Responding to Difference in Democracy

This resource was part of our Election 2020 collection, designed to help you teach about voting rights, media literacy, and civic participation, in remote and in-person settings.


Interfaith leader Eboo Patel says that differences and disagreements among people are an inevitable part of living in a diverse democracy, but they shouldn’t keep citizens from working together for the common good. In this lesson, students explore the varied ways people respond to differences by reading and reflecting on a poem. Then they listen to Patel tell the story of Ruth Messinger, a former president of the American Jewish World Service. Messinger’s experience of working in rural Oklahoma and finding allies across religious differences invites students to think about how we can better navigate religious and political tensions in democratic societies. Finally, students write a new stanza for a poem describing how they would like to respond to differences so that democracy works better today.



  1. Read a poem and consider how we respond to to differences 
    Give students copies of the reading What Do We Do With a Difference? that includes James Berry’s poem “What Do We Do With a Variation?” First read the poem aloud and check for students’ comprehension of the vocabulary in the poem. Then ask students to read the poem again, silently, underlining the verbs in the poem, and then choosing one verb or phrase that particularly stands out to them. Have students write in their journals about why they selected that word or phrase. How does it connect to something they have seen or experienced? Conclude your discussion of the poem with a quick Wraparound activity with each student saying the word or phrase they chose. What does the poem suggest about how people respond to differences? 

  2. Consider what we should do with differences in a democracy 
    Introduce Eboo Patel, the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization with a mission to foster interfaith cooperation and religious pluralism among young people. Patel recognizes that differences are a fact of life and both individuals and societies get to choose what we “do” with those differences. 

    • Listen to the first part of the podcast (00:00–02:44), Eboo Patel on Collaborating across Differences. Then use the questions below for discussion.

      • How does Patel define democracy? How does he define diversity?
      • Why is religion an especially powerful kind of difference? What do you think Patel means by “matters of ultimate concern”?
      • Patel says that in a democracy, people “get to make their personal convictions public.” What might that look like? What are some of the benefits and challenges of living in such a society?
  3. Discuss the lessons of Ruth Messinger’s story
    Listen to the second half of the podcast (2:44–8:02) as Patel tells the story of Ruth Messinger’s experiences in Oklahoma in the 1960s. Then use the questions below for discussion and reflection.

    • Who is Ruth Messinger, and what was she doing in western Oklahoma?
    • What were some of the key differences between Messinger and other people in the community where she was working?
    • How did she find allies in her work to improve foster care and child welfare? What did she see in the small churches in her neighborhood? What did she recognize about them that might not have been obvious at first glance? What do you think her allies in the community might have seen in Ruth?
    • How would you evaluate the approach Messinger took to collaborating with people who had very different beliefs about “fundamental things”? What is gained in her approach? Is anything lost?
    • Can you imagine using Messinger’s approach to find allies and work for the common good in your community? What might that look like?
  4. Write a new stanza for “What Do We Do With a Variation?” 
    Return to the poem you read at the beginning of class. Ask students to think about a new verb to add to the poem—a verb that reflects something they’ve learned about how to respond to differences during today’s lesson. Then, they should use that verb to build a new stanza to complete the poem. Give students the opportunity to share their writing with the class.


  1. Read Talking About Religion 
    Learn more about Eboo Patel and the importance of communicating about religious differences in the reading Talking About Religion, excerpted from Patel’s memoir Acts of Faith. 

  2. Learn more about Ruth Messinger and interfaith leadership 
    Read the introduction, What is Interfaith Leadership? from Interfaith Leadership by Eboo Patel to learn the full story of Ruth Messinger and consider how it can inspire interfaith leadership today.

  3. Consider the relationship between religion and democracy in American history 
    Our Give Bigotry No Sanction project begins with the historic correspondence between President George Washington and the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, RI in 1790. Use our lesson plans, text and images of the letters, and anthology of essays to explore the link between religious freedom and democracy, and to reflect on how this history affects issues of diversity in today’s society.

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