Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S2. EPISODE 11
The Interfaith Imperative
Featuring Eboo Patel
How can we live with people who are different from us? Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith America and former faith adviser to President Barack Obama, believes that interfaith living is essential to our collective well-being in an ethnically, racially, and ideologically diverse democracy. And in the United States, we actually do it quite well already.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network. And I am joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And we are having a series of engaging conversations with what we hope are engaging people about the meaningful issues of our moment in time.
You know, one of the first events that we had when we started The Progress Network in the late fall of 2020 was to talk about faith and dialogue and the divisions that beset us, but also the commonality, even though we—we in this case being the United States—are a diverse, multiethnic, multi-religious nation. And one of the people we had those conversations with was Eboo Patel, who we’re now going to have another conversation with on the eve of the publication of his new book. And it strikes me that we do live in this bifurcated world where conversations about faith and conversations about politics and conversations about race and conversations about gender and conversations about sports or entertainment, you name it, exist in their own silos.
And maybe some of those silos are exactly as they should be. But we do run the risk of a siloed view of the world, where each silo is essentially non-connected to others in a way that doesn’t serve the reality that we all live in multiple silos simultaneously. And religion and faith, particularly in the United States, which remains an atypically—compared to a lot of the rest of the world—highly faith-based society, at least if you look at numbers of people who are engaged in some sort of faith community, as well as people who are very consciously not, right—there’s also a very strong atheist component which is itself, I suppose, in its way, an aspect of a faith view of the world, just without a higher purpose animating it. And Eboo and this conversation, I think, are a way for us to try to break down some of that siloed reality and think about, okay, who are we in our daily lived reality, not just what story do we tell about the world that we’re living in every day in a way that may or may not incorporate the multiplicity of our own identities and experience.
So I’m really looking forward to this conversation with an individual who has been so passionately at the forefront of trying to get people to tell different stories and see the world through different lenses. So Emma, tell us a little more about Eboo Patel.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Eboo Patel is the founder and president of the largest interfaith organization in the United States, which is called Interfaith America. And he also served as a former faith advisor to President Barack Obama. And he also served as a former faith advisor to President Barack Obama. He’s the author of several books, including Acts of Faith and Sacred Groundas well as his newest book, which we’re gonna talk to him about today, which is called We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy.
ZK: So we’re excited to have this conversation with Eboo.
So Eboo, once again, it’s really a privilege to have this conversation with you. You and I’ve been talking in various guises, in various forums over the past 15 years. And I’ve watched and listened to your emergence and evolution as a profound and compelling and empathetic leader in an area of our society that gets, I think, not the attention, because it’s not screaming outraged from a soapbox, it’s kind of the obverse of that and the antidote to that, right? It’s the attempt to get people who might otherwise be on that soapbox shouting to step down, tone down, and try to communicate with each other. And initially the organization, you called the Interfaith Youth Corps and were focused, I believe, primarily on helping younger people who have different backgrounds, faith backgrounds in particular, get to know each other, to really confront, but not in an aggressive way, engage in the perspective of an other who they might otherwise have seen as alien and perhaps hostile and threatening. And you’ve now renamed this Interfaith America, which I know you’re sort of rebranding, if I can use that word for something that is not commercially driven. But tell us like what the evolution is of your own identity within that. Tell me what you’ve learned for the past 15 years [laugh] and what you’re trying to do and how that’s changed going forward.
Eboo Patel (EP): Sure. So thank you Zach and Emma, for having me on to talk about the transition from Interfaith Youth Corps to Interfaith America and my new book We Need to Build. I appreciate it a ton.
So, you know, the United States is the most religiously diverse nation in human history and the world’s first attempt at religiously diverse democracy. And we actually do this quite well, and we should acknowledge and celebrate that, right? And I think one of the examples I give in my book is, imagine if every faith-based institution in your city disappeared overnight. And this isn’t just the mosques, churches, synagogues, temples, gurdwaras, as important as those are for worship and also for things like hosting AA meetings and running soup kitchens, but it’s also the law schools and hospitals and preschools and social services centers, right? Something like half of American civil society is inspired by and emerges from diverse faith communities. And one of the most remarkable things about this is that when Jesuits start Georgetown, Methodists start Northwestern, Muslims start the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, Jews start Brandeis, those institutions are an expression of the identity of that religious community, but they serve all communities. That is a genius of our civilization, that you can express your identity in an institution that serves everybody. It’s the kind of genius of the hyphen, right? Brandeis is an expression of Jewish identity, and there are Hindu and Jain and Sikh and atheist and Muslim, et cetera, students there. And it’s helping all of those communities thrive. And it’s encouraging cooperation between them.
