New Rooms in the Interfaith Movement

Eboo Patel

Interfaith illustration

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

In the opening session of an interfaith youth core conference a few years ago, a Chicago pastor took the microphone and introduced himself. He spoke about how much he had gained from his Buddhist meditation practice, expressed disdain for Republicans in power, and proclaimed how excited he was to be in a friendly space with people of other faiths. Finally, he noted his frustration that a particular type of Christian was always absent from such gatherings, saying: “There are too many conservative evangelicals who claim the mantle of my faith, who believe that Jesus is the only way, that Christians have the exclusive truth, and who focus their energy on trying to bring others to their view rather than expanding their own spiritual horizons. I find that I have more in common with people like you than with people like them.”1

There was nodding around the room. It seemed that some of the people who had come to the gathering had heard this sort of thing before. The pastor passed the microphone off with a flush of pride in his face.

It arrived in the hands of a young man who had recently graduated from the University of Illinois, who was probably two decades the pastor’s junior, and who looked calmly at the pastor and said, “My name is Nicholas Price, and I think you are talking about me.” It could have been an ugly moment, except for how Nick handled it. He simply said that he was an evangelical Christian, had been very active in the large evangelical campus group InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as an undergraduate, and had recently accepted a staff position at the organization. He’d majored in religious studies with a concentration in Islam, and he believed his faith called upon him to seek to convert Muslims and also to cooperate with them. While he was deeply committed to the former, he understood that this space was dedicated to the latter.

I had heard the sentiments expressed by that Chicago pastor in organized interfaith movement events so often that I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about them had it not been for Nick’s presence and response.

In his self-introduction, the pastor had succinctly articulated what I’ve come to call the three main rooms in the house of interfaith cooperation: liberal theology, progressive politics, and spiritual enrichment. Moreover, he proclaimed that those views weren’t just rooms in the house, but the front porch and the foundation as well.

The primary purpose of interfaith work is as a form of bridging social capital—building relationships among religiously diverse people who have different political, theological, and spiritual views.

For the pastor, interfaith cooperation was a logical extension of his theological liberalism, political progressivism, and spiritual sensibilities. More to the point, not only was his engagement in interfaith cooperation predicated on those perspectives, but he believed that they were prerequisites for any engagement with interfaith cooperation. Which is precisely why Nick perplexed him. Here was a theologically and politically conservative young man with clear spiritual limits who was interested in building relationships with people of different faiths.

The moment raised a set of fundamental questions for me about interfaith work, the most obvious being: Who is excluded in a movement that trumpets inclusivity, diversity, and relationship-building? Nick had taken a different route to the house of interfaith cooperation and, when he arrived, was greeted by a guard on the front porch and told in no uncertain terms that there wasn’t a place for him. My experience during fifteen years in interfaith work is that this is pretty common. Evangelicals are on the outside and are frequently invoked as somewhere between the foil and the enemy.

The second issue it raised for me was more fundamental—namely, what is the purpose of interfaith work? Is it to bring together theological liberals and political progressives of various religions to share how their different faiths brought them to similar worldviews? That’s what the pastor wanted, and what he was accustomed to in such settings. He had come to the event hoping to commune with his friends from a range of faiths who felt comfortable in those three rooms, and perhaps to invite a few more folks in. But if this approach excludes, and potentially raises hostility toward, faith groups, then it ought to raise the question of just what it is we think we are doing in a movement called “interfaith.”

Social capital theory, as developed by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, guides us toward what I think is a better way forward. Putnam writes, “social capital refers to social networks, norms of reciprocity, mutual assistance and trustworthiness.”2 Such networks have concrete value in a number of ways, ranging from networks in which people help others find jobs, to networks like neighborhood watch clubs, which reduce crime, thereby helping not only the people who participate directly, but also bystanders.

