Build the World You Want to Live In

Build the World You Want to Live In
Build the World You Want to Live In

Eboo Patel talked to the Sidwell Friends community about religious pluralism and how to create a better nation rather than tear down the status quo.

On February 5, Founder and President of Interfaith America Eboo Patel arrived at Sidwell Friends to speak to Upper Schoolers during the day and to the entire community that night. The former religious adviser to President Barack Obama wants to recast the story of America as one of pluralism and religious freedom.

“The United States is the most religiously diverse country in human history,” Patel said. “There ought to be more focus on the United States as the world’s first religiously diverse democracy.” Patel said that the Founders got a lot wrong—race being a prime example—but they got religion right and virtually no one pays attention to that. In fact, he said, well before independence, America began with a fight over religion, specifically over Quakerism. “Quakers were called rabble rousers and seducers of the people,” he said. But a proposed prohibition on Quakerism inspired the first statement of religious diversity in 1657: The Flushing Remonstrance.

A group of 30 residents from what is now Queens, New York, all non-Quakers, stood up to then-Director-General of New Netherland Peter Stuyvesant’s ban on Quakerism, writing that the “law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks and Egyptians,” as they are all sons of Adam. It was considered a precursor to the U.S. Constitution’s provision on freedom of religion that was enshrined in the Bill of Rights—and it is exactly the kind of history, Patel said, that should be taught in high schools across the nation.

The Flushing Remonstrance is also an excellent example of the thesis of Patel’s new book, We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy, in which Patel argues that standing against something and tearing it down isn’t as productive as defining a new way of doing things and then building it. “Social change is not about a more ferocious revolution,” he said. “It’s about building a more beautiful social order.” Today, “change” is understood to be a “fist-in-the-air, burn-it-to-the-ground revolution.” But that kind of change doesn’t always include imagining a better future. For example, “What does it mean to have a decent ecosystem of public safety?” he asked. “That is a builder question.” “Abolishing the police” on the other hand is a breaker attitude. “What does it look like to build the things you want to see in the world,” he said, “rather than getting rid of what you don’t want to see?” 

To that end, Patel also warned against making those with whom you disagree into the enemy. Building a better world takes collective action, he advised, and it means living among those with divergent views. He described two heart surgeons working together to save the life of a stranger. The doctors voted differently, are different races, different religions, and yet they work together for a greater good, and that is the higher-value goal. “When I get to the new world, I don’t want enemies, so I’m not going to make them in this world,” Patel said. “Why create a situation that you have to undo at the next phase? You cannot vanquish people.” You can, however, entice others with a story of possibility and why togetherness is better for everyone.

Finally, Patel took on the identity politics that have created divisions around the country and particularly on college campuses. He described a protest at Sarah Lawrence College among “a set of very privileged people who were calling themselves oppressed.” Without noting specifics, Patel asked simply that the audience consider how oppressed a group of college students in America could possibly be. “There are 8 billion people in the world,” he said. “And 1.5 billion of them have parasitic worms; 4 billion live on less than $7 a day.” If you are not in that category, he added, while things might be hard sometimes, rather than decrying your oppression, instead ask, What is my responsibility to the world? “To not accept the responsibility that comes with the privilege of your position I find somewhere between unhelpful and a violation,” said Patek. “I also think it’s anti-intellectual. The living situation of the other 8 billion people in the world is just objective reality.”

The advancement of pluralism as an ethic is baked into the fabric of America. Living up to that value means “proactively seeking positive exchanges.” “Simply put,” he said, “looking for the bad in everything means that you ignore the good, and you absolve yourself of any responsibility for building.” He invoked civil rights leader Vincent Harding, who said, “I live in a nation that does not yet exist.” It is that feat of imagination, to conjure a better world rather than tear down the current one, that really moves social change. “If you come as a pilgrim,” Patel said in closing, “and you point to a place where everyone can thrive, people will recognize the strength of your generosity and they will join you and we will all win.”

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