The challenges of religious diversity in a university context

Inazu, Patel team up through the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics to offer a semester-long class

Eboo Patel (right), founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, and John Inazu, the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law & Religion in the School of Law, teamed up this semester to teach a class titled, "Religion, Politics and the University." (Joe Angeles/Washington University)

Walking around historic Forest Park, John Inazu and Eboo Patel — a law professor and a visiting scholar meeting for the first time at Washington University in St. Louis — got to talking. They talked about pluralism. They talked about religious differences. They talked about how these ideas manifest and apply to a university campus. They developed a friendship. And so, a course called “Religion, Politics, and the University,” offered through the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, was born.

At its core, the course the two are co-teaching, and which debuted this semester, questions how a diverse democracy can develop and be successful in a pluralistic society. Specifically, it considers how to engage in situations where the legitimate expression of one group’s identity is a legitimate violation of another’s.

Patel emphasizes a point during class. (Joe
Angeles/Washington University)

“The most interesting cases in a diverse democracy are right vs. right cases, not right vs. wrong cases,” said Patel, a visiting Danforth Scholar and the founder-director of the national organization Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC).

“We want our students to be able to frame that — in the kind of conversations we’re having in this course — as one of the challenges that is just part of a diverse democracy and view it as part of the landscape to positively manage and engage — and not something that’s going to be an easy resolution.”

Inazu, the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law & Religion at Washington University’s School of Law, recently released his second book “Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference.” Patel is an American Muslim navigating through the IFYC a religiously diverse social landscape. This semester’s course was the perfect intersection of their work.

“I like to joke that — unlike many academics who will tell eight stories where one will do — John tells the one story that reminds you of the other eight, which is how his book winds up being 132 pages without a wasted word,” Patel said. “It’s poetry and political philosophy, and I find myself referring to the ideas and lines and examples in it all the time.

“Then, John turns out just to be a really nice and smart guy and a good speaker and there’s nothing more fun than to have a challenge — like how do you have diverse democracy? — and have an interlocutor you want to talk about that with for hours. And then to do it with eight or 10 or 12 other really smart people, who happen to be people in formation (who we call students), to have that conversation with.”

Washington University students got a unique opportunity learning from Inazu outside of the law school. (Joe Angeles/Washington University)

On the other hand, Inazu hopes Patel’s experience at the helm of IFYC, a Chicago-based nonprofit aimed at promoting interfaith cooperation, will help Washington University learn and improve how it engages in religious diversity.

“I think Eboo and Interfaith Youth Core can be a tremendous asset to Washington University,” Inazu said. “We do a lot of things well here, but we don’t do religious diversity very well. We have a lot to learn, and I think Interfaith Youth Core and Eboo have a lot to teach us, so I’m hoping that part of this is the next step in WashU’s relationship with Eboo.”

For Patel, who served as a member of President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships, not much convincing was needed to get him to co-teach the class. The two have also taken their conversation on the road, hosting joint talks in cities such as Dallas, Chicago, Nashville and Atlanta. They also hosted a speaking series at Washington University named “Religion and Politics in the Age of Fracture,” through which Patel interviewed author and commentator Ken Stern, and Inazu spoke with Emma Green, a staff writer who covers religion and politics for The Atlantic.

Additionally, another major element of the class is its focused emphasis on framing its considerations of political and religious issues of diversity in the context of a university.

“I increasingly think that the university is sort of a microcosm of the rest of democratic society and the immense challenges that we’re facing now are playing out in their own ways in the university context,” Inazu said. “If we can’t figure it out here — where we often have the luxury of time and we have the benefit of an institutional focus on reflection — where are we going to do it?”

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