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Political Correctness..., I mean Religious Correctness

July 31st, 2010 | 7 min read

By Andrew Walker

[This post is lengthy; be forewarned]

As I expected would happen, the readers of Mere-O have responded both with class, sensitivity, and elegance to my original post, in which I provoked conversation about the Mosque Controversy in New York City. In this post, I want to offer a perspective that I've been giving thought to on this issue. I would love to hear everyone's thoughts, disagreements, etc. But, of course, let's be civil.

What are the fundamental issues sparking this contentious debate?

1) Religious Freedom/Religious Liberty. Proponents for building the Mosque believe the Constitution protects any religion's right to build anywhere without government prohibition.

2) Progress. Proponents also believe that building a mosque on such sensitive and sacred ground as Ground Zero allows for peaceful bridge-building; that is, in allowing a Mosque to be built, we'll overcome our apparent (and latent) prejudices against Muslims and become better acquainted with a moderate, and supposedly peaceful form of Islam. In all, this position claims that America will better appreciate its own religious heritage by being in tune with it.

3) Respect and Decency. Opponents of the Mosque believe that building such a towering and imposing edifice is in blatant disrespect to the victims and families of 9/11. In this camp, religious liberty advocates still uphold the right to build a Mosque but calls on the Mosque's builders to delicately consider whether America has been appropriately healed from a disastrous attack perpetrated by a particularly virulent strand of Islam or, in a different vein, whether Islam has fully satisfied the demands of Americans who wish that peaceful Muslims would unequivocally denounce the form of Islam which precipitated 9/11.

4) Conflict over Values. Opponents of the Mosque see much deeper elements brewing under the surface: a political show-of-arms. Islam is a religion ripe with political symbolism, indeed, Islam is a political ideology. According to this breed, the towering nature of the proposed Mosque is the equivalent of engaging in political symbolism, the Mosque representing the totalizing tendency of Islam to usurp the authority of its indigenous habitat, wherever that may be. At a more deeper, fundamental issue, is the debate between Islamic and Western values. Westerners, of course, believing that Islamic nation-states represent some of the most authoritarian, restrictive states in the world simultaneously standing in stark contrast to the liberties upheld by Western democracies. Consider Andrew McCarthy's words from National Review:

The Ground Zero mosque project is not about religious tolerance. We permit thousands of mosques in our country, and Islam is not a religion. Islam is an ideology that has some spiritual elements, but strives for authoritarian control of every aspect of human life — social, political, and economic. The Ground Zero mosque project is a stealth step in the "Grand Jihad," the term used by the Muslim Brotherhood and its confederates for what they describe as a "civilizational" battle to destroy the U.S. and the West from within, by sabotage.

Now, I don't believe McCarthy is channeling the conspiracist mindset of Glenn Beck to say what he says. In fact, I tend to agree. And moreover, McCarthy is writing from the most respected mouth-piece of American conservatism, ensuring that the majority of conservatives feel at least some similar attitude.When viewed properly, as one commenter noted, the supposed overlap of religious liberty and Western values cracks. The issue becomes one of upholding Western values, not arbitrarily denouncing a religion because we disagree with its religious concepts.

Before I offer my own thoughts, I would like to include a few excellent quotes from the readers of Mere-O who so generously discussed this issue in the comment thread.

From Sean Rice:

In seeking the welfare of our city, we should seek to bring it in line with the good principles of God’s Word, and should recognize that our current setting is not a perfect place and is deserving of criticism and needing of change; this prevents us from exalting our culture and falling into tribalism.

From Dave Strunk:

Two principles overlap in concentric circles: religious liberty and Western Christian values [...] The fact that Muslims want to practice Sharia law in parts of the West is a utilization of our own principles against us (I’m going beyond the WTC debate for a second). We want freedom of speech and religion, and so naively allow Sharia law to be practiced in some places (i.e., in some parts of the UK). BUT, Sharia law doesn’t want freedom of speech and religion, and so doesn’t allow it. Whether we call these a clash of Islamic and Christian values, or Islamic and Western values, doesn’t make much of a difference. In one way or another, Islam is clashing with common sense human rights everywhere, and it ought to be stopped in whatever avenue is possible.

Bravo to the readers of Mere-O. If I may generalize, based upon the comments section of my post, it looks as though the readers of Mere-O are in opposition to the Mosque being built on the grounds of a perceived conflict over values.

Now, if you'll permit me, I'll throw in my two cents. This has never been an issue of religious liberty. Heck, I'm a Baptist. It's in my blood to permit anyone of any creed the freedom to worship. So, while I too am in opