Eboo Patel on Confident Pluralism

This is a guest post by Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international nonprofit that aims to promote interfaith cooperation. Eboo is the author of two books, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation and Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America. He has spoken at the TED conference, the Clinton Global Initiative, and the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, as well as college and university campuses across the country.


Much of the discourse around diversity these days highlights the differences that people like. For progressives, this often involves talk of women, people of color and LGBTQ identities. For conservatives, religious orthodoxies of varying hues are the favored subjects. What I love about John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism is that it unabashedly raises a much harder, and more interesting, question: how do we think about diversity when it involves the differences we don’t like? When progressives have to deal with Evangelicals, or Evangelicals have to deal with transgender folk?

I think John is right when he points out that these questions are at the heart of the American experiment. Michael Walzer, in his book What It Means to be an American, highlights that the United States is the first country to attempt to be a diverse democracy. For centuries, political philosophers actually thought this was impossible. They believed that if you wanted democracy you need a racially and religiously homogenous population. There was no way that people of one religious group would consent to be ruled by someone of a different religion, even if such a person won the election. Diverse populations could coexist in the same society, but only under a dictator.

Contemporary America, for all its crimes and sins (and John, the son of a Japanese man born in an internment camp, is not afraid to point these out), is a remarkable achievement. People who disagree on cosmic matters do not kill each other in the streets of this country. If you think that is something to be scoffed at, just flip through the international section of the New York Times on any given day and count how many places are settling their religious tensions with weapons rather than arguments.

Still, our nation is in a fragile place. For a variety of reasons, disagreement these days seems to carry a large side-dish of demonization, followed by a desert of polarization. How do we hold together, to attain what Justice Felix Frankfurter called ‘the binding tie of cohesive sentiment’, while not hiding essential parts of our identities (being Evangelical, or transgender, or a transgender Evangelical)?

John puts forth many worthy ideas in this book, including several about our constitution and legal system that I will leave to brighter minds to analyze. For my purposes, I’d like to highlight two important points John makes.

The first is the importance of recognizing what John calls ‘our modest unity’. Whatever our differences about same-sex marriage might be, John makes the important point that nobody argues about the importance of clean water. That agreement is actually hugely important because it means there is something for us to work together on. We realize just how important such taken-for-granted matters are when we lose them. Witness the mass outrage over the contaminated water in Flint, Michigan. Taking the time to think through the variety of public goods necessary for a democratic society like ours to function, and our collective role in securing such goods, is an important step in forging a sense of ‘cohesive sentiment’.

The second point John makes that I’d like to highlight is the importance of friendships across disagreements. John does a terrific job of this in the way he tells the story of Jerry and Larry, that is, Jerry Falwell and Larry Flynt. One a famously aggressive Evangelical leader and the other a famously aggressive pornographer. They spent a good number of years on opposite sides of both the culture wars and a courtroom. But one day, after a media appearance together, they somehow struck up a friendship. They started asking after one another’s families, talking to each other about their hobbies, exchanging tips on weight loss. Their positions on other matters didn’t change, but nor did they get in the way of personal affection and care.

In my mind, that’s America. Among our great challenges is building a healthy religiously diverse democracy. Religion refers to matters of ultimate concern. Democracy means a society where people can make their private convictions public. Diversity is not just about the differences you like but the differences you don’t like. A religiously diverse democracy, then, is a recipe for real conflict – a place where people who disagree on matters of ultimate concern are able to bring those disagreements into the public square.

What does ‘healthy’ mean in a scenario like this? It means recognizing that disagreements on some fundamental things cannot prevent us from working together on other fundamental things. It means committing to build a society where people’s identities are respected, where there are relationships across diverse communities and where there is a commitment to the common good. A society that exhibits what John Inazu calls confident pluralism.