Religious freedom has deep roots in the United States, which is the first diverse democracy in the world, said the founder of a national movement promoting interfaith religious cooperation.
Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, spoke to students, staff, faculty and community members Tuesday night at Texas Wesleyan University as part of the Wilson Lectureship.
“That is why this is called the American experiment. What we are doing here is remarkable,” Patel said. “People from all over the world, speaking different languages and praying to God in different ways — including not at all — can come together to build a nation.”
Patel quoted the country’s Founding Fathers, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who spoke about Americans’ right to practice religion without fear of persecution.
The United States would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” Washington wrote in a letter to the Jews of Newport in 1790. He said, “everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Interfaith cooperation later played a critical role in the civil rights movement, Patel said, as ministers and people of all faiths marched on Washington and from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
Patel, a Muslim who served on President Barack Obama’s faith council, now works with hundreds of universities each year to help campuses build their own interfaith religious cooperation.
Building bridges and respecting one another’s faiths are critical to the country’s success, he said. He urged attendees to develop an appreciative knowledge of other traditions and faiths.
“If the only thing you know about 20 percent of human beings who pray in Arabic is that an infinitesimal number of the men are terrorists, you cannot qualify as an educated person,” he said.
That would be similar to judging the United States based on nothing more than its 33,000 handgun deaths a year, the most of any developed nation, Patel added.
Patel said the United States is still known as the “City Upon a Hill,” a model for other nations.
“What does it mean to be a city on a hill?” he said. “It means for anyone with a heart and will to contribute, you are welcome.”