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Eboo Patel plans to overhaul the country’s approach to religion. And his mission starts with giving his organization a new name.
For the past 20 years, Patel’s work happened under the banner of Interfaith Youth Core, a name that reflected his team’s focus on issues facing colleges and universities. Now, they’ll be known as Interfaith America and work to improve society as a whole.
“Our work on campuses will continue and grow. And we’ll add to that interfaith work in health, tech, racial equity ... government agencies and private companies,” said Patel, the organization’s founder and president, during a May 10 launch event in Washington, D.C.
In announcing the new name, Patel emphasized that the phrase “interfaith America” casts a vision of what the country could be. He and his team are calling for a kind of national rebranding, an embrace of religious diversity.
“The mission of Interfaith America the institution is to help build interfaith America the nation,” he told me in a phone interview last week.
Part of that effort will include ushering out the phrase “Judeo-Christian nation” in order to usher “interfaith America” in. The former served a valuable purpose in the mid-20th century, Patel said, but it’s no longer serving us well today.
During our interview, I asked Patel to say more about what the future will look like if Interfaith America succeeds. Here’s what he told me about his organization’s plans to build a “potluck nation.”
Kelsey Dallas: Will you summarize what this name change means for your organization?
Eboo Patel: For the past 10 years, we have focused 90% of our energy on college campuses and higher education. Now, we’re going to dramatically expand our programs in the realms of technology, racial equity, health and business, while also growing our work on college campuses with student leaders.
We think religious diversity and interfaith cooperation are relevant to virtually every aspect of American life. We want to be the vital civic institution standing up and taking responsibility for helping the United States to become interfaith America.
KD: This shift is coming at a time when many religious organizations are in decline. Is there room for religious “nones” in interfaith America?
EP: Yes and there always has been. From the beginning, atheists, agnostics, spiritual seekers and others have had a place at the table in our programs.
KD: You’ve referred to “Judeo-Christian America” as a sort of branding strategy that helped reduce anti-semitism and anti-Catholicism. Is it your hope that the phrase “interfaith America” will function the same way?
EP: The term “Judeo-Christian” is not especially historically or theologically accurate as applied to the American context. But it’s a brilliant civic invention that widened the country’s understanding of itself and reduced anti-semitic and anti-Catholic bigotry.
Now that America’s demographics have changed further — there are just as many Buddhists and Muslims in the country as there are Lutherans — it’s time to write the next great chapter in the history of American religion. And we think “interfaith America” is the right title for that chapter.
KD: How will we know when the idea of interfaith America has caught on?
EP: School calendars will pay attention to not just Christian holidays, but also Jewish and Hindu and Buddhist and Muslim holidays. Cities will have days of interfaith service. Congregations across the country will have interfaith clergy exchanges. College campuses will have interfaith student councils. Hospitals will regularly do religious diversity trainings for their medical staff. In general, religious diversity will be viewed as a strength.
I actually think something else will happen as well: We’ll start to see ourselves not as a melting pot nation but as a potluck nation. We won’t be a country where people’s unique identities are melted away, but instead, a country where people’s unique identities are welcome contributions to the feast.
Fresh off the press
Term of the week: Clergy Consultation Service
Launched in the late 1960s, the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion linked together religious leaders across the country who felt a faith-based call to help women seeking abortions. The service offered referrals to abortion providers, pastoral counseling and other forms of support. It also played a consumer advocacy role, collecting reviews of abortion clinics, as well as pricing information.
“By 1973, roughly 1,400 clergy members across the country had helped what’s estimated to be hundreds of thousands of women access safe abortions,” The Atlantic reported in an article on the Clergy Consultation Service in 2016.
What I’m reading ...
Deseret News reporter Kyle Dunphey spent part of April in Poland learning about the plight of Ukrainian refugees and the people trying to help them. His latest article about the trip focuses on the work of religious organizations and individuals.
I couldn’t believe what I was reading in Christianity Today’s in-depth look at the wild history of Tennessee’s ban on members of the clergy serving in the state legislature.
Jon Ward, chief national correspondent for Yahoo! News, penned an essay for Christianity Today on how being a journalist made him a better Christian. “I have been free to listen, to consider, to agree or disagree, and to follow whichever direction the evidence pointed to on each issue. In this respect, I feel I am paid to move in a Christian direction — one that remains apart from arguments motivated by ideology or group membership,” he wrote.
Odds and ends
In my time on the faith beat, I’ve really enjoyed working on a few stories at the intersection of religion and disability rights. It’s no wonder that a new book on disability justice in churches caught my eye.
Are any of you “Legally Blonde” fans? If so, I urge you to read this essay on the movie’s moral universe.