The reason we are going from Interfaith Youth Corps to Interfaith America is, first of all, you know, I’m no longer 26, I’m 46, and we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of the organization as kind of a formal nonprofit. I actually had the idea 25 years ago, in 1998, but it’s in 2002 when we got our first grant. So part of this is the evolution of the organization from, you know, nine voices in my head to an organization with currently a $15-million budget and a north of 50% staff that works in everything from undergraduate education to health to private companies to government around interfaith cooperation. And so we’re just an organization with significant capacity for a nonprofit. And we believe religious diversity is one of the great issues in American life. And it requires a vital civic institution moving it forward, moving it towards progress.
And the second thing is that America has changed. The demographics have changed. So in 1990, there were 14 white Christians for every religious minority. Today. There are seven white Christians for every religious minority. That is data from the Public Religion Research Institute [PRRI]. There are about 4 million ELCA Lutherans in America. Their median age is 57. There are about 4 million Muslims in America. Their median age is 35, right? Demographically, we are shifting as a nation. And 70% of Americans say they’re proud of living in a religiously diverse country. That’s also PRRI data. So the Judeo-Christian chapter of American life, it was really important. It was invented in the 1930s as a response to the antisemitism and anti-Catholicism of the KKK. It did good work for a century. It’s time to write the next chapter. We think that chapter’s called Interfaith America. And why not name the organization the same thing as that chapter, because we see ourselves as having a principle responsibility in bringing about that new reality.
EV: So, Eboo, I love that you started—and you start like this in your book, too—with a reminder that this great American experiment is the first time in history we’ve had, you know, a democracy of religious and ethnically diverse individuals all trying to treat each other as equals. And, you know, from one perspective it’s going remarkably well, like we’re all, you know, still here for the most part. The experiment hasn’t blown up in our faces. And I’m wondering if you see… Because I feel like a lot of the narrative right now focuses on like cancel culture, callout culturethe fracturedness of American society. Do you see that as just part of a normal tension, as part of this adjustment, this next chapter of moving from a Judeo-Christian nation into a nation of plurality? Or is that something particularly nasty? Or is it just like, eh, we should expect this in such a transition?
EP: I’m not a big fan of kind of a negative frame on things. You know, I think that human beings are mostly moved by inspiring frames, inspiring narratives that they then seek to achieve. And so, you know, I have a chapter in the book, We Need to Build, “The Trump Story, the Obama Story.” And the Obama story was an inspiring narrative about who we all could be together. I write about how religious traditions do this really well, right? Islam has a narrative of who the human race can be. Christianity has a narrative of the Kingdom of God, right? And then religious communities build institutions that attempt to move us closer to that reality. So I would much rather us be telling a positive story of possibility, and then building institutions to make that a reality, than to be telling a negative story. I just don’t think human beings are principally inspired by that. And I think it begins to kind of acquire the aura of inevitability. And, you know, the other thing is, there’s this sense that sophistication lies with the negative people, right? And this was the case when I was in college in the nineties and I fell into this trap, right? The saps were the ones who were, you know, gonna go be teachers and social workers and nurses, and the really smart people were the ones who criticized those people. I don’t think that that’s a great way to live. I don’t think it’s good for the human spirit. And I certainly don’t think it moves the society forward.
ZK: So on that, one of the things you’ve staked your work on is that if you bring people together and have them interact in a constructive environment around difficult issues, or issues they perceive to be difficult, right—and part of, I think, what you’ve been trying to say is, maybe it’s not as challenging to interact with people whose views you think are objectionable but it turns out their moral framework may have a lot more overlap. The devil’s advocate pushback to that is, in spite of the belief that if people just got to know each other better, they would find common humanity and work together, there are ample examples of people getting to know each other and finding that they really dislike each other even more and find each other even more objectionable. So what do you do about that?
EP: This is a little bit back to what Emma and I were just talking about, right? It’s like Aristotle or the Quran, right? You can find in the human experience, anything you want. I think a social change approach that says, let’s look for the bright spots and ask how to do more of that. Let’s look for the places where cooperation is most remarkable and ask, how do we do more of that? That’s the general approach that I would advocate and that I like.
Having said that, we do this really well in the United States. And you know, one of the examples that I write about in We Need to Build is the reality of the city City of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And the New York Times story on this begins with the image that when there is a fire in the Bosnia and Muslim part of town, the Croat Catholic fire department does not respond. And vice versa. It’s a city that is not in a situation of hot conflict, that is entirely segregated. They have different garbage companies for different ethno-religious neighborhoods, right? It’s entirely segregated along ethno-religious lines. And I was thinking about this as I was in Oregon a couple of summers ago, and there are wildfires all around. And I’m thinking to myself, there are people who are getting paid $30 or $35 bucks an hour, whatever it is, who are risking their lives to save mine, who totally disagree with me ideologically, who believe in God in very different ways than I do. And they’re fighting fires on my behalf. And I think that’s the most remarkable thing, right? Like you go to a hospital if you’re sick, or if something terrible happens, and there are heart surgeons who will operate on you who voted differently. And they don’t care how you voted. And this is actually just how we do things in America.
