Pluralism and prejudice: How conflicts over religious pluralism reveal America’s new ‘Sacred Ground’

The only Protestant running for president in 2012 is President Obama, an American of both a racially and a religiously diverse family background. Both vice-presidential candidates are Catholics, and Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee for president, is Mormon.

Does it matter?

Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core thinks it does. In his new book, “Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America,” Patel sees our political process as a mirror of our increasing diversity, especially religious diversity. He writes, “America is among the most religiously diverse countries in human history and by far the most religiously devout nation in the West.”

The question Patel poses, however, is how are we, as a nation, managing these factors? Are we furthering the narrative of “American exceptionalism” in which religious freedom and tolerance are supposed to be one of the best ways we showcase our values to the world? Or are we losing “social capital” to religious fragmentation and even enmity?

Patel takes quite a risk in this book, starting with the manufactured Islamophobia around the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” and his own anger and disgust at this blatant manipulation of religious intolerance for political purposes.

And then, as Patel often does, he provides a teachable moment. At the height of what has been called the “summer of hate” in 2010, he writes that he gets a phone call from Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, one of the most respected Islamic scholars and public intellectuals in the United States. He tells Sheikh Hamza of his anger at this “ridiculous hatred” by a “handful of bigots.”

The core message of “Sacred Ground” is exactly that. Now is the time for not only Patel and Interfaith Youth Core, but also for all of us who believe in the promise of America, to do our best work.

Sheikh Hamza’s words to Patel also reminded me of what we often say in the peace movement: a conflict that cannot be named cannot be mediated.