Why I am not bothered by the sight of minarets

Burt Likko has a great post about Islamophobia over at Not a Potted Plant. (On that note, are you reading Not a Potted Plant? If not, I'd recommend that you start.) He writes:
So are there violent, awful, morally indefensible passages in the Koran. Damn skippy there are. Are there Muslims who nevertheless believe in an act upon these morally indefensible passages? Sadly, yes. Those people are, as I mentioned above, "criminals." They should be treated like criminals. Their coreligionists, however, do not deserve to be treated like criminals until and unless they too commit criminal acts. And those in charge of the governmental powers need to be careful about the kinds of acts that they criminalize.


To claim that this is a "Christian nation" and therefore that Christianity is entitled to special, favorable treatment by the government takes away the bulwark of separation of church and state. What will the Christian nation advocates claim if and when Muslims outnumber them at the ballot box and suddenly America is proclaimed to be a "Muslim nation?" They will have already established that the government may favor the majority's religion -- and should they then find themselves in the minority, there will not be the Constitutional guarantee against Establishment of a religion to protect their rights.

What Burt refrains from saying, but where I would like to go, is that calling America a "Christian nation" in no way makes me like it any more. Presuming that America's majority religion confers greater moral authority than it otherwise would have is, frankly, bonkers. And I say this as a church-going Christian, unlike Burt.

First of all, the Bible is just as laden with violent, morally-indefensible passages as the Koran. (Hum the last few bars of Psalm 137, for example.) We like to overlook them, but they're there. It's best that we not get into an argument about which religion's holy book is less violent than the other, because it's an argument nobody wins.

But more than that, being "Christian" has hardly stopped anyone from committing atrocities every bit as monstrous as those perpetrated on 9/11. Within the last century,. the populations of several Christian nations were all to happy to ruthlessly murder (or abet the murder of) 6 million of their friends and neighbors for the simple fact that their religion wasn't Christianity. (Nobody can dispute that many of the courageous people who saved Jews during the Holocaust were Christian, just as I can easily point to many Muslims who are just as appalled by Islamic terrorists as I am.) Lest we comfort ourselves that such horrors are fading into the past, let's not forget Christian Serbs were likewise willing to murder 8,000 Muslims all too recently. Being a majority Christian nation hardly seems to confer a protective effect when other means of maintaining a civil society break down.

Turning our eyes to our own country, being Christian seems to have served as no barrier to those who were otherwise intent on acting on their worst impulses. Does anyone doubt that the domestic terrorist group the Ku Klux Klan was (and is) composed of people who considered themselves Christian? Did they not systematically murder and otherwise brutalize their black (or Catholic) fellow Christians, as well as Jews?

Finally, if you happen to be a gay or lesbian like me, living in a nation that prides itself on its Christianity doesn't seem to make life any better. Given their druthers, some of the worst of these Christians would happily march me off to death camps, I have no doubt. (I'm referring to the Westboro Baptist Church, but there's no way on earth that I'm linking to them.) Prominent members of the Christian Right have very publicly stated that people like me should be barred from certain professions, and would probably include my own profession if pressed. And I have heard in churches, with my own ears, that gay people are out to spread AIDS, and deserve to be shipped off somewhere remote, away from decent people. You'll forgive me if I am not exactly delighted when our leaders choose to burnish their Christian credentials.

Now, there are many, many wonderful Christians, and I happen to be a member of a church that (by and large) strives to do right in the world in a manner consistent with my own values. But just as I would never conflate them with the likes of Fred Phelps, neither would I tar my Muslim friends with the brush of Mohamed Atta.

I fight fundamentalist Christianity in two ways. I do so first by demanding a separation between private religious beliefs and public policy, and by supporting the constitutional freedoms that allow everyone to participate fully and equally in our civic life, regardless of religion or lack thereof. And I do so by participating in the life of a church that presents a progressive moral message in keeping with what I believe Jesus really had to say, in counter to the narrow theology of those on the Right.

It seems obvious to me that the answer to the question of how to deal with Islam in our country is not to destroy its beautiful legacy of religious freedom. It lies in differentiating between moderate Islam and its radical elements, and welcoming the former to participate in American society like any other religion. This is why the whole Park 51 fiasco has been so counterproductive. The answer is found in an intelligent recognition of human variability within the whole that is any religious community, and supporting those elements that best exemplify the values we cherish as a nation.

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