And it’s not just intense things like firefighting and heart surgery. It’s also how little leagues run. It’s also for the most part how PTAs run. It’s the genius of our civilization. It’s civic pluralism, which is that people of one identity work with people of different identities and divergent ideologies to support spaces in which our wellbeing all depends. Ptas, little leagues, hospitals, et cetera, et cetera. I think that there is a danger of that fraying. There are more and more stories of fights at YMCAs, right, over T-shirts that people are wearing or the news channel that’s on. I think protecting our civic pluralism is about the most important thing that we can do. And recognizing that that pluralism is built by particular identity communities. Our civil society is built largely by diverse religious communities whose particular institutions serve everybody. I think that that is a remarkably important thing. And the book We Need to Build is really about that. And so is the organization Interfaith America.
EV: Eboo, I love all of the examples that you just painted of all the different ways that people of different ideologies behave together in the United States. Because certainly I think that we take it for granted. So it’s nice to see those concrete examples. And as far as what you’re talking about as the danger of those fraying, what is your best advice for how we can protect those? A lot of your book is focused on advice for activists, how to be calling people in more than calling people out. And I was also wondering about best advice if you’re on the other side of that equation, right? If maybe you’re not particularly an activist, but how we can sort of soften ourselves up and open ourselves up to expanding the circle of people in our lives and then continuing the project of making America better and better?
EP: I appreciate that, Emma. So one thing is I certainly prefer calling in to calling out, but it’s actually not my favorite phrase for social change because it assumes that one person has all the answers, right? And like you’re kind of a Yoda figure. And like you are teaching the neophytes who haven’t read the same things that you have—you are initiating them into the truth. I actually really dislike that. I think the question is how do we move forward together, and knowing that people have different ideologies. Let me say that a little bit differently. There are different definitions of justice that are based in different identities. So, a reformed Jew will have a different definition of justice around abortion than an Orthodox Catholic will. And I am not prepared to say that one of them is right and one of them is wrong. What is most important to me is that we have a society in which they can not only live together, not only coexist, but also cooperate, can strengthen the public library together, can build a little league together, can serve in the PTA together, right?
What I call the red wheelbarrow of American society, you know, from the William Carlos Williams poem, which begins “so much depends upon a red wheel”—all of these things that we take for granted that bring people from diverse identities and divergent ideologies together—athletic leagues, public libraries, volunteer fire departments, those things are in danger. And so, my advice is invest in that civic infrastructure. Invest in that civic pluralism. Like, the hero is the mom who coaches little league. The hero is the dad who volunteers at the public library and thinks to himself, “boy, I really don’t like the way that this other person I’m volunteering with voted, and yet I’m not gonna stop reading to kids with this person.” Because that’s actually a really important thing. It is a really important thing that we have spaces and institutions where people of diverse identities and divergent ideologies can engage in activities that, for the most part, we agree on, are central to our wellbeing as a society and where the activity itself guides the cooperative relationship. As in a little league. Everybody knows what to do when they’re coaching, right? The activity itself guides the role of the relationship.
ZK: So when you say “invest in,” what does that actually mean, tangibly?
EP: It means that we should tell more people to engage in that. We should be hearing stories about that in the news, right? I would be really interested in a story about the politics of the people who fight fires in Arizona, California, and Oregon, and the politics of the people who vacation next to the places in which wildfires are spreading out of control, and have this image of a group of people risking their lives to fight fires who have one particular religious point of view and a particular politics and ideology, and the people who, you know, fly into that place for two weeks to enjoy the bike trails and fishing streams, right? And to think, this is actually the strength of American democracy, that we rely on each other, we work together, we cooperate across lines of disagreement.
Now, let me be clear. There are limits, okay. I’m not buying a brownie from the KKK bake sale. You know, like I’m not interested in the Nazis, like, you know, doing a road cleanup, right? There are limits. But the line cannot be drawn at, let’s say 74 million voters, right? The line has to be drawn truly at the extreme edges. And we ought to celebrate, train, prepare, invest in, strengthen the civic spaces and institutions that bring people from diverse identities and divergent ideologies together.
EV: Eboo, one thing that’s interesting about the, you know, 74-million voter [laugh] reference is that, you know, we all have these tendencies to see someone and say, okay, you voted for this person or that personmaybe you have this color skin or that color skin, you have this religion or that religion, and from those, you know, little clues, we tend to think, ah, you’re this way or that way, your politics are this way or that way, when we might be completely wrong. And you talk about this in the book, that it’s such a mistake to look at someone or learn one thing about someone and immediately, you know, make assumptions about how the rest of their views are. You know, and since the United States is heading towards being a majority-minority nation, interracial marriages are up and up and up.
I was wondering what you think about that. Like, is that by nature a positive thing, that it’s gonna make it harder to make knee-jerk assumptions about other people’s views and identities?
