(On May 10, 2022, Interfaith Youth Core will become Interfaith America, with an expanded mission and vision. We look forward to all of our friends and partners joining us as we begin this new chapter. Interfaith America will launch on the same day as Eboo Patel’s new book, “We Need to Build: Fieldnotes for Diverse Democracy.” The launch coincides with a new PRRI/Interfaith America survey of American attitudes about our country’s growing religious pluralism. For more information contact Paul Raushenbush at email@example.com)
“Eboo here has run off and joined the Flat Earth Society.”
It was the late 1990s and I was in my early 20s, hanging out with a group of school friends discussing dreams for the future. People talked about becoming professors, doctors, lawyers, scientists — the standard litany of high-achiever professional pursuits.
A different kind of dream was taking shape in my mind: starting a nonprofit organization called Interfaith Youth Core.
I had been taking frequent breaks from the doctoral dissertation I was writing at Oxford University to run projects that brought young people from diverse religions together to engage in social action and interfaith dialogue. It was work that fed my soul and that I believed could have a major impact in the world. Previous generations of faith-inspired young people – from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, Jane Addams and John Lewis – had shown the way.
My friends were not impressed. Cue the peals of laughter and snarky remarks. Didn’t I know that religion had gone out of fashion decades ago? Being called a flat-Earther is one of the more printable insults I received that night.
There was less laughter after George Bush became president of the United States, powered by religious rhetoric and evangelical Christian voters.
And after September 11, 2001, when a group of young extremists who claimed to be motivated by Islam attacked America, people started to say out loud that maybe I was onto something.
In a matter of months, religion went from being considered a preoccupation of people obsessed with the past to an issue at the center of every serious conversation about the future of humanity. And the role of faith-based young people was at the top of the agenda.
In that post-9/11 era, three basic approaches emerged. The “new atheists” claimed that the answer was to rid the world of religion. A second group was convinced that we were in the final battle of a civilizational war between “the West” and “Islam,” and the goal was to defeat the enemy once and for all.
Interfaith Youth Core was part of a third group, which pointed to a future where people of all religious and philosophical persuasions could thrive together. Following Harvard professor Diana Eck, we called this future pluralism, and defined it as a society that had:
- Respect for diverse identities
- Relationships between different communities
- Cooperation on projects that strengthened our common life together
Over the course of the 2000s, the youth movement Interfaith Youth Core was nurturing grew rapidly. Hundreds of people attended our national conferences and training events. Dozens of interfaith youth social action initiatives launched all over the country. We were profiled by major media, including The New York Times, CNN, National Public Radio and the Chicago Tribune. The Bush White House held IFYC up as a model. So did the Clinton Global Initiative, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and the World Economic Forum.