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News from the Hill September 11, 2012 | back to index

Reviewing Eboo Patel’s ‘Sacred Ground’

Eboo PatelPatel points the way toward interfaith cooperation

imageSacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America
By Eboo Patel
Boston: Beacon Press, 2012
List price: $24.95
Available at Andover Newton online bookstore

Reviewed by Prof. Jennifer Peace
Looking up from the pages of Eboo Patel’s new book, Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America, to watch a pair of loons floating serenely on Conway Lake against a backdrop of thick pines, it is easy to feel protective of this American landscape that Patel writes so eloquently about. Filled with personal stories and engaging prose, the book is as enjoyable to read as it is important to understand.

What is at stake in Patel’s book is the trajectory of America’s civic life. He begins by tracing a history of interreligious relationships in the US starting with the Flushing Remonstration of 1657, which Patel describes as “among the earliest articulations of religious freedom in America.” But he spends the bulk of Part I on more recent history -- persuasively linking the rhetoric of anti-Catholic sentiments in the 19th and 20th centuries with the rhetoric of anti-Islamic forces post 9/11 (Patel, Sacred Ground, see pp. 15-46 in particular).

This concise history is a contribution in and of itself to the project of increasing “interfaith literacy,” something Patel lobbies for in the third part of the book when he focuses on the role of colleges and seminaries can play in this national imperative.

Patel’s goal, simply stated, is to make interfaith cooperation a social norm. In Part II of the book he takes up the task of outlining both “the science of interfaith cooperation” and the “art of interfaith leadership.”  The strategy he proposes is straightforward but not easy -- and it all hinges on relationships.  In essence, we need to create more sustained opportunities -- all across the nation -- to get to know each other in positive ways across lines of religious difference. While this recommendation is not unique to Patel, he offers a particularly cogent description of the inter-religious challenges we face as a nation while also drawing on lessons from history, politics, sociology, and his years of experience leading the Interfaith Youth Core to outline the most promising ways to put this into practice.

Patel grounds his recommendations in Robert Putnam’s alarming research that shows a stark trend: “In more diverse communities, people trust their neighbors less” (Ibid., p. 75). Putnam focuses on the importance of moving from bonded social capital (cohesion within one’s own community) to bridged social capital (groups or organizations where diverse communities work together for the sake of the common good). Making this shift involves focusing on the related areas of attitudes, relationships, and knowledge -- three metrics that paint a picture of the relative health of our civic community and the depth of our commitment to pluralism.

Diversity may be a growing reality on the ground, but pluralism (the energetic engagement with diversity) takes good intentions and hard work (a perspective that Diana Eck’s work at the Pluralism Project underscores). With the right attention to attitudes, relationship, and knowledge -- which are for Patel three sides of the same triangle -- interfaith organizers and educators can help catalyze a positive and self-reinforcing shift.

In other words, the more appreciative and accurate information you have about a particular religion (knowledge), the more likely you are to have positive feelings towards that tradition or community (attitudes) which will make you more open to relationships across religious lines. The effect is amplified as it is reinforced:

The more favorable your attitude, the more open you will be to the new relationships and additional appreciative knowledge. A couple of cycles around this triangle, and people are starting to smile at each other on the streets instead of looking away or crossing to the other side. A few more cycles – more knowledge, more friends, more favorable attitudes -- and people are staring to say, “We ought to do something with those people who worship in that place called a mosque or a gurdwara down the street.” … That’s when bridging starts to happen, that’s when social capital starts to grow, that’s when social cohesion gets stronger (Ibid., p. 79).

One interesting question not directly pursued in the book, is this: Where should interfaith leaders, organizers, and educators most effectively focus their efforts -- knowledge, attitude, or relationships? While we consider all three in the work of the Center for Interreligious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE), our experience has led us to put the emphasis on relationship building. As one of the members of our Muslim women’s CIRCLE group remarked, “You cannot know what you do not love.”

Wherever one begins, the key is to begin. For just as increasing positive knowledge, attitudes, and relationships increases social cohesion, the reverse is also true. “People without much knowledge about other religions and with little contact with people from those communities are far more likely to harbor negative attitudes towards those traditions and communities,” Patel notes (Ibid., p. 80).

Patel writes in his preface, “America’s promise is to guarantee equal rights for all identities.” This promise is not just fueled by idealism but by pragmatism. “People whose nation gives them dignity will build up that society” (Ibid., p. xiv). Reminding us of this promise and holding us all to it is one of the real contributions of Patel’s book. I urge everyone involved in interfaith work -- or for that matter everyone involved in the stewardship of our shared Sacred Ground -- to read this book and take up Patel’s challenge of making interfaith cooperation a social norm.

Jennifer Peace is Assistant Professor of Interfaith Studies at Andover Newton and co-director of the Center for Interreligious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE) a joint program between Andover Newton Theological School and the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College. She is also co-editor of “My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories of Interfaith Encounter, Growth, and Transformation” (Orbis, 2012), available at the Andover Newton online bookstore, which includes an essay by Eboo Patel.

Save the date

Come hear Eboo Patel speak about his new book and the future of interfaith work in conversation with Rabbi Or Rose and Dr. Jennifer Peace.

Thursday, November 8th 2012
12:45 – 2:15 p.m.
Berensen Hall, Hebrew College
FREE to the public.
The first 50 people to register online will receive a complimentary copy of
Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America (must attend to receive the copy).
Online Registration will be available soon on the Hebrew College website: