Liberal Education

A Nation Under Two Flags: Liberal Education, Interfaith Literacy, and the New American Holy War

On January 27, 2017, I saw America in split screen. That evening, I arrived at Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson airport and saw people with signs that said, “Muslims Welcome.” I turned on my iPhone to learn that while I had been in the air, the Trump administration had announced a wide-ranging ban on Muslims entering the United States. I was witnessing the first demonstrations against that act.

I went from the airport to a gathering of college student leaders, where I delivered my prepared talk on the inspiring power of past American movements for interfaith civic cooperation. I made little reference to the recently announced Muslim ban, or to the Trump administration more widely.

Many of the students of color in the audience were not having it. They spoke passionately about how violated they felt watching a man who had campaigned on bigotry get elected to the Oval Office and immediately appoint proud white supremacists to senior roles in his administration. Now those people were enshrining their discriminatory views into American policy. Why was I offering the weak tea of interfaith civic cooperation when I should have been rallying a movement of young people to storm the barracks?

As I listened to the students in Atlanta advocate for their view of interfaith social justice (one that I resonated with deeply), I flashed back to the place where I had begun the day. It was at a hotel in Washington, DC, where I had given a talk to the presidents of the Consortium of Christian Colleges and Universities. Over breakfast that morning, I had seen groups of high school and college students gather excitedly around pancakes and omelets, some with Bibles in hand. They wore T-shirts advertising their various faith communities—Mormon, Evangelical, and Catholic. All of them, so far as I could tell, were white. Finally, my curiosity got the better of me, and I approached one of the tables to ask what was going on.

“We’re here for the most important March for Life in history,” one of them told me. “This is the first time a sitting vice president is addressing the event.”

As I listened to the students in Atlanta speak to me about the need for interfaith social justice in opposing the Muslim ban, I couldn’t help but think that those students that I’d seen in Washington, DC, likely also viewed themselves as engaging in interfaith social justice work. I may well have had more personal resonance with the way the students in Atlanta connected their diverse faith identities to the political act of opposing the Muslim ban, but the students in DC were connecting their faith identities with politics as well. And I know enough about American history and comparative theology to understand that it is a significant achievement to build solidarity among Evangelical, Latter Day Saints, and Catholic communities.

The more I thought about this split screen, the more I considered a different question: How much conversation and cross-pollination existed between the Atlanta gathering and the DC group?

Interestingly enough, if you looked at this from the perspective of religious values, you could easily imagine students heading from the pro-life rally to the airport to protest the Muslim ban based on the principle of religious freedom, an ethic that white religious conservatives have advanced for years.1 Students of color, for their part, often belong to theological communities that lean toward the conservative end of the spectrum on the issue of abortion, meaning that at least some of the Muslims and African American Christians organizing the protest against the Muslim ban in Atlanta that evening could hold doctrinal views that might have nudged them toward the pro-life event that morning.

But I don’t think the kind of religious values I mention above were front and center for most of the students. My hunch is that there was very little conversation between the communities that the DC gathering and the Atlanta group represented. I believe that on January 27, 2017, I witnessed American tribalism in miniature.

The two flags of tribalism

There has been no shortage of journalistic and scholarly treatments on tribalism of late.2 We’ve learned, for example, that fans of different sports teams describe the very same plays from the same game very differently.3 And it doesn’t take much for someone to declare that this group of people is their team and those others constitute the enemy. Such solidarities can be determined by matters as thin as favorite colors. And, once we are told who our team is, we appear to enjoy punishing the other team even more than we enjoy winning gains for our own.4

Humans are, of course, tribal by nature, but tribalism in contemporary America is taking a particularly dangerous turn. Increasingly, we live in a nation under two flags: one America flies the Flag of Christian Identity, and the other the Flag of Marginalized Minorities. Both sides are imbuing their flags with religious meaning and symbolism. One side views Trump as a savior, and was able to mobilize 80 percent of white evangelicals as proof of their effectiveness.5 The other side views Trump with equal potency, and also with a religious feeling, namely defilement.6 One side wraps the cross in the flag, the other forms the flag into a Muslim headscarf and places it on the head of a steely-eyed female protestor.7 We are sacralizing our tribal divide. Our culture war has become a holy war.

I believe this holy war is doing great damage to both sides, and to the underlying democracy that currently serves as their battlefield. The Flag of Christian Identity is, in too many cases, a thin veil for white supremacy and a naked cover for actions that violate common decency. We routinely witness egregious actions by men who carry the cross and call themselves patriots that intentionally harm the most vulnerable people in our society. Such behavior will not be soon forgotten by the people targeted, and it is unlikely to be forgiven by the children of those inflicting the pain.

With respect to the side that I sympathize with more, marginalized minorities, I am increasingly concerned that we speak in a rhetoric that actively strives to be oppositional. There are too many progressives who aggressively tag any attempt to find common ground with the other side as treasonous. Many more will simply not try to reach out at all.

To illustrate, on a recent speaking visit to the University of Tennessee, I heard the inspiring story of a large rally against local white supremacists who had scrawled ugly slurs in a central location on campus. One of the organizers confessed something to me in a closed-door meeting the next morning: the protest against white supremacy had indeed drawn several hundred people, but you could count the number of white male students on two hands.

Either one concludes that the several thousand white male undergraduates at the University of Tennessee are budding white supremacists, or we recognize that there is something about the rhetoric we use to organize events for marginalized minorities that isn’t compelling to a wider circle.

To say that I am not neutral between these sides is simply to recognize that our current tribalism is not just the result of different groups with equally valid views. Rather, it is at least partly the product of long histories of injustice, the desire of the people on the receiving end of that injustice for a measure of fairness, and plots by unscrupulous people on the other side to maintain positions of power. It is also a sign of my high regard for the Christian tradition, as represented by figures like Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

And yet, holy wars spare no one. Worse, they destroy the battlefield on which they are waged—in this case, the precious territory of American ideals and institutions. Paradigms do not only describe the world, they reproduce it. The more we insist on reading the world through the
lens of Christian Identity versus Marginalized Minorities, the more we instinctively divide those we do not know into opposing camps based on geography or religion or race or political affiliation, the more gas we give to a fire that may one day engulf us all.

I have no easy solution to the problem that we currently face, but I do have a great deal of hope in the enterprise of liberal education. Liberal education specializes in nurturing empathetic imaginations, in teaching humanizing language, in creating new paradigms, and in preparing citizens to engage with unscripted problems. Liberal education provides the best opportunity to help us find ways to speak of marginalization without exacerbating polarization, to speak of polarization without papering over marginalization, and to do both in a way that recognizes that we will always have to balance legitimate disagreements among different groups in a diverse democracy.

As I suggested earlier, I think a big part of our current problem is how we have sacralized our tribal divide. Consequently, an important part of the solution is a different way of thinking about religion, diversity, and the nation. I believe liberal education is in a prime position to lead an effort toward an interfaith literacy that can offer reconciliation and justice to a divided nation.

The religious history of liberal education

Higher education in the United States began with the opening of Harvard College in 1636, founded because the Puritans were concerned about leaving “an illiterate ministry to the Churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.”8

Over the course of history, religious involvement in the founding of American colleges would prove to be more the rule than the exception. In The Soul of the American University, George M. Marsden emphasizes that many of the colleges built in the late nineteenth century were founded by “men who came of age during the earthshaking national conflict and who inherited a sense of calling to serve God and nation in a cultural mission. . . . Typically they did not abandon the Christian idealism of that heritage but rather adjusted it to accommodate their commitments to modernity.”9 

In a related article, Marsden notes that while religion is too frequently sidelined as an area of inquiry and reflection in many American universities, higher education still holds a great deal of promise as a sector for promoting what he terms “an inclusive pluralism,” one that involves religious identity amid other important dimensions of diversity.10

Thinking through religious identity in a diverse democracy

Much of the most profound thinking on how to build a healthy diverse democracy comes from intellectuals in the liberal education tradition who are contemplating religion or are deeply formed by it. Michael Walzer cogently expresses the challenge before us in the form of a question: “How are we in the United States to embrace difference and maintain a common life?”11

From the great Jesuit political philosopher John Courtney Murray, we learn that the definition of civilization is people living together and talking together. A diverse democracy is a type of civilization in which the political community holds the divergent views of diverse groups. We should never forget that this presupposes the strength of the underlying political community.12

A democracy, Harvard University’s Danielle Allen teaches us, is a society that requires people to build trust with, and thus talk to, strangers. In fact, the more willing you are to talk to strangers, the more powerful you show yourself to be. Children are told not to talk to strangers, a sign of the need adults feel to protect them. Presidents, on the other hand, happily talk to strangers, and look them in the eye when they do. Talking to strangers, Allen says, is “a way to claim your political majority.”