EP: Yeah. So, you know, I write about this a lot in the book. I write a lot about what I call the challenge of creating an identity politics, so to speak, which is to say the tendency of assigning our favored politics to our preferred groups, right? When actually, the data shows us pretty clearly that, that, that is not true, right? For the most part, Hispanics do not like the term Latinx. Whatever theory you might be reading in your graduate seminar, 25% of Latinos, Latinas, Hispanics have heard the term, and only 3% prefer it. So what is truly polite is to call people what they prefer to be called, right? That is an excellent example, I think, of assigning your favorite politics, or in this case, you know, a linguistic descriptor, to your preferred group.
I talk about this also as the kind of Russian dolls model of identity politics, which is knowing somebody’s outer identity—race or gender or sexuality—and assuming from there that their aesthetic preferences, their politics, who they voted for, their views on the police, et cetera, they all are this kind of set of mirrors of what you think the outer doll is. I think that’s a mistake. I think that, not only is it kind of a strategic mistake—if you’re recruiting voters for a candidate, you should probably call them what they want to be called or they’re gonna be turned off. I think it’s kind of a violation of personal dignity. It’s a violation of personal dignity. And I think it is a real problem when it comes to how we think about identity. And I think identity is really important. I started an organization based on identity and diversity. But to assume that because somebody’s Muslim, you know who they voted for, you’re likely to get into trouble around that.
The second thing you’re saying, Emma, which I think is a really interesting question, of course, is, what does majority-minority mean? What happens in a world of mixed races and interfaith marriages, et cetera? So I’ve got two kids. I’ve got an almost 15-year-old and a 12-year-old. Between, you know, their like 20 best friends, I would say 16 of them are mixed race. And if you were to line the 20 of them up, you couldn’t tell a skin color difference between the Greek kid and the Palestinian, Mexican kids, right? And I don’t know… If you can’t tell who’s kind of darker skinned from 20 feet away, who counts as a person of color, right? And by the way, the term person of color, if you think of it globally, that’s like 80% of the world. I’m just not sure how useful a category that includes 80% of the world, half of which nations have been to war with each other, right? China and India, Indian and Pakistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Now I’m just using like, you know, examples from the region that my heritage is from. I am not sure what useful or coherent can be said about that. And just in the United States alone… First of all, I don’t know why we would erase the rest of the world in coming up with our categories, like people of color; that does not seem like a good idea to me. And I know I’m speaking to somebody who’s in Greece at the time, right? You’re like, yes, we exist too.
The second thing is, in the United States alone, the highest-earning ethnic group in the United States are Indian Americans, people of color, quote-unquote, right? The lowest earning ethnic group in the United States, Somali Americans, people of color. Somebody tell me what a family that makes $125,000 a year—median income of an Indian American family, at least a couple years ago—and a family that makes $35,000 a year—Somali American median income—what those two families are likely to have in common. Are they likely to live in the same neighborhoods, use the same transportation, go to the same school, have the same education level, have the same prospects for their kids? I mean, kind of in what world are we assuming that they have the same experience at all?
ZK: So much of what you’re saying is so manifestly true on a lived level. And some of this is also, you know—we have a narrative, and have for a long time, of two-parent families and suburban-American white picket fence, even while just the sheer multiplicity of different family arrangements, as well as the urbanization of so many individuals, meaning, you know, home ownership is a thing, but it’s still, 40% of the country doesn’t own homes, and many of whom not because they can’t, just because they don’t. So we have a narrative of who we are, and then we have the reality who we are. And maybe because the United States is both credo and story based, right? We are a country founded on a story, not on a history, not on a shared religion, ethnicity, you name it. We’re very good at telling ourselves a story of who we are. The problem is how often that story is more of a Platonic ideal that has very little, or only tangential relationship to the lived reality. And you’re speaking to the lived reality, right? As opposed to the story, which is a story, right?
And part of the problem, though, is so much of our public discourse, whether that’s what goes on in the central, i.e., federal government, or even a state capitol, and then the news and the discussion around it really doesn’t include a lot of what you’re talking about. You know, it’s about Republicans and Democrats. It’s about extremes versus extremes. It’s about, you know, woke versus Christian America. It’s about critical race theory versus traditional values. You’re very much in the process of living a different reality and bringing people into that. What’s your experience been of trying to get that story—you’re about stories, a lot of what you’ve done is stories—to sit, at least in some level of juxtaposition, with a completely other series of stories that dominate the conversation.
EP: Well, let’s see how this book does [laugh]. I mean, that’s why I wrote this book. And this is my first podcast about this book, and I’m grateful for that. So thank you.
