Religious pluralism isn’t just a good way to run a civil society; it’s a value upheld by many religious traditions. That was a key message shared by Eboo Patel, featured speaker for the 2020 Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures, held March 5. The event drew more than 100 people to the campus of SMU.

The lectures were hosted by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Baptist House of Studies-Perkins School of Theology at SMU in cooperation with Faith Commons.

Patel is founder and president of Interfaith Youth Corps (IFYC) and a national leader in efforts to make interfaith cooperation a social norm.

In his keynote in Perkins Chapel, Patel noted that religious freedom in the United States has historically been “advanced by people of strong religious conviction in a way that benefited people outside of their own communities.”

Patel cited the writings of Roger Williams, a 17th-century Puritan minister and founder of the colony of Rhode Island, and a passage from the Flushing Remonstrance, a 17th-century document protesting the persecution of Quakers in what is now Flushing, Queens, New York. The document was signed by Dutch colonists, none of whom were Quakers themselves.

“This was a century before John Locke, James Madison or Thomas Jefferson articulated principles of religious freedom,” Patel said. “Underlying these ideas is a spiritual thirst and a religious conviction. It’s not just about the best way to run a government. It’s about what it means to be a Christian.”

Two Central Stories

After joking about the risk of exegeting a New Testament passage before a group of Christians, Patel, who is Muslim, recalled the story of the good Samaritan. He called the parable “a religious call to partner with those with whom we doctrinally disagree … a call to love and heal and partner with ‘the other.’”

“Who passes the wounded man in the story? The people with the ‘right’ religion,” he said. “Who stops? The person who prays to God in the ‘wrong’ way.”

The story ends with Jesus’ command to “Go and do likewise.”

“This is not a story about being a nice person or a good citizen,” Patel said. “It’s a story Jesus tells in response to a question about how to obtain eternal life. You may have to ‘go and do likewise’ and your eternal life may depend on it.”

Patel also shared a story from the Muslim tradition, in which the first person to recognize Mohammed as the prophet is a Christian monk, who never converted to Islam.

“This story is as central as the story of the good Samaritan, and it says that those with whom you doctrinally disagree ought to be able to thrive because you may learn something from them,” he said. “Your eternal life may depend on it. I believe in religious pluralism not just because I’m an American but also because I’m a Muslim.”

Patel also shared a conversation with George Mason, senior pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, who noted Baptists’ historic emphasis on religious pluralism. However, Mason said, that emphasis has become less important in some Baptist communities.

“I think Baptists actually regressed when we became plentiful in the South,” he said. “We forgot we had these principles. It became easier for us to act with a majoritarian consciousness.”

Patel noted that the concept of America as a “Judeo-Christian nation” is a relatively recent invention and one that had little historical basis.

“Jews didn’t do that great in Christendom for most of the millennium,” he said. “It is a brilliant civic invention that sends the message that we are a nation that welcomes the contributions of Jews and Catholics. That’s a new narrative that was literally invented less than 100 years ago.”

During the 1920s, some 3-4 million Americans were members of the Ku Klux Klan and subscribed to its racist, anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish ideology. In 1927, the National Conference for Christians and Jews (now the National Conference for Community and Justice) was formed to transform the notion of America as an exclusively white Protestant domain.

“So, what comes next?” Patel said. “I don’t know what the new narrative will be. Ask 19- and 20-year-olds.”

A Look to the Future

Patel concluded his visit with an afternoon talk before an audience that included SMU undergraduate students from three Religious Studies classes.

“It’s exciting for me to be on campus, meeting the people who are writing the next chapters of American society that I can’t even dream of,” he said.

Patel highlighted the need for interfaith cooperation in addressing key social issues and encouraged young people to foster that. He described his tour of the Chicago Food Repository, which serves low-income and food insecure people in the greater Chicago area. Of the Repository’s 650 distribution centers, 500 are based in faith communities. Volunteers from different faith groups come to the Repository to sort and package food, often at the same time.

“A lot of our civil society looks like this,” Patel said. “Outside of government-based resources, your biggest resource is faith communities. Mobilizing those requires interfaith cooperation and connection.”

Patel again recalled the words of Roger Williams and the Flushing Remonstrance, adding that religious freedom – the idea of many religions flourishing under one government – was considered impossible before the founding of the United States of America.

“The United States started with the idea that people who believe different things can live together,” he said. “That’s where we get the America we have now.”