America Talks: Bridges of cooperation don’t fall from the sky – help build one this weekend

“Imagine you are a heart surgeon.” 

It was the height of campaign season, and I was talking to a passionate Democrat about the presidential election. He was the kind of person who believed that supporting his side meant demonizing every position and person associated with the other side.

In fact, this individual couldn’t see himself working with any Republican on anything at all. (I’ve talked to enough Republicans of late to know that the situation could easily have been reversed.)   

I suggested to him that there were in fact situations in which I believed he would be happy to work with someone with different political beliefs. I gave him one such scenario.  

“Now imagine you are scheduled for a lifesaving procedure that requires two skilled surgeons. Picture driving into the staff section of the hospital parking lot and pulling up next to a car displaying a bumper sticker of the political party you hate. You find yourself angry. And then the surgeon you are going to be operating with opens the door and waves at you.” 

Here’s my question: Do you refuse to operate? Will you do lifesaving surgeries only with physicians who agree with you politically? 

I’ve actually had a lot of conversations like this in recent years in our hyperpolarized country, and I’ve found ways to slightly alter the scenario.

Let’s say you command a unit in the military. Are you concerned with the safety of only the soldiers who voted the way you did? 

What if you teach at a community college? Do you help only the students you agree with politically? 

IFYC is a proud partner for America Talks (June 12-13), an intentional weekend of connection in the midst of deep division. (Photo: Getty Images)

What if you coach Little League baseball? Do you refuse to work with an assistant coach whose politics you dislike? 

What if you volunteer at an animal shelter, plan school fundraisers, work with senior citizens in nursing homes – or any other context in which it’s likely you will need to cooperate with people who hold different religious views?

Isn’t this the essence of living in a diverse democracy? After all, diversity isn’t just the differences you like. Diversity is the tensions and conflicts that are the natural consequence of varying identities and diverging worldviews. 

Pluralism is the American experiment

In his book “We Hold These Truths,” the great Jesuit philosopher John Courtney Murray said the definition of civilization is living together and talking together. In the United States, he pointed out, we are trying to do something that has never been done in history: Build a pluralist civilization. Live and talk together, peacefully and productively, with people from different groups who have diverging viewpoints.  

Citizenship in a diverse democracy means we have to be able to disagree with people on some fundamental things, and continue to work with them on others.  

The challenge for our country today is that these bridges of cooperation don’t fall from the sky; people build them. And building these bridges requires essential experiences and skills that we need to do a better job of honing as a nation.  

America Talks: Should the U.S. have stricter laws on the sale of guns?

Strengthening these muscles of citizenship in a diverse democracy is what I’ve dedicated my life to. I was 26 when terrorists attacked our country on 9/11, an event we will rightly take time to remember on its 20th anniversary in September.

As a Muslim, I remember feeling the blanket anger and even hate that people expressed toward everyone of my religion. Instead of fueling that frustration, my response in 2002 was to start IFYC, an organization dedicated to bringing people from diverse religious backgrounds together for the common good. The Holy Quran says, “Repel evil with good, and you will find that your enemy becomes like an intimate friend.” (41:34)

IFYC’s big idea was that by leveraging the strength of America’s religious diversity and focusing on common values, relationship-building and listening, the multitudinous people of this great nation could build a shared life together.

Among our programs is something we call Courageous Pluralism, which pairs culturally conservative with culturally progressive campuses to bridge deep divides, leveraging shared religious values as a connector. We also have 2,000 leaders from diverse religious and political views who work across the nation on COVID-19 vaccination efforts – a common good project if there ever was one.

Polarization shouldn’t paralyze us

We will, of course, still have serious challenges that require debate, and we will continue to disagree on many important matters. However, the worst thing we could do as a country is be paralyzed by our polarization. The stakes are too high.  

The urgency of this need is why IFYC is a proud partner for America Talks (Saturday-Sunday), an intentional weekend of connection in the midst of deep division. Alongside the National Week of Conversation, starting Monday, this powerful opportunity invites every American – yes, even you can sign up right now – to take a meaningful step toward bridging our divides.

America needs you in this effort because we need our surgeons, soldiers, teachers, coaches, politicians – each one of us – to work together, to talk together, to build together. Our collective future depends upon it. 

Eboo Patel is founder and president of IFYC and author of “Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise.”

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