Look, what my organization, Interfaith America, does, is really three things. Number one, we tell a story in the world. We tell a story about a nation of people from different religious backgrounds, from atheist to Zoroastrian, who come together to, number two, create civic spaces that can gather people from diverse identities and divergent ideologies. And I will say it again and again and again—it is the American genius. It is the beating heart of our civilization, right? The fact that we have universities started by Catholics for the purpose of advancing Midwestern Catholic boys in the middle of the 19th century, when Catholics were highly discriminated against, that admit Muslim students—I’m telling the story of Notre Dame and my dad—like, that is a remarkable thing, right? I want to tell the story of a nation that takes pride in that and does it reasonably well in civic spaces and institutions, and then to train leaders who are also storytellers and strengtheners and spreaders of said spaces and institutions. That’s really the work of Interfaith America.
Speaking of storyanother story we’re trying to change is the story of America as a melting pot. We say America is much more like a potluck. It welcomes the diverse contributions of distinctive communities, right? You want people from a range of backgrounds bringing their ethnically-, religiously-, racially-inspired dish to the common table so that the whole nation can feast. You don’t want people of a single ethno-religious background all bringing the same dish, right? As much as I love biryani, I don’t want an entire potluck of biryani. And I certainly don’t want an entire potluck of casseroles, right? You don’t want to erect barriers to people’s contributions. Barriers are prejudice, bigotry, et cetera. It’s a violation of their personal dignity, but it’s also fewer dishes at the table, right? That’s stupid. You don’t want giant melting machine outside the door so that it melts the biryani and the casserole and the crusty bread and the awesome dip into the same goop, right? We are a potluck nation, not a melting pot. We are Interfaith America, not Judeo-Christian America. And we are the ones who tell these stories. And we are the ones who build the civic spaces and institutions, the hospitals, the little leagues, the volunteer fire departments, the colleges and universities, the social services, the preschools, et cetera, et cetera, that give life to that.
EV: I guess I’m thinking a little bit about—it’s a little bit of a repeat of what I said before, and also Zachary—like, how do you bring people along for the ride? The people that are like kicking and screaming about this, who don’t want to move forward? You know, how do you push them past or get them over maybe some fears that they may have? Or… you know, because there’s a deep shadow side of the United States as well, right? And we don’t wanna count those people out of the new future.
EP: I definitely don’t wanna count those people out. Like I said, 74 million people who voted differently than me are not my enemy. And I think actually the great hope and story of American history is that our great heroes, right? The Jane Adams and Martin Luther King Jrs. Of the world, part of their genius was to not be derisive or dismissive to the people they disagreed with because they knew they had to live with the people they defeated. That is a remarkable insight that they had. You have to live with the people you defeat. Maybe .001% of them you can put in jail, right? Like the insurrectionists of January 6th. The rest of them, you’ve gotta live with. So you might as well bring them into the circle.
Look, I’m a Muslim. And this is what the prophet Muhammad, made the peace and blessings of God be upon him, does so well, right? I end my book with the story of the prophet [inaudible], where he basically brings the people he was only a few years earlier at war with, he brings them into the circle. He brings them into the circle. So I am confident actually that most people at some time will be brought into the circle. Why? Again, because of the civic spaces of American life. You might have a generalized prejudice against Muslims. And there’s a reasonable chance at some point, your world will be made a lot better by a Muslim doctor. Your life might be saved by a Muslim doctor, right? It’s hard to hate your Muslim doctor. It’s hard to hate your Hindu neighbor. It’s hard to hate the Sikh or Baháʼí who you coach little league with. It’s hard to hate your kids’ Zoroastrian teacher.
And this is part of the genius of American civic spaces is that they are good at facilitating interaction on the kinds of activities that most of us consider part of our general wellbeing, right? And this is why the kind of alternative dystopia of a Mostar is so scary. Because their civic spaces and institutions are only for particular groups. They don’t have spaces that facilitate positive interaction. And most of our civic spaces actually do that. But I think that they’re threatened, right? And we don’t have a Jewish versus evangelical holy war, but we are sacralizing our ideological divide. People have a religious devotion to disliking people who vote differently. There is a sense that sophistication and you know, like somebody’s religiosity, their membership in a group, is best measured by how much they hate the other side. There’s a great line: “We’re a church held together by our hunt for heretics.” I think the goal is an ever-widening circle and not an ever-uglier divide. The raised fist should not be our symbol of social change. The outstretched hand should be our symbol of social change.
ZK: I do love that expression of sacralizing our political divides. And it’s certainly true that there is a kind of anachronistic or archaic religious-division element to our current political divisions. You know, we simply swapped one intense intolerance for another.
Every time I speak with you, I am struck by what I react to as, you have an incredibly positive outlook on human nature, which I tend to think that I do, given that I created this progress network as a way of saying there’s a lot more good going on in the world. But I think on a spectrum of perspectives, I tend to be struck by my, “Hey, wait a minute” occasionally when I hear you speak as to my own acute awareness of more of the kind of rough-and-tumble ugliness of human nature, which we need to in some way acknowledge and engage, if we are going to then move beyond. And maybe that’s a temperament, you know, meaning I am as much in the grappling with the dark sides of who we are while trying to urge us toward whatever light is manifest.
