When Eboo Patel was a student at the University of Illinois, a professor invited him to attend a dress rehearsal of a play she had written with students. During a feedback session afterwards, Patel offered a lengthy critique that he thought would be helpful to his fellow students, but turned out to demoralize them. Later, the professor suggested that he should try writing a play of his own, saying, “It is always harder to create than to criticize.”

This story, which Patel relays in his book “We Need to Build,” is foundational in what the founder of Interfaith America is trying to do as his organization enters a new phase.

Beginning with a podcast that launches today (featuring On Being’s Krista Tippett) and his new platform as a Deseret News columnist, Patel, 46, is taking the organization’s work to a broader audience as he seeks to help reshape the way Americans think about their rapidly changing country.

It’s no longer sufficient to see America as a Judeo-Christian nation or as a melting pot, Patel says — the country’s demographics no longer support those once visionary metaphors. Instead, we need to build new ways of working together, taking advantage of our cultural differences as a means of enriching our shared experience as Americans, instead of letting them drive us apart.

In a conversation with the Deseret News, Patel elaborated on why he believes the term “Judeo-Christian” has become outdated, why he has a “Woody Guthrie nature” and why it’s important for people of all faiths to condemn hatred and bigotry when it occurs.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Deseret News: In “We Need to Build,” which was published a few months ago, you talk about how you moved from thinking of societal change in terms of creation rather than destruction. Why is this important?

Eboo Patel: Ferocious revolution isn’t what social change should be about. Our social improvement efforts should be about building a better social order, and that takes institutions — everything from Little Leagues and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, to excellent schools, hospitals and universities, to excellent churches and synagogues and mosques. We need to be collectively focused on what we need to build the institutions of a healthy, diverse democracy. We need to defeat the things we do not love by building the things that we do.

We need to look at what is good and ask, “How can we do more of this?” instead of looking at what is bad and asking “How do we destroy this?” We need to spread the good.

DN: Polls show that religion is losing influence in America as the nation becomes more secular. How important is religion in the nation’s public life, and what happens if this trend continues?

EB: Religion is a hugely positive force in civic life. Imagine if all the institutions inspired by faith communities disappeared overnight. What’s missing is not just houses of worship — which, by the way, are super important, and not just for  worshippers — it’s in houses of worship where we have tutoring programs, where we have soup kitchens, where we house homeless people, where we welcome refugees, where we host addiction groups.

But also what would be missing is our social service agencies, our universities, our hospitals. Something like a quarter to a third of universities were founded by faith communities; seven of the eight Ivy Leagues schools were founded by faith communities. Half of America’s social capital is founded or driven by faith communities. Religion is a hugely inspiring civic force. I want to lift that up and say, how do we recognize this, how do we celebrate it this, and then, how do we spread it?

Where religion has been destructive, as in the sex abuse scandals, that is terrible and we should be honest about that. But the headline about the role of religion in America is a positive headline and we should be proud of that, and we should be constantly looking at how we can extend the good.

DN: What are the challenges of spreading this message at a time when America is becoming more secular?

EB: You don’t have to be religious to be a good person. There are plenty of religious people who are jerks, and there are plenty nonreligious people who are wonderful, decent people.  But there is in fact something distinctive in religious communities in terms of institution building. Think about the YMCA, think about Habitat for Humanity, think about hospital and universities. One of the reasons that religious communities build these things is because it is a place of regular gathering inspired by a cosmic theology that thinks generations or centuries into the future.

It’s not like other entities can’t do that. I’m really proud that we have a system of public universities that are supported by government; I went to one of those. I was educated in public schools all the way to graduate schools. Government and secular people can also be a positive force. We need the various sectors in American life — the civic sector, the faith sector, the government sector — to work together toward a positive, constructive vision. This is not about religious people good, secular people bad. It’s about leaning into the range of faith communities, from atheism to Zoroastrianism, and asking people to bring their distinctive contribution to the American potluck. That’s going to be a guiding theme of our work.

DN: You have talked about the need for Americans to stop thinking of their country in terms like “Judeo-Christian” and “melting pot.” What are the problems with these descriptives?

