Eboo Patel is an idealist. A hopeless romantic. A dreamer. The Chicago-based founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and one of President Barack Obama's faith advisers doesn't believe people of different faiths should just all get along. They should work together. But there's another attribute that has grounded Patel's optimism and led him to develop one of the nation's leading non-profits devoted to interfaith cooperation. Eboo Patel is a patriot. If pairing a so-called “foreign” name with the concept of American loyalty makes some bigots cringe, Patel's latest book will make them cringe cover to cover. In “Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice and the Promise of America,” Patel confronts the challenges of living up to America's high ideals, takes on the bigots and explains how he briefly lost hope for his cause, only to find it once again.
That watershed moment, Patel writes, came in 2010 when controversy erupted around plans for Cordoba House, a Muslim community center near Ground Zero — which people often refer to as "sacred ground."
"Islamophobia" had swept the blogosphere, labeling anyone who defended the project an extremist, a radical and a terrorist — including Patel. He admits now that he had been so busy patting himself on the back for promoting the Interfaith Youth Core that he never saw the onslaught coming.
"This isn't just about Muslims. It's about what happens when a movement can define America in a way that excludes certain groups of people," Patel said. "We're not going to miss a moment like that again."
He also admits he got angry.
"What happened for me during the Ground Zero mosque madness is I found myself at the crossroads," he said during a recent conversation at The Grind, his favorite Lincoln Square coffee shop. "It's very easy to follow the line of frustration and anger. It's easy to commend somebody else for following a line of beauty and inspiration in their tough moment. It's harder, I find, to do it myself … America is America because enough people have chosen to do that."
Patel realized that all of America is sacred ground — fertile ground — where religions have the freedom to flourish together. But it took the wise counsel and candor of a Muslim scholar (and convert) to redeem Patel's faith in that prospect.
In the book, Patel describes a wake-up call from Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, the American Islamic scholar who co-founded Zaytuna College in Berkeley, Calif. Hamza reminded Patel that the public debate had ushered haters out of hiding so all Americans could hear what they had to say. In turn, they would tune into what interfaith advocates like Patel had to say too.
"In a moment of eruption of prejudice, people frequently look back on that some months later and say 'God, that was ugly,'" Patel said. "That's one of the reasons why an eruption of prejudice is not such a bad thing in the long haul. People say 'That's not who we are. That's not who we want to be.'"
Patel's book explores a storied American tradition of overcoming bigotry in various forms, starting with the Flushing Remonstrance of 1657, which protested a ban on Quaker prayer meetings.
The petition called for an extension of "The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks, and Egyptians, as they are considered sons of Adam," the book says.
More than a century later, President George Washington offered a similar vision of religious pluralism when he assured the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I., that Jews were entitled to the same "good will of the other inhabitants."
"The Government of the United States ... gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."
Patel adds that while America owes this tradition of religious pluralism largely to the nation's founding fathers, many marginalized communities look to the African-American response to slavery and segregation as a model for realizing that dream.
"People who knew the whip of the slave master in Alabama, the business end of the police baton on the South Side of Chicago, people who could easily have called our nation a lie, chose instead to believe America was a broken promise, and gave their bodies and their blood to fix it," he wrote.
Patel's book also examines the challenges that have faced American Catholicism for centuries from the anti-Catholic, anti-immigration Know-Nothing Party of 1854 to concerns that President John F. Kennedy would take his orders from the Vatican rather than his American constituents.
Even today, some Catholics believe the government threatens their religious freedom by requiring all employers, including Catholic hospitals and universities, to provide health insurance that covers contraception. Patel said he hasn't formed a strong opinion one way or the other on the issue, "except to say that tension is central to who America is. There's give and take involved."
"What is unique about religion in America is the way religious communities have built civic institutions that serve the common good," Patel said. "What's also unique is how people from many different religious backgrounds, including secular humanists, gather in America and basically get along. But basically getting along isn't good enough, especially in an era in which religious prejudice and religious conflict is extremely prominent."