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Non-Politicians Talking Politics: Religion In 2016 Election


There are only so many political conversations we can have about the incremental changes in the Clinton and Trump campaign. So each week, we're also going to try to talk to people who are not politicians about the campaign, ideas, the country, the world. Eboo Patel joins us now. He's founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core. He also served on President Obama's inaugural faith council, and he joins us from the studios of Chicagoland Public Radio. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Patel.

EBOO PATEL: Great to be with you.

SIMON: Is religion any kind of issue in this campaign?

PATEL: Well, sure it is. There have been ugly things said, certainly, about Muslims. There have been some inspiring examples of interfaith cooperation. You know, G.K. Chesterton once said America is a nation with the soul of a church, and so I think religious sensibilities are always involved in major national affairs in the United States.

SIMON: As we note, your organization is based in Chicago.

PATEL: Indeed.

SIMON: Well, let me ask you about the homicide rate. I will share with you that when we have done stories and interviews we get complaints and tweets from people who say, look, the homicide rate is lower than it was in the '90s. People are just reporting about the homicide rate now because they're using it as political fodder to try and get at this current administration.

PATEL: Well, shootings and killings are all too real. I mean, those are facts which can't be denied, right? I will say that there's much more to Chicago than that of course, and part of this is, I think, a happy story of a city with many wonderful things going on. And part of it is a sad story of a deeply segregated city where some people experience horror on a daily basis and people who are fortunate like me can live in this city for 20 years, and, Scott, I have never seen a gun and I have never heard a gunshot.

SIMON: Whatever candidate wins in November, do you think the country is deeply divided?

PATEL: Of course the country is deeply divided, and there is a lot that unites us. A huge part of the challenge and opportunity of being a diverse democracy is which story we choose to tell about our country, and is it a story that welcomes people from a variety of identities, that nurtures relationships between them? That's the song we need to be singing.

SIMON: Aren't the divisions often motivated by real differences of opinion, though?

PATEL: Absolutely. One of the things that I like to point out is that diversity is not just the differences you like. It's also the differences you don't like. And we have long had disagreements, and I think what is so inspiring about the American project is that we are the first diverse democracy. We're the first country whose founders believed that you could welcome people from the four corners of the Earth, speaking different languages, praying to God in different ways, including not at all, and they could have a common project, which was to build together a country. We need to remind ourselves and our fellow citizens of that challenge, that opportunity.

SIMON: I've got to say, Mr. Patel, you know, we speak with so many people and we may have even said this ourselves who say they've never seen an uglier year politically, but to talk to you, it's like taking a spring rain. You know, you sound very optimistic.

PATEL: I mean, I'll tell you a story, Scott. So we just here in Chicago commemorated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, 1966 fair housing march. And I just reread Taylor Branch's magnificent trilogy on the civil rights movement. And he points out that in August of 1966, Dr. King marched with 700 people and 5,000 people came out to hurl insults and racial slurs, to throw bricks and bottles. One of those bricks...

SIMON: He was hit by a rock at one point.

PATEL: He was hit by a rock, blood poured from his head, and when I was at the unveiling of the memorial, I ran into Senator Carol Moseley Braun, and she gave me her salaam, and she said, you know, I was born here. I was 18 years old when I came to this march. My mother had forbid me from coming, but I came anyway, and I saw Dr. King get hit by that brick. And I saw the equanimity on his face as he shook it off and got back up and kept marching, and I thought to myself, I have to be involved in the progress of this country.

And of course a young Barack Obama comes to Chicago in the mid-1980s and then the organizing he does in barbershops and churches and homes and he starts having dreams of his own impact in the country. And so I think to myself how stunningly far have we come from 1966. What work has been done, and shouldn't I be seeking to improve the country, and shouldn't I do it with the same spirit of love and optimism that they did it? America is a long-term experiment, and I want to be a part of it for that long term.

SIMON: Eboo Patel, president of Interfaith Youth Core, thanks so much for being with us.

PATEL: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.