An Army of Straw Men

Posted: Sep 03, 2010 12:01 AM
An Army of Straw Men

WASHINGTON -- A church in Florida is poised to commemorate an act of violence committed in the name of Islam, the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, with an act of stupidity committed in the name of Christianity, the public burning of the Quran.

This threatened libricide proves little more than the existence of a few attention-seeking crackpots in a continental country -- the natural resource that makes cable news possible. But the Manhattan mosque controversy has exposed a broader, conservative Christian suspicion of mosques and Muslims. Protests against the construction of mosques in California, Tennessee and Wisconsin have often included Christian pastors. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, a conservative Christian group, recently wrote: "Permits should not be granted to build even one more mosque in the United States of America, let alone the monstrosity planned for Ground Zero. This is for one simple reason: Each Islamic mosque is dedicated to the overthrow of the American government."

In this debate, grace is in short supply but irony abounds. The Christian fundamentalist view of Islam bears striking resemblance to The New York Times' view of Christian fundamentalism -- a simplistic emphasis on the worst elements of a complex religious tradition. Both create a caricature, then assert that the Constitution is under assault by an army of straw men. The debates within Islam on the nature and application of sharia law, for example, are at least as complex as the debates among Christian theologians on the nature of social justice. And the political application of Islam differs so greatly -- from Saudi Arabia to Mali to Morocco to Bosnia to Tanzania to Detroit -- that it defies easy summary.

Many Christian fundamentalists seem oblivious to the similarity of their own legal and cultural peril. In portions of America -- say San Francisco or Vermont -- conservative Christians are sometimes also viewed as suspicious, illiberal outsiders. Their opinions on gender roles, homosexuality and public morality are viewed as an attack on constitutional values -- much as fundamentalists view the threat from Islam. Some secular critics of Islam -- Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens come to mind -- explicitly argue that the real threat to freedom comes from the oppressive moralism of the entire Abrahamic tradition, Jewish, Christian and Muslim.

Christian fundamentalists who undermine religious liberty in order to target Muslims are playing a game of intolerance roulette. That First Amendment might come in handy someday.

But the problem runs deeper than an inability to calculate self-interest. This Christian attitude toward Islam represents a distortion of Christianity itself.

Every religious tradition has two competing visions. First, religion may be a source of tribal identity. This was the norm for centuries in Western history. The Christian Church jostled for social power along with other interests, pursuing a tribal agenda at the expense of Jews, heretics at home and Muslims abroad. The goal was to see Christian theological beliefs publicly recognized and favored. This remains a temptation in the United States and a problem in much of the world, where the appeal of the tribe remains strong.

But Christianity, as an Abrahamic faith, sets out another vision -- an assertion of human worth and dignity that transcends tribe and nation. Christianity has accommodated this belief in slow, halting, often hypocritical stages -- a history that should leave Christians tolerant of the slow, halting, hypocritical progress of other traditions. The implications of this shift within Christianity, however, are profound. In light of this belief, the purpose of social influence for Christians is not to favor their own faith; it is to serve a view of universal rights and dignity taught by their faith. It is not to advance their own creed; it is to apply that creed in pursuit of the common good. This is what turns religion into a positive social force -- a determination to defend everyone's dignity.

Freedom of religious worship and expression is essential to human dignity -- which makes blocking the construction of a mosque for religious reasons a violation of Christian belief. And zoning laws in Mecca or Riyadh have nothing to do with this principle.

Religious tribalism -- dividing the children of light from the children of darkness -- is a problem in many traditions. But a reaction in kind from conservative Christians would manage to undermine their interests and their convictions at the same time.