Why the U.S. is an anomaly among democracies

Eboo Patel explains how America's political philosophy broke the democratic mold.

EBOO PATEL: There's a great book by Michael Walzer called What It Means to Be an American.

And one of the things that he says is that, for centuries, really from the time of the Greeks, political philosophers believed that the only way to have diversity in a society was for it to be an empire or a dictatorship. If you wanted a democracy it had to be homogeneous—one ethnic group, one racial group, and especially one religion. And then he ends that section and he begins the next section with the line: "Until the United States of America."

We are the first mass-scale religiously diverse democracy, and I think that's a remarkable thing. And when a religiously diverse democracy works well it's a sight to behold; you have low levels of prejudice, you have strong social cohesion, you have high levels of social capital, you have respect for different identity communities, you have the narrative of a diverse society that binds that society with a sense of unity. And a lot of what Interfaith Youth Core is about is helping America continue to be a religiously diverse democracy that we all ought to be proud of.

What strikes me most about the Founding Fathers, and a set of important figures before the Founding Fathers — people like Roger Williams and the people who drafted the Flushing Remonstrance, that's 140 years before the Founding Fathers — was that this set of characters imagined a religiously diverse democracy. And a big part of that is the separation of church and state, and a part of that, of course, is to protect the state from the church and to protect religious communities from undue interference by the state. And it is also, significantly, about the welcoming of contributions from diverse religious communities. And so it's not like the Founding Fathers were principally very devout people, but they recognized the importance of the civic contributions of religious communities and they certainly wanted those communities to flourish. Let me give you a couple of examples of this.

So Benjamin Franklin, when he lived in Philadelphia, he made proactive donations to the building funds of every religious community that he could find in Philadelphia — different communities of Christians, a Jewish community, and he built a hall and said that the pulpit of this hall would be open to the preaching of anybody. If the Grand Mufti of Constantinople wants to send somebody preaching about Islam, this pulpit is here for his service.

That's not just freedom of religion, that's welcoming the contributions of diverse religious communities. George Washington — when a Jewish leader in the late 18th century says to him, "What's going to happen to my community, to us Jews, now that we have a new nation, a constitution, and you are the president?" And George Washington writes, in a famous document in American history called the Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, he writes, "This government will give to bigotry no sanction and to persecution no assistance. May the children of the stock of Abraham sit in safety under their own vine and fig, and let there be none to make them afraid."

So there is the sense that these different religious communities are going to help make up the civil society that is the United States of America. I think about it as a potluck nation, and of course, that's a play on the term melting pot. And what I don't like about the melting pot is obviously this notion that you have to kind of melt away your identity or your distinctiveness. I think what makes America strong is not that different communities melt away their identities, it's that they bring their identities to the common table in the way we think about a potluck.

And a potluck is boring if everybody brings Wonder Bread and peanut butter. A potluck is wonderful and nutritious and festive when people bring the various dishes that are distinctive to their identity. That's how I think about interfaith America: a variety of communities, a variety of orientations around religion, as I said, from Atheists to Zoroastrian, are contributing the best of who they are for the commons. If different communities don't contribute, the nation doesn't feast.

  • From the time of the ancient Greeks, political philosophers believed the only way to have diversity in a society was for it to be an empire or a dictatorship. They thought homogeneity was the core of democracy: one ethnic group, one racial group, and especially one religion. Then America broke that mold in 1787.
  • Eboo Patel cites historical examples of how Benjamin Franklin donated funds to different religious communities and built a pulpit for the Grand Mufti of Constantinople to preach Islam, if he so wanted. George Washington assured the Jewish people protection in a very famous and beautifully written letter. Religious diversity? Turns out it's as American as apple pie.
  • The Charles Koch Foundation is committed to understanding what drives intolerance and the best ways to cure it. The foundation supports interdisciplinary research to overcome intolerance, new models for peaceful interactions, and experiments that can heal fractured communities. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org/courageous-collaborations.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.