But I still grapple with the public part of, you know, on the one hand, I feel like we would all do better doing what you do, which is, so little of our lives are actually impacted by our collective narrative of politics and the nation, right? I try to say to people all the time, exactly how much does the federal government actually shape your daily life? Right? I mean, there are people for whom it shapes it more, and there are people for whom it shapes it less. There’s a whole lot of things that we are incredibly agitated by that are much more not touching us, right? And then there’s a whole lot of things that are touching us that we don’t engage as much. But I do struggle with the kind of, we would do better from a better collective discourse, right, that the idea climate in which we swim can deeply affect our lens, how we are seeing the world.
EP: I mean, I would like credit for my poetic view of the world, but really, I just think of this as like brass tacks stuff. And here’s what I mean by that. Like, you could have been born in Ukraine, right? There are more leprous beggar children in India than there are top 1% income-earning people in the United States, right? There are lots and lots of terrible positions on Planet Earth that every single person listening to this podcast, and probably every single one of our friends and associates, could just as easily have been born in. And our lives are a hundred times, a thousand times better than a leprous beggar in India, or a ragppicker on the trash mountain outside of Nairobi, or the kid in a village in Morocco whose face is covered in flies because he’s so tired of waving them off, or the person living in a shack in Soweto, all of whom I’ve seen, right? All of whom I’ve seen.
And one of the things that I think our culture has done, which I just think is like so terrible, is we are in a conspiracy against our own agency. And I think agency is one of the most beautiful things in the world. The idea that I can take steps to improve my life and other people’s lives, including vote, including be a teacher or a coach, including advance policies that I want. What I’m saying by this is not necessarily a conservative-leaning position. It’s simply saying, it’s not like “the government doesn’t have any responsibility,” it’s “we are the government,” right? So you can go and run a federal agency better than it’s currently being run, or a state agency or a city program, right? If there’s a food desert in your city, you can create a better way of getting fresh, good food to the people there. My friends at the Inner-City Muslim Action Network did that on the Southwest Side of Chicago, right? They created this fresh food market. My friend Jeff Pinzino did that on the West Side with something called Fresh Moves, a mobile grocery store that used old school buses instead of brick and mortar. In other words, we have the ability through civic entrepreneurism or government engagement to make things better. And we should do that.
EV: This is actually something that I wish people would pull from religion more into American culture, even if they aren’t particularly religious, which is the reverse of this like learned helplessness, right? You just phrased it really nicely about the lack of agency. It’s sort of the brass tacks of almost all religious traditions, that like nothing is beyond redemption and that anybody can do the work, right, of being part of the tradition and being a good human being. And I kind of wondered, too, like how atheists fit into this puzzle of American culture. I wonder if anyone listening to this who is not particularly religious is thinking like, “this is too much of a frame for me,” you know, and how we can pull those people in as well.
EP: So from the jump, Interfaith Youth Corps, now Interfaith America, has always had atheists as equal partners at the table. From the jump. I would say like, I don’t know, at any given time 10 to 20% of our staff are atheists, and certainly the people in our program network. We talk about Interfaith America as including everybody from atheist to Zoroastrian, Sunni and Shia Orthodox and Reform highly observant and not particularly practicing, et cetera, et cetera, right? Any of us can learn from the genius of how religious traditions operate, whether you’re believers or not, right? And part of the genius is this sense that there’s a cosmic vision that we can all play a part in. There’s a cosmic vision that we can all play a part in.
For Ramadan, I am reading this great book called Muhammad, the World-Changer. And one of the major emphases of the book is the role of the prophet Muhammad and the emphasis in Islam on what people can do for themselves, not in just a self-help type way, but in a community-advancement type way, which includes government.
So for example, you know, the people of Yathrib welcome the prophet Muhammad into their city as he’s being hounded and harassed out of Mecca. Yathrib becomes Medina, the city of the prophet. And Muhammad gets there, and he realizes that, you know, he’s been invited in to kind of build unity amongst these clans and tribes, but they continue to squabble over stupid things like access to the well. And there’s all this backbiting and gossip. And a set of revelations comes down from the Quran: God will only help the people who help themselves. And the prophet gathers these kind of squabbling Medinans together to build a community center that’s called a masjid, to build a market, to establish something called the Constitution of Medina, which is a document that affirms the individuality and diversity of the various tribes of Medina but guarantees kind of collective impact, including mutual defense. It’s a very early example of cooperation amidst diversity, of a potluck.
And so, this notion of what can we do to improve things individually, as a civic community, through government, that’s really important. And I think one of the great dangers of our time is this sense that my job is to tell you what you are doing wrong. It is a legitimate thing for me to raise my fist and to oppose you. And then my job is done and somebody else is gonna come fix it. That is crazy. Right? The other side of a dismantled system is not paradise. It is chaos. And the sense that like, you know, person X gets to be the person saying, “here are all the things that are wrong.” And then person Y’s gotta be the person who comes in and fixes and builds? We ask everybody to be part of the solution. That’s part of how you have a civil society. You ask everybody to be part of the solution. And nobody gets to say, “Well, I’m just the person who tells you what you’re doing wrong. And then you can thank me, and I get to go home and you fix it.”
