Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Cordoba House mosque, Ground Zero, and all you religious people trying to run my life

That's the topic of my Scripps Howard column with Ben Boychuk this week. Since you already got most of my take in blog form last week, let me do something different and focus on Ben's take.

An excerpt:

Now let's contrast Washington with Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the Cordoba House project who wrote a fascinating book in 2004 called "What's Right with Islam Is What's Right with America." In it, Rauf casually argues that the U.S. Constitution and the core principles of Islamic law (sharia) are not in conflict at all and, indeed, the "American political structure is sharia-compliant."

"Islamic law and American democratic principles have many things in common," Rauf wrote, stressing that sharia's support for "political justice" and "economic justice ... for the weak and impoverished" "sounds suspiciously like the Declaration of Independence."

To the casual reader, maybe. Fact is, sharia doesn't recognize the separation of church and state, has a medieval understanding of equal rights and sanctions treating Christians and Jews as second-class citizens who must pay a tax to receive Muslim protection. In other words, to "demean themselves as good citizens" in a "sharia-compliant" America is something very different from what George Washington would have understood.

I'll sum up, at the risk of oversimplifying: Muslims -- at least the Muslims involved in Cordoba House -- think that society should be run according to Islamic precepts. And my response is: Of course they do!

To my liberal, agnostic eyes, though, that doesn't appear all that different from, well, any other religious group -- or, admittedly, that different from secularists who'd like to get through the political day without having to argue against somebody else's faith. There are very few people who think that society shouldn't be run according to their particular view of the universe.

Let's take the Southern Baptists. Here are some excerpts from a resolution "on political engagement" members of the convention approved in 2008:

WHEREAS, Christians acting as the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16) have a responsibility to engage their culture, including participating in the political process; and

WHEREAS, Candidates for political office seek the endorsement of Christians for their candidacies; and

WHEREAS, Christians exercising their rights as responsible citizens may choose to endorse candidates for political office as part of the exercise of their engagement of culture; and

WHEREAS, Christians should seek to apply their spiritual and moral values to the political process rather than politicize the church;


now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That we urge Christians to engage the culture through discipleship within the churches and through participation in the democratic public policy and political process in order to help fulfill the kingdom mandate taught in the Bible and expressed in the Baptist Faith and Message “to bring industry, government, and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love,” while always protecting freedom of conscience; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we encourage our churches regularly to teach and preach biblical truth on moral issues and to urge their members to vote according to their beliefs, convictions, and values; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we call on candidates for political office to endorse the Judeo-Christian beliefs, convictions, and values upon which society should rest.

Now, see, I find that last part alarming -- the Constitution pretty clearly states there should be "no religious test" for public office, but the Southern Baptist Convention believes candidates should have to pass the test anyway. They may not be at odds with the letter of the law, but it's certainly against the spirit. And the Southern Baptist Convention does this all the time, letting officials know they don't want gay people to serve in the military or have marriage rights or even have the right to hold a job! Baptists aren't just stating personal preferences: They're stating that American society should be run along Southern Baptist lines.

But let's not pick on merely the examples I find objectionable. Let's take a look at a rather more liberal church, one whose beliefs are somewhat closer to my own: The Episcopal Church of America. Here's a list of legislation passed by church leaders at their 2009 convention -- there's a condemnation of "first strike" military action, a condemnation of the invasion of Iraq and America's "sin committed in Iraq," and even a call to end the U.S. embargo in Cuba. Episcopalians, in other words, want the United States to run its foreign policy along lines acceptable to a branch of the Church of England!

How crazy is that?

Well, it's both kinda crazy and not-so-crazy. It is -- again from my agnostic eyes -- a little weird that we let our speculations about the possibility of a divine entity who may or may not exist guide how we organize our society. But in my warmer, wiser moments, I realize that politics are an expression of values -- and that an invidual's values are shaped by their religion, or shape the religion itself.

On the other hand: America's about as secular as it ever has been in its history. And it's still pretty religious. Somehow, we've survived pretty well without becoming a theocracy and without banning Bibles from public streets. So maybe it's ok if I recognize that the tensions exist, but that they haven't overwhelmed our system. Southern Baptists surely have an influence on our governance, but they don't out-and-out run things. What's more, Southern Baptists have attempted to influence and shape American governance in a decidedly conservative way -- and yet there's never been any serious effort, that I know of, to deny them their First Amendment rights of worship. Why would we treat Muslims differently?

Most of us in this country are Christians and Americans and find ways to meld those two identities without threatening the good order of society -- and in lots of cases, society even benefits. And so it is, I believe, with the vast majority of American Muslims.

What's interesting to me, finally, is that my friend Ben and many other conservatives are so opposed to the possible rise of sharia law to dominate and shape America -- nevermind that Islam's numbers are too few to ever really permit that to happen, nevermind there's already a few mosques in New York -- that they seemingly don't have any real confidence in Amerca's ability to shape Islam right back. You know who actually has that confidence? The people behind the Cordoba House proposal in New York.

With the flexibility permitted by America’s religious freedom and openness, American Muslims can catalyze innovations in the global process of ijtihad (Islamic legal interpretation)just as American Jews and Christians birthed new developments in their faiths. They represent the diversity championed by both their own religious history and the heritage of the country in which they reside, positioning them uniquely to reach out to other Muslims and Americans and thus help close the gap in understanding.

Well, yeah. But if we throw up our hands in fear when somebody wants to build a mosque -- or if, worse, we act contrary to our own laws and values and decide not to let the mosque be built -- well, then, we may well blow that opportunity.

Ben closed his portion of the column with these words: "Let us give bigotry no sanction -- and be ever watchful of those who would exploit American openness and freedom to do just that." I couldn't agree more. And I'd add a second statement: "Let us give bigotry no sanction -- and be ever watchful of those who would end American openness and freedom to do just that." And that's the problem posed by those who would refuse the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero. Right now, it's a greater threat than any posed by a hypothetical imposition of sharia law on American citizens.

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