In a diverse society, Allen insists, the strangers you talk to will likely be different from you. Such a society ought not to strive for “oneness.” Allen explains, “The effort to make the people ‘one’ cultivates in the citizenry a desire for homogeneity, for that is the aspiration taught to citizens by the meaning of the word ‘one’ itself. In contrast, an effort to make the people ‘whole’ might cultivate an aspiration to the coherence and integrity of a consolidated but complex, intricate, and differentiated body.”13

John Inazu, the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion at Washington University in St. Louis, points out that not only will the strangers you talk to be different, they will likely disagree with you on significant matters, especially those that deal with religion. We need to cultivate what he terms “a modest unity” amid these deep disagreements and create a civic life that allows for dissent.14

Princeton’s Jeffrey Stout says that managing disagreement is the defining quality of our society. He writes, “Democracy takes for granted that reasonable people will differ in their conceptions of piety, in their grounds for hope, in their ultimate concerns, and in their speculations about salvation. Yet it holds that people who differ on such matters can still exchange reasons with one another, and do both of these things without compromising their integrity.”15

Jane Addams, the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, reminds us that engaging proactively with those with whom we disagree serves to enlarge us in the end. “We know instinctively that if we grow contemptuous of our fellows and consciously limit our intercourse to certain kinds of people whom we have previously decided to respect, we not only tremendously circumscribe our range of life, but limit the scope of our ethics.”16

Writing the next chapter of the American religious story

Of all the various forms of diversity that we speak of these days (race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class, etc.), religious diversity may be the one that the Founders came closest to getting right. These (generally) wealthy, (loosely) Christian, (presumably) straight, (most assuredly) white male slaveholders managed to create a constitutional system that protected freedom of religion, barred the federal government from establishing a single church, prevented religious tests for those running for political office, and penned more than a few poetic lines about building a religiously diverse democracy.

The Founders’ ideal made its way from pen to parchment more easily than from parchment to reality. For that, it took interfaith leaders and civic institutions—people like Jane Addams and organizations like Hull House and the National Conference of Christians and Jews (the NCCJ)—to coax a society that had long protected its white Protestant identity (often violently) to welcome the symbols and contributions of mid-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century immigrants, largely Catholics and Jews. In this way, America moved closer to the ideal articulated by our Founders.

The new religious diversity of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries requires us to write the next chapter in this great story, to move from Judeo-Christian America to Interfaith America. Learning how far we have come by diving into the history sketched above can inspire today’s students to be the authors of that next chapter.

The power of religious language

Religious language has special resources to call us to justice, reconciliation, and community, simultaneously.

When Jesus is asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he responds with a story that elevates a man from a rival religion to a position of moral leadership. Jesus exhorts his own community to follow the Samaritan’s display of kindness and compassion.

Gandhi, drawing on the spiritual resources of his Hindu faith, emerges from a South African jail with a gift of handmade sandals for the man who had imprisoned him, Prime Minister Jan Smuts.

Muhammad, when asked to resolve a dispute between different Meccan clans about who would have the privilege of placing the holy stone into the Ka’aba, suggests that they put the stone on a blanket and insert it into the shrine collectively, thus allowing each clan to claim credit while encouraging cooperation along the way.

Religious traditions teem with wisdom, resources, and language like this, and American heroes have often drawn on such wisdom in inspiring ways.

Lincoln’s second inaugural address, for example, highlights the deep offense against God and humanity that slavery is, recognizes it as one of the central causes of the Civil War, and yet ends with a call for all of us to move forward together: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”17

Colleges as laboratories for diverse democracy

One of the most remarkable qualities of liberal education institutions is that they bring students from a range of identities, worldviews, and experiences together in an intense community during a formative period of their lives. The students celebrating Vice President Mike Pence’s appearance at the March for Life in Washington, DC; the students organizing protests against the Muslim ban at the airport in Atlanta; and many more are sitting side by side listening to a lecture in Political Science 101 even as you read this essay.