ZK: And by the way, that idea of like nobody gets a free ride on our collective problems, or the inability to do anything about them because… You know, one of the mantras I was thinking of when we created The Progress Network was the future is unwritten, and that we are all in the process of writing it, and that it’s kind of up to each of us to write it well, as opposed to there is this preordained path, and we’re simply along for the ride—that ride might be terrible, that ride might be magnificent, but we’re along for it. And no. It’s incumbent upon all of us to kind of write that future. Just like it’s incumbent upon all of us, as you know, and as we’ve talked about over the years, to use our history well, right? There’s a lot of stories in our past. There’s not one story in our past. And which stories you elect to use says a lot about the present that we’re in and the future we’re creating.
EP: There’s a great line by Walter Lipman, which I quoted in the book. The story that is told will determine at any given point how people will act. And so, you know, why would you tell a horror story? Because you know that you’re scripting people to act in horrible ways. Why wouldn’t you tell a story of possibility? Because it encourages people to act positively. And, you know, as Obama says in his Howard University address in 2016, is there a different time and place that you would rather have been born? Right? And this notion that like we are too oppressed to improve our own condition or the condition of others? That is a conspiracy against ones own agency. And I just think it is a crime whose victim is the leprous child in India or the Afghan who held onto the undercarriage of a plane and died that way to get here. You should do what you can do. You should do what you can do.
And there’s a great religious story about this in Islam, which might actually be in other religions also. The prophet Abraham is in the fire. And there’s an old woman who runs and gets a pale of water and throws it on the flames. And, you know, it doesn’t douse the flames, right, it just like stops them burning for just a moment. And, you know, the wise man turns the old woman and says scornfully, did you think that you could douse the fire with your lowly pale of water? And the woman says, let it be known that when the prophet of God was in the fire, I did what I could.
ZK: None of us, I think, are saying that the past and the present are not littered with atrocities, or that one should not confront the ugliness of the past and the problems of the present. It’s it’s in what frame does one do? And that’s sort of the point of Obama. It’s not to gloss over or to make light of what has been problematic and what is. It’s a context in which you do so from a perspective of both possibility and the endless human capacity to meaningfully solve problems, many of which have been produced and created by humans.
EP: And we’re all where we are because other people took that approach, right? One of my favorite speeches by King—I think this is actually the last speech he gives; Memphis, 1968—the night before he’s killed. He opens by kind of doing this tour de force of history. And he says, you know, “I think about Athens, I think about Rome, I think about when Jesus was born, I think about when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the diet of worms, I think about all these places, and I ask, would I have wanted to have been with Lincoln when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, would I have wanted to have been with with Socrates in Athens?” And he says, “Actually, I’m glad that God created me now. I’m glad that I’m alive now, because God is moving in the world in a special way, and we get to play a role.” And here’s the guy who’s like, you know, jailed in Birmingham, stoned in Chicago, et cetera, et cetera. And he is like, thank God that I’ve been born now because I can make a difference now. Why not have that attitude? That’s free. That attitude is free. Right?
EV: In reading the book, I kept on being reminded, too, of the Tibetan monks, who have been put in jail in Tibet and, you know, tortured by their jailers. And they come out of it saying like, “No, of course I love my Chinese jailers. They taught me the lesson of love.” But I just wanted to add really quickly to Zachary’s point, too, that for you, Eboo, we should also say this isn’t just rhetorical. You talk about in the book that you had plenty of your own experiences with racist incidents in the United States, in your childhood, and past that. So you have also gone through your own personal crucible here that has helped you develop this worldview.
EP: I mean, yes. I didn’t come into physical harm or anything like that, but absolutely I navigated American racism in a very delicate time in my life in really ugly ways. For sure. And I’m not unique in that. I’m not unique in that. Nor am I preaching, like… I’m also not the Dalai Lama. This isn’t, like, find the worst character in the nation and reconcile and forgive them. This is, listen, figure out a way to cooperate with people with whom you disagree within the normal framework of a diverse democracy, right? And stop attaching religious feeling and an idea of sophistication to opposing other ideologies. Create spaces where people from different backgrounds can come to know one another better and move forward together, recognizing that diversity is not just the differences you like. And I’ll say that again; it’s one of my best lines, right?—Diversity is not just the differences you like
ZK: Or as others have said, a moral principle of the first order only makes a difference when you follow it when it’s hard.
EP: Right. And the First Amendment was not created for your favorite song, right? [Laugh.].
ZK: Right. So, Eboo, thank you for having this conversation. And I wanna make sure we keep having them and urge people to go and buy your book, We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy. And I wish you great success with thatwith the relaunched, renamed, but still chugging Interfaith America, nay, Interfaith Youth Corps.
