling reason to defend the rights and dignity of Muslim neighbors like Eboo Patel. Jesus makes it imperative that I seek Patel’s flourishing, safety, and well-being in this country.
American civil religion will never be my primary motive for rejecting Islamophobia. A Fourth of July parade will not inspire me to rebuild my neighbor’s mosque after it has been victimized by arson. No, I’m going to make public space for my Muslim neighbor because the cross of the Galilean made space for me. I can’t enter public life any other way.
This scandal of religious particularity in a pluralistic society brings me to a final comment: I would love to live in a country where Patel could have drawn openly and honestly from his own Muslim faith, scripture, and tradition as a resource for engaging with American democracy and pluralism.
As far as I’m concerned, Patel should not have to quote Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, or Martin Luther King Jr. as his moral authorities in order for me to accept him as a well-adjusted and well-integrated Muslim-American. He should feel welcome to enter the American public square just as he is, as a Muslim. Patel’s faith, after all, has inspired him to serve our nation’s universities through his incredible work with the Interfaith Youth Core. His faith has encouraged his incredible posture of generosity towards Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, and many others. Patel should not need to appeal to the heroes and values of American civil religion to earn a seat at the American table. If he is a citizen, he deserves a seat at the table—end of story.
Nationalizing programs of integration always ask immigrants to find ways to make their religious particularities fit into a singular civil religion or national identity. True pluralism should make space for—and even encourage—citizens to openly draw upon their own religious traditions and seek their own particular religious goods as they engage our country’s complex and dynamic shared spaces. I—for one—am grateful for Eboo Patel’s presence and profound contribution to our complex national conversation.
Matthew Kaemingk is assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear (Eerdmans).