AB: Let me first say that “melting pot” and “Judeo-Christian” were steps forward in their time. The idea of the melting pot was taken from a play by a writer named Israel Zangwill in 1908-1909. It was a time when immigration from Europe was high, and it was communities coming that were at each other’s throats in Europe. So Zangwill writes a play that says America is a crucible that melts away your conflicts and your hatreds.

Judeo-Christian emerges after the 1920s which was the rise of KKK — anti-Black, antisemitic, anti-Catholic. And a group of civic leaders called the National Coalition of Christians and Jews emerged, and they advance a new paradigm for American religion: Judeo-Christian. They invent it.

Those terms did good work in their time. The melting pot was a good step forward; it’s better than a battlefield. But we’re a hundred years later now, or 80 years later in the case of Judeo-Christian. American demographics have changed; attitudes have changed. There are now as many Muslims — about 4 million — as there are ELCA Lutherans. And the median age of Muslims is 20 years younger. So we need a new chapter in the great story of American religion that welcomes the contributions of Hindus, of Muslims, of Buddhists, of the nonreligious. And we need a paradigm that invites people to bring the distinctiveness of their identity to the table.

We’re saying “thank you” to the melting pot for the work it did in its time. This is a new era. And we need a new metaphor. And that new metaphor is “potluck nation.” Thank you, “Judeo-Christian” for the work it did in its time. We need a new metaphor, and that metaphor is “Interfaith America.”

DN: In your book, you talk about your personal experiences with racism. In America, as we have seen recently, there are still pockets of bigotry that exist with regard to race and religion.  How do you bring those kinds of people into the vision that you and your organization have?

EB: First of all, let me extend my personal apology about what happened at the BYU-Oregon game; I think it’s terrible, and we have to hold each other accountable.

It’s powerful when Jews show up for Muslim community when a mosque gets burned down. It’s important when Muslims are saying to Latter-day Saints, “It’s terrible to hear your religion slandered in a public space.” So I want you to hear that from me now.

There has been permission given for forms of ugly bigotry in American life in recent years. We need to say, we don’t do this in America, but we need to do it in a way that defines the ideal and encourages people to reach for it.

What I mean by that is, we need to seek the good constantly and not only pay attention to the bad. Inclusiveness is good, bigotry is bad, but we want to lift up the ideal and encourage people toward that so we’re principally pro-inclusive, not anti-bigotry.

There’s a difference between people who are ignorant and those who know exactly what they’re doing. I’m an American Muslim; I’ve seen really ugly Islamophobia, and I’ve also seen people change. There’s a difference between people who make a mistake and get caught up in a terrible moment, and people who are the ones giving permission for bigotry. 

DN: Can you talk a little bit about the wave of anti-Muslim hate that came out in some segments of America after 9/11? Are we past that now?

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EB: 9/11 will always be with us. I just met Rais Bhuiyan, who is the Bangladeshi-American Muslim who was working at a gas station in Texas and was shot in the face in the aftermath of 9/11. He’s still blind in one eye; it’s not over for him. And yet, this man, who is such an inspiring individual, he not only forgave his assailant, but he worked to try to get him off death row. He felt his Muslim faith called him to do that.

I think we will live in the shadow of 9/11 for a long, long time, and yet who we are is not defined by the horror of what happened that day and the bigotry that came after it, but who we are is defined by our response to it. That’s what makes America — and humanity — remarkable. We don’t have to be defined by the terrible things; we can be defined by the hope and not the hate; by inclusiveness, not bigotry. In my column, I will not be shy about pointing out the bad, but mostly I will be encouraging us to move collectively toward the good.

DN: What keeps you up at night? What do you worry about these days?

EB: What keeps me up at night is the scripts toward inevitable conflict and toward inevitable demise. I have a Woody Guthrie nature. I hate songs that keep you down, that make you feel like you’re fighting each other, and I am never going to sing those songs. The thing that’s beautiful about Woody Guthrie is, there are other true songs; my goal is to pay attention to, and write about, the beautiful moments of hope and possibility in American life, particularly when it comes to our religious diversity and our capacity for building a healthy, diverse democracy.

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