ZK: We’ll see what it is in 20 years, but I’m sure it’ll be the same thing in its evolved guise, just like all of us. And best of luck with all that.
EP: I appreciate that. Thank you, Zach. Thank you, Emma.
EV: Thank you. Eboo.
ZK: So Emma, I was struck in our conversation with him, which I alluded to during it a little bit, that there are very few people who I talk to that can make me feel cynical by comparison. And I challenge that, too, in myself as I’m listening. Like, why at times do I feel bubbling up a kind of, “Hey, wait a minute, come on, people are more touchy than that.” Because it it’s so unfamiliar in the way in which we talk about the world and the way in which we view—we being whatever collective us we have in mind—from a constant perspective and insistence on, as Eboo talked about in the conversation, starting from a place of, I’m just gonna insist on looking at who we are, what we’ve done, and what’s possible.
EV: Yeah. It’s funny that you felt like the cynicism bubbling up in you. Because I was like, yeah, I’m drinking the Kool-Aid. Like, I’m here for the Eboo Kool-Aid. Not that he’s giving us Kool-Aid. He’s giving us great stuff. But I think it’s because like I, myself, am awash in the Buddhist tradition. And they’re always yapping on about how we all have fundamentally good natures. And what’s funny about, you know, being awash in something, and you were alluding to this during the episode, is that that starts to creep in as just, yeah, this is how things are. And it’s almost irrelevant if it’s true or not, because you’ve decided to see the world this way. And if it’s something that affects your worldview towards the positive, it’s like two thumbs up. Let’s do it.
ZK: And look, it’s very hard to be immersed in public policy debates and politics, in arguments over the pandemicand maintain that perspective. Meaning, it requires an intense amount of effort not to get drawn into the negative vortex. And again, from my own personal experience of being engaged in some of those debates and often being the guy saying, “Hey, wait a minute.” You know, the joke people have when they’ve read a lot of my columns and writings is like, they should all be prefaced with, “okay, everyone, let’s take a deep breath,” or “everybody calm down.” Even so, just being in those debates, being on Twitter, right, being in this world of rapid-fire, angry, contentious debate. It’s very hard to maintain the Eboo–Buddhist–Emma perspective.
EV: [Laugh.] Yeah. The Buddhists always talk about Buddhism being that you have to swim upstream, that, you know, it’s always gonna be like that. But the ready answer is like, what’s the alternative? If you don’t wanna be a part of the contentious maelstrom that is Twitter you don’t wanna be part of the contentious, you know, yappity-yap yap yap, then well, you gotta choose the other way. And it might be hard, but it’s a repetitive choice, right, all the time. It’s like, I mean, I’m not married, but that’s what they say about marriage, right? It’s you wake up and you choose to be with your partner every day. It’s the same thing. You choose to be with your positive outlook every day.
ZK: Absolutely. And I think, you know, the thing we didn’t get into with Eboo as much is, a lot of what he does is also actually do the work, right? It’s not just talk the talk. He walks the walk. He convenes people. He gets people to really develop the muscles. It’s the same muscles from marriage, from living in a community, from living proximate to people of, how do you wake up every day and acknowledge the other, and acknowledge other people and their needs and their perspectives and their views, trying to see the world through their eyes? And he does a lot of that Eboo does, in creating workshops and helping people, like really, training people. We did this little with Braver Angels and with some of John Wood’s works. There’s a number of people we’ve had these conversations with who are not just articulating an ideal. They’re actually trying to help people learn to live those ideals.
EV: Right.They’re like workouts for [laugh] for developing your ideals. I like that. I really like that analogy of you’re developing the muscles because, you know, if you do a daily workout, eventually that muscle is so strong that it doesn’t matter that you’re in the midst of, you know, hard policy debate or a Twitter fight. Like, the muscle is there for you.
ZK: Absolutely. That muscle, you make it strong, and you make it strong by repetition and dedication and focus. And hopefully these conversations are part of that as well, part of the mix that leads in that direction. At least that’s the goal.
EV: Part of your daily ideals workout here at What Could Go Right? [Laugh.]
ZK: That’s right. So go grab a drink, towel off, join us next time [laugh]. Thanks, Emma.
EV: Thank you, Zachary.
If you wanna find out more information about The Progress Network and What Could Go Right?, please visit our website at theprogressnetwork.org. And if you want something other than gloom and doom when you open your email in the morning, you can also sign up for our weekly newsletter. It’S a roundup of progress news from around the world, and that’s at theprogressnetwork.org/newsletter. And please, if you like the show, if you could tell a friend, share an episode, leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, that would help us out a ton. What Could Go Right? Is hosted by Zachary Karabell and Emma Varvaloucas. The show is produced by Andrew Steven and edited by Jordan Aaron. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and the Podglomerate. Thank you so much for listening.
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