Many political philosophers, including the ones quoted above, viewed college campuses as laboratories for diverse democracy. John Courtney Murray said that campuses ought to be places where “creeds (can be) at war intelligibly.”18 Alasdair MacIntyre highlighted that colleges are institutions where young people can be formally initiated into conflict and where arguments ought to be conducted at such a level of excellence that the broader society learns from the campus how to order its own discussions.19 Danielle Allen writes in the Washington Post,

“Our civic culture is badly debilitated. Colleges and universities need to replenish their capacity to defend the intellectual life of democracies.” She emphasizes that democracies and academies rise together and maintains that a central responsibility of a citizen is to prove oneself trustworthy to other citizens. Campuses provide the perfect opportunity for people to practice this essential craft.20

Since interfaith literacy (which I define as the knowledge and skills needed to negotiate a religiously diverse democracy) is a requirement of an educated citizenry, how should campuses accomplish the ambitious program of interfaith literacy I sketch above? I think the organizing principle should be reaching every student. Leaders in liberal education take pride in nurturing a certain set of intellectual qualities in their students, along with conveying key content. We would be embarrassed if any of our students were unable to write a clear paragraph or to recognize the significance of, say, Frederick Douglass or Seneca Falls. The same should go for interfaith literacy.

This means that interfaith literacy must be woven into the core components of campus life, from first-year orientation to general education, from service-learning projects to diversity programs. It should be an essential part of the college experience and part of the definition of being an educated person. A college administrator should be able to shake the hand of a graduating senior on her campus and have a reasonable degree of confidence that, as a result of spending four years on this campus, that student has acquired at least a passable facility in the dimensions of interfaith literacy outlined above.

In closing, I want to emphasize that liberal education has long understood its core mission to be strengthening democracy, and our democracy is in a moment of grave crisis. As much as we ever did, we need liberal education institutions to prepare the kind of leaders who can coax out of the angry cacophony of our society the finer music that Zadie Smith referred to in a speech she gave in Germany while accepting the 2016 Welt Literature Prize:

Individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world—and most recently in America—the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.21


1. Jacob Lupfer, “Religious Liberty: A US Birthright for Conservatives and Progressives Alike,” Religion News Service, June 29, 2018,

2. Lillian Mason, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018); Andrew Sullivan, “America Wasn’t Built for Humans,” New York Magazine, September 19, 2017.

3. Ken Stern, Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right (New York: Brookside Books, 2017).

4. Amy Chua, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations (New York: Penguin Random House, 2018).

5. Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “White Evangelicals Voted Overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, Exit Polls Show,” Washington Post, November 9, 2016,

6. Alan Jacobs, “Wokeness and Myth on Campus,” New Atlantis (Summer/Fall 2017),

7. Amah-Rose Abrams, “Shepard Fairey Releases ‘We the People’ Series to Protest Trump,” Artnet News, January 20, 2017,

8. “History and Mission,” Harvard Divinity School, accessed August 17, 2018,

9. George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

10. George M. Marsden, “A More Inclusive Pluralism,” First Things (February 2015),

11. Michael Walzer, What It Means to Be an American (Venice, Italy: Marsilio Publishers, 1992).

12. John Courtney Murray and Peter Augustine Lawler, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (Oxford, UK: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2005).

13. Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

14. John Inazu, Confident Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

15. Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

16. Jane Addams, quoted in Jon Meacham, The Soul of America (New York: Random House, 2018), 267.

17. Abraham Lincoln, “President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (1865),” National Archives, March 4, 1865,

18. Murray and Lawler, We Hold These Truths.

19. Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990).

20. Danielle Allen, “Why Middlebury’s Violent Response to Charles Murray Reminded Me of the Little Rock Nine,” Washington Post, March 7, 2017,

21. Zadie Smith, “An Optimism and Despair,” New York Review of Books, December 22, 2016,

To respond to this article, email with the author’s name on the subject line.

EBOO PATEL is founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a nonprofit organization that works with higher education to promote interfaith excellence and prepare interfaith leaders for America’s diverse democracy. This essay is adapted from a talk given at the AAC&U Institute on Teaching and Learning for Campus-Wide Interfaith Excellence in July 2018 in Boston.

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