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Interfaith work can help us rebuild bridges created by political polarization

By Eboo Patel
Special to the American-Statesman
Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith America, the largest interfaith organization in the nation. His latest book is 'We Need to Build: Field Notes on Diverse Democracy.'

Perhaps the greatest problem we face in American domestic life is the challenge of polarization. Americans’ negative feelings towards the opposite political party have increased dramatically over the past decade.

About 3 in 4 Americans think that their fellow citizens have too little confidence in each other, and trust in national institutions is on the decline. Most Americans believe that the nation is deeply divided over its most important values. Leading experts say that our deep divides even amount to a national security threat.

I believe that interfaith work holds special insights for helping us bridge a range of divides in our nation and helping us achieve our aspiration of being a truly inclusive diverse democracy.

American religiosity reflects religious identities from nearly every corner of the globe. We might well be the most religiously diverse nation in human history.

Religion matters to Americans: 72% of all Americans say that religion is important to them personally, and even those who do not find religion to be personally relevant report that religion is still important within their family.

A century ago, the British writer GK Chesterton famously said that America was a nation with the soul of a church. We have become a nation with the soul of a temple, a synagogue, a mosque, a ward, a gurdwara, a meditation circle, a sangha, a sweat lodge and much more.

It’s not just the fact of religious diversity that makes interfaith work so important; it is the content of religious traditions that helps interfaith leaders become effective bridgebuilders across the board.

Religious traditions frequently offer aspirational ideas for the possibilities of a more just, kind, loving, and relational world, and thus encourage believers to work toward that vision of how the world ought to be.

Within Judaism, the concept of tikkun olam (often translated as “repair the world”) envisions an ideal world and articulates how Jewish people can constructively build a more just and peaceful world.

In Christianity, the figure of Jesus Christ illustrates a path of reconciliation and peace, and Christians are encouraged to follow in his footsteps (John 2:6, “Whoever says he abides in [Christ] ought to walk in the same way he walked.”).

The first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak, lived a path of selfless service and humility, and emphasized how engaging in such service could change the world to a more just and compassionate place.

These examples demonstrate the inspirational potential that religious traditions offer believers, both painting a picture of the possibility of a better world and instructing believers to pursue that path.

Religious histories also contain remarkable stories of people risking it all to cross the bridge across the divide. Saint Francis embarked on an international peacemaking expedition and befriended Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, a relationship that may have influenced contemporary practices of Christianity. Akbar the Great was considered a pioneer of interfaith dialogue, corresponding with European monarchs on the value of religious tolerance, hosting interfaith dialogues in his court, and making intentional efforts to integrate non-Muslims in his empire.

Interfaith bridgebuilding was at the heart of the U.S. Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and 70s, from the relationship between Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr., to the collaboration between Coretta Scott King and Malcolm X, to the key leadership role Bayard Rustin played in the 1963 March on Washington, to the inspiring role that Gandhi played for the entire movement.

We live at a time when the problem is polarization; the solution is bridgebuilding and the people who might be most prepared to do this work are the ones with the knowledgebase and skill set of interfaith leadership.

Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith America, the largest interfaith organization in the nation. He is launching his latest book, "We Need to Build: Field Notes on Diverse Democracy" at Interfaith Action of Central Texas’ (iACT) Hope Awards on April 26, interfaithtexas.org.

iACT’s Hope Awards celebration and fundraiser

Inspiring A New Generation: Building Hope Together with Dr. Eboo Patel, honoring Dr. Guner Arslan, St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, and Shalom Austin

6:30 p.m. April 26

The Bullock Texas State History Museum, 1800 Congress Ave.

Bit.ly/hopeawards22, interfaithtexas.org, 512-386-9145 x320