One of Putnam’s crucial distinctions is between “bonding” and “bridging” social capital. Bonding social capital brings people from like identities and perspectives together in tight networks, whereas bridging brings those from different identities and perspectives together. Putnam claims both are important, likening the first to sociological Super Glue and the second to sociological WD-40. He goes on to make this crucial point: “a society that has only bonding social capital will look like Belfast or Bosnia—segregated into mutually hostile camps. . . . [A] pluralist democracy requires lots of bridging social capital. . . .”3

In his more recent work, Putnam, along with David Campbell, writes about how religious divisions in America have changed over the course of the past few generations.4 The strongest divisions are no longer between people of different religions, but between people of different religious intensities. More theologically conservative evangelicals and Catholics, for example, are bonded in conservative politics. According to Putnam and Campbell, one fallout of this dynamic has been to drive a large group of people away from religion, period, explaining one of the reasons for the dramatic rise of what sociologists are calling the religious “nones.” Another fallout is that the theologically liberal, politically progressive, and spiritually expansive have needed to find spaces to gather and commiserate. One of those places has been in the interfaith movement. And so, interfaith work, as it is currently organized, has become a form of bonding social capital between people who have similar political, theological, and spiritual views.

But if the key divisions in American religious life are no longer among Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, but between conservative religious believers of multiple traditions, on the one hand, and a combination of liberal believers and secularists, on the other, then the bonding social capital nature of the interfaith movement effectively serves to widen and deepen that polarization.

I believe this is the wrong path for interfaith work to take. This doesn’t mean that bringing people from different religions together to advance progressive politics or liberal theology or spiritual enrichment is bad, only that this is not the central task of interfaith work. The primary purpose and greatest value of interfaith work is as a form of bridging social capital—building relationships among religiously diverse people who have different political, theological, and spiritual perspectives. Effective interfaith work would promote the following perspective: We recognize the deep and different worldviews you bring to the table, and we believe that you can have powerful relationships anyway. Movements exist to solve particular problems. The problem that interfaith work should be seeking to solve is the polarization of people who orient around religion differently.

While there are many groups who probably feel at a slight angle to interfaith work—atheists come to mind—I focus here on evangelicals for three reasons. The first is the aggressive hostility that I have witnessed within interfaith circles toward evangelicals, often expressed in the notion that evangelicals (and, yes, the paintbrush used is frequently this broad) represent the opposite of the movement. The second concerns the sheer numbers we’re talking about when it comes to evangelicals, who make up somewhere between one-third and 40 percent of America. If interfaith work is defined by building relationships among people who orient around religion differently, and if people within the movement are openly antagonistic to a group that makes up 40 percent of the nation’s total population, then I think this calls into question the effectiveness of the endeavor.

Third, I believe these attitudes get evangelicals wrong, especially given recent shifts within the community. Nick, the young man I spoke about at the beginning, is an interesting illustration of this. In a series of articles for Relevant Magazine, he’s been outlining an evangelical mode for both the Great Commission and the Great Cooperation. And he’s far from alone. Not only have progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren been writing more directly about the imperative of interfaith cooperation, more mainline and moderately conservative evangelicals—Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Bob Roberts—are also a part of what I’m calling the relational turn in evangelical thinking. The focus here is not just on encouraging people to have a personal relationship with Jesus—the heartbeat of evangelical theology and conversion activities—but is on Jesus as an exemplar who built relationships with people of all backgrounds with unconditional love. Increasingly, I’m hearing these mainline to moderately conservative evangelicals underscore that an important part of that unconditionality is that Jesus did not require people to believe as he did to love them, and he did not use his love for them as a bait-and-switch to get them to follow him. For the evangelicals I’m talking about, following Jesus means several things. One is having a personal relationship with him as Lord and Savior. The second is seeking converts to that path. The third is having relationships with people from a diversity of backgrounds in an unconditional way, as Jesus did, not as bait for conversion but as an expression of religiosity. As Bob Roberts says, “I love others not to convert them, I love them because I am converted.”

Finally, evangelicals excel in an area that I think should be the primary locus for interfaith cooperation—namely, the strengthening of civil society in largely noncontroversial ways, in civic engagement. By this I mean everything from Little League to volunteerism to disaster relief to social services. These are areas that the vast majority of people agree on, that are absolutely crucial to the functioning of our civil society, and that can be life-and-death matters, especially for people on the margins. Moreover, many people are inspired by their faith or philosophical traditions to engage in them. Mobilizing people from different traditions around malaria prevention or care for AIDS orphans will likely not cause many arguments, and it will bring much-needed human and other resources to crucial efforts. And these activities serve as perfect vehicles to have interfaith conversations around. After doing an interfaith fundraiser to purchase bed nets to prevent malaria, you organize an interfaith dialogue asking the simple question about what stories/heroes/scripture/philosophy from your tradition inspires you to do this work.

