Thomas Jefferson, Eboo Patel, and Religious Pluralism

by David L. Johnston (A longer version of this blog can be found here)

I understand your puzzlement in reading my title. Why would I link the illustrious (principal) author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and its third president with 38-year-old Indian Muslim immigrant Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core?

The answer is that Jefferson consciously paved the way for Muslims to be citizens of the country he helped to found, just as much as Catholics and Jews – already a controversial idea at the time. And Eboo Patel, hand picked by President Barack Obama to join his inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships, is a highly effective mobilizer of young people of all faiths for community service all over the U.S. He may also be the most eloquent advocate for religious pluralism as a fundamental American value.

I’ve had a lot of fun being the scholar to lead the five book discussions in our local library as part of the nationwide series, “Muslim Journeys: American Stories,” sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association. In September I posted a blog on the first book we discussed. This time it's Eboo Patel’s book, an autobiography and the story of the Interfaith Youth Core, Acts of Faith: The Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon Press, 2007).


About “Jefferson’s Qur’an”

It so happened that one of the books our library chose to display for this series of discussions was just published – Denise A. Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. Spellberg, who teaches history and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, tells in an interview how she accidently ran into an advertisement for a play in Baltimore in 1782, Mohamet the Impostor. Intrigued by the fact that Islam seemed to be much more known and discussed in early America than she had previously thought, she also wondered whether there might not be other more favorable views about Muslims and Islam.

Two years later, she found evidence of that view, which, though limited, was being presented forcefully by some rather articulate and powerful people, including some politicians and lawyers in North Carolina. There were also founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.

A good eleven years before he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson, still in law school, purchased a 2-volume copy of the Qur’an – which resurfaced in public view, by the way, when Representative Keith Ellison swore allegiance in 2007 with his hand on this Qur’an. We know from future events that Jefferson most likely consulted this Qur’an several times in his life.

But the most likely reason for his purchase was his keen interest in the works of English philosopher of the previous century, John Locke, and a few other intellectuals of the time who believed that Muslims should, along with people of other faiths, enjoy civil rights in the Commonwealth.

Jefferson’s interest in Islam was mostly about promoting religious freedom. He drafted the Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786) and as president, after he had fought a war against the Muslim ruler of Tripoli, he stated that the bill intended to include Muslims. As ambassador in London (1786) and later as president, Jefferson negotiated with two Muslim ambassadors. On the second occasion, in Washington, DC, Jefferson delayed the state dinner from the afternoon to after sunset because of the Ramadan fast.

We know, too, that Jefferson made use of his knowledge of Islam in a letter he wrote to the two leaders of Tunis and Tripoli with whom he was at war at the time (for more on this, see my blog, “Barbary Pirates and a US Treaty"). In one of them he chose to close with a benediction, asking God to “preserve your life, and have you under the safeguard of his holy keeping.” This obvious reference to the God of monotheism, likely meant to tone down hostilities, is all the more interesting given that Jefferson himself was more of a Unitarian and deist than a Christian.


Eboo Patel and American religious pluralism

Eboo Patel exemplifies – admirably, and with great energy and charisma – this ideal of the United States as “a religiously plural society.”

As “peace catalysts,” we deeply care about building bridges between faith communities who have little contact and often little respect for one another. Read Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith, because his model is worth learning from. Read it, too, because it’s a page-turner, and he is a winsome leader.

Patel’s family had raised him in the ways of Ismaili Shia Islam. Shia Muslims are only about 15% of all Muslims and maybe 10% of those (about 10 million) call themselves Ismailis, looking to the Harvard-educated and philanthropist extraordinaire Aga Khan as their spiritual leader (“Imam” in the Shia sense). As a boy Eboo’s mother taught him the special prayers that Ismailis recite once in the morning and twice in the evening. But both parents were highly successful professionals whose religion in practice was little more than being good people in society. If anything, it was his Indian grandmother who most influenced his faith, insisting from the start that he marry an Ismaili (listen to his TED Talk about the female influences on his life).

Eboo Patel in college was still searching for spiritual meaning anywhere and everywhere. The turning point, however, happened while doing his doctorate at Oxford University. Arranged by their “interfaith mentor,” Brother Wayne (a Catholic monk), he and his Jewish friend Kevin who, until then, was trying hard to be a Buddhist, had an interview with the Dalai Lama in India.

By this time, the idea of an interfaith youth alliance for community service was beginning to take shape and the Dalai Lama embraced it immediately – especially the service aspect. But just as significantly, the Dalai Lama stressed how crucial it was, if such a project was to succeed, for them to be better grounded in their respective Jewish and Muslim identities.

So Patel’s model has two main components: focus on the youth, and let them share their faith as they serve the poor together. But there is more, and this has to do with “religious pluralism” – a fuzzy concept for many. I believe Patel has the right idea. Let me explain it in my own terms.


Theological pluralism and civic religious pluralism

As Eboo Patel was trying to launch the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) in Chicago, he found it difficult to coax religious leaders to sent him their youth. They were all reticent for the same reason: “our youth barely know their own faith tradition – won’t they get confused in sharing with kids of other traditions? Worse yet, won’t they be tempted to convert to other faiths?”

Patel developed the following points to explain the IFYC:

  1. Young people are already immersed in their schools and neighborhoods in a religiously plural society. So how can they maintain their own religious identity?
  2. The IFYC is committed to strengthen those identities (helping them to become better Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, etc.).
  3. “The truth is, our religious traditions have competing theological truth claims, and we simply have to accept those” (p. 166). There is no use arguing, for instance, about what “salvation” is, or who is “saved.” Religions are definitely not the same.
  4. The IFYC’s approach is “shared values – service learning.” Starting with the values different communities of faith hold in common, like friendship, loyalty, compassion, mercy, and hospitality, the leaders encourage kids to think about how their tradition teaches those values. And usually a story comes up.
  5. This project, in effect, both affirms particularity and achieves religious pluralism.

So in fact there are two kinds of religious pluralisms. Theological pluralism is a theological view stating that differences between religions are only surface deep, but that in the end they all come out in the same place. Put differently, they are all different paths up to the same mountaintop.

Patel disagrees, as do I (and as does Stephen Prothero in the book I use in my Comparative Religion class, God is not One). Each religion answers different questions relative to the human condition. And even when the questions are similar, the answers differ.

By contrast, civic religious pluralism is simply a formula that recognizes that in all the global cities of our day (and especially in the west), people of many faiths live side by side. In order to diffuse tensions and avoid potentially disastrous conflicts, these diverse communities must find ways to interact meaningfully and respectfully. They must be willing to listen and learn from one another, and commit to build on common values so as to work for the common good of all.