Interfaith Leadership

A Primer

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Eboo Patel
  • Boston, MA: 
    Beacon Press
    , July
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Interfaith Leadership: A Primer outlines the principals and strategies that have made its author, Eboo Patel, a leading voice in the American interfaith movement. Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core [IFYC], a Chicago-based non-profit that aims to make religious pluralism and interfaith cooperation American social norms, primarily through work with college campuses. Among the intended audiences for this book Patel lists faculty who teach classes dealing with religious diversity. Its utility for this group is not as clear as it is for the campus and civic leaders who will find in it a compelling case, and a crystal clear framework for building effective religiously plural civic networks.

Chapters lay out Patel’s vision of who interfaith leaders are (“Identity”), a model for thinking about types of interfaith interaction and approaches to religious difference (“Theory,” which is divided into a chapter on “inter” and another on “faith”), a normative view of religious pluralism (“Vision”), and the necessary attributes of interfaith leaders (“Knowledge Base,” “Skillset,” and “Qualities”).

Patel’s interfaith mission is thoroughly civic. He understands religious communities as powerful sources of social capital, and affirms the “special place” that American democracy affords to religious identity (7). His friendly disposition toward religion notwithstanding, this is not a simplistic celebration of religious diversity, but rather a model for working with the fact of diversity to achieve the goal of pluralism, understood as “the energetic engagement of diversity toward a positive end” (92). Without the work of skillful leaders, Patel argues, raw diversity leads to further isolation and increased risk of conflict. An interfaith leader is one who guides those diverse identities toward positive ends in the public sphere. Specifically, he argues that interfaith leadership aims at five civic goods: (1) increasing understanding and reducing prejudice; (2) strengthening social cohesion and reducing the risk of identity-based conflict; (3) bridging social capital and addressing social problems; (4) fostering the continuity of identity communities and reducing isolation; and (5) creating “binding narratives” to hold together diverse societies (98-99).

Storytelling is a strength of Patel’s and one he sees as vital to the interfaith project. Drawing on Paul Ricoeur’s concept of narrative identity, Patel argues that stories help clarify the interfaith leader’s identity, and are effective in facilitating interfaith bridge building. In addition to highlights from his own biography—which are recounted in detail in his 2007 memoir Acts of Faith (Beacon Press)—Patel tells the true story, for instance, of a liberal Jewish woman organizing for child welfare in small conservative Christian town in Oklahoma in the 1960s. In his chapter on “The ‘Inter’ of Interfaith,” he tells the story of an imaginary American town’s encounter with religious diversity by taking, in turns, the perspective of a local Methodist teenager, a newly arrived Muslim teenager, their parents, the female Methodist minister, the imam from Pakistan, and the high school principal, among others. In the process, he illustrates what’s at stake in the complex levels of interaction that are negotiated in religiously diverse settings—questions of individual identity, the continuity of religious communities, and the micro- and macro-environments that can foster or thwart positive interreligious engagement.

Other touchpoints for Patel are Jeffrey Stout’s notion of a civic nation, wherein religious values and motivations belong in the public sphere but with the aim to be intelligible to and cooperative with others (10), and Gordon Allport’s contact theory, which posits that successful inter-group outcomes depend on equal status, cooperation, common goals, and the support of authorities (54). Helpful examples suggest how interfaith engagement can build and sustain these conditions.

The practicality of this primer is also supported by an appendix of summary “frameworks” that serves as a precis of the book, and a blueprint for interfaith practice: five prompts for drawing out interfaith leadership stories, three levels of interfaith interaction, four possible responses to diversity, a four-part knowledge base, five critical skills, etc., with each indexed to the part of the book where the topic is discussed.

Of these, I found the “patterns of orienting around religion” most insightful. Patel starts with, but moves well beyond, the world religions model to include intra-religious diversity, intersectional identities that complicate religious affiliation—including race, class, gender, geography, politics, ethnicity, nationality, and sexuality—and the growing and complex category of religious “nones.” Here and throughout the book Patel reminds us that American religious diversity increasingly includes those who reject any religious affiliation, hence the carefully phrased “those who orient around religion differently.” How the well-established interfaith movement will accommodate this development is a critical question. Patel’s commitment to Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s position that “faith” can include nontheistic worldviews will not likely be persuasive to all or even many nones.

This text would serve very well in the interfaith leadership initiatives emerging at American colleges and universities. However, if those programs are affiliated with secular academic religious studies programs, the fit is less clear. Patel’s strategic emphasis on religious commonality over difference, his opting for “faith” and “interfaith” with their heavy Christian baggage over “religion” and “interreligious,” as well as his use of the language of social entrepreneurship and quotes from business leaders, may be off-putting to religious studies scholars. More deeply troubling for some will be Patel’s insistence on casting religious diversity as a sacred norm in the “grand narrative” of America (99). Critics who note how this vision of religious pluralism can serve American exceptionalism, obscure the power imbalances of various groups, and erase real difference will be suspect of this framing.

I read Patel’s Interfaith Leadership: A Primer in the first days of the Trump administration. As portents of the collapse of civic society piled up, I found myself recasting this interfaith manual as a guide for those who would build bridges across the red-blue political chasm. Patel’s three-part pluralist framework of respect for identity, warm and cooperative engagement, and commitment to the common good, along with the specific tools and strategies he offers for fostering these, is one that those of us who champion diversity of all kinds might helpfully deploy in these strange and hyper-polarized times.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kate McCarthy is professor of religious studies at California State University, Chico.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Eboo Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core and the author of Acts of Faith and Sacred Ground. He was a member of President Obama's inaugural faith council, is a regular contributor to the Washington PostHuffington Post, CNN, and public radio, and speaks frequently about interfaith cooperation on college campuses. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two boys. 


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