These also happen to be areas where evangelicals excel. Institutions like World Vision and Habitat for Humanity, founded and run by evangelicals, not only do exceptional civic work, their activities already serve as spaces where people from multiple faiths cooperate.

Interfaith work is when Muslims and Jews who disagree vehemently about where to draw the line in the Middle East, or whether to draw one at all, choose to cooperate on building schools in Vietnam rather than arguing about Jerusalem. Does this approach ignore the elephant in the room? I don’t think so. There are dozens of spaces where people dissect the elephant, and very few where we are talking about the other animals, that is, the other conversations we might have, the various areas where we might cooperate, and the clear convergence points of our different traditions.

At Interfaith Youth Core, our big push in recent years is around training and mobilizing interfaith leaders. We believe the key to changing the conversation about religion from conflict to cooperation is people who are committed to highlighting common ground and creating programs of cooperation: interfaith leaders. Any movement needs leaders. I don’t just mean enthusiasts, people who are willing to attend and organize events. I mean people who are skilled in keeping the priorities of that movement front and center.

Interfaith cooperation is actually a separate house from the houses of liberal theology, progressive politics, and spiritual enrichment—just as conservative theology and conservative politics are different houses. In a highly religiously diverse and devout society, at a moment of global religious tension and conflict, positive relationships among people who orient around religion differently are absolutely necessary. Those relationships cannot be based on political, theological, and spiritual perspectives because, if we are doing our work well, the people who enter the house of interfaith cooperation will disagree mightily on such matters. The goal of the architects of the house of interfaith cooperation—the interfaith leaders—should be to find frameworks, activities, and conversations where those people can both build relationships and do productive things together in civic life.

Part of what concerns me about the position I’m taking is that people might agree with it—and choose to move out of the house of interfaith cooperation. In other words, they might say: “I understand that people have deeply felt political and theological differences and interfaith work should be about bringing those folks together. But actually what I think is really important is building a religiously diverse movement around theological liberalism, or political progressivism, or conservatism.”

The most important house in a diverse democracy is the one that brings people who disagree on some fundamental things together on other fundamental things. It is a house that has been ignored for too long, and it is falling into disrepair. It is worth quoting the great American Catholic thinker John Courtney Murray here at length:

[The strength of pluralism is in] the coexistence within the one political community of groups who hold divergent and incompatible views with regard to religious questions—those ultimate questions that concern the nature and destiny of man within a universe that stands under the reign of God. Pluralism therefore implies disagreement and dissension within the community. But it also implies a community within which there must be agreement and consensus. There is no small political problem here. If society is to be at all a rational process, some set of principles must motivate the general participation of all religious groups, despite their dissensions, in the oneness of the community. On the other hand, these common principles must not hinder the maintenance by each group of its own different identity. The problem of pluralism is, of course, practical; as a project, its “working out” is an exercise in civic virtue. But the problem is also theoretical; its solution is an exercise in political intelligence that will lay down, as the basis for the “working out,” some sort of doctrine.5

At this moment in our political history in which there is so much polarization, it is no small problem indeed.

Vibrant interfaith work is going to require the best people giving their best effort and doing their best work—and, yes, subordinating some of their other principles and identities some of the time—to write the next chapter in the glorious story of diverse people having a common life together.


  1. This is an edited version of the Greeley Lecture for Peace and Social Justice at Harvard Divinity School, which Patel delivered on October 25, 2012.
  2. Robert D. Putnam and Lewis Feldstein, Better Together: Restoring the American Community (Simon and Schuster, 2009), 2. See also Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon and Schuster, 2000).
  3. Putnam and Feldstein, Better Together, 2–3.
  4. Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (Simon and Schuster, 2010).
  5. John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (Sheed and Ward, 1960), xiii–xiv.

Eboo Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based nonprofit that partners with higher education to elevate the civic priority of interfaith cooperation. Patel is the author of Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America (Beacon Press, 2013) and Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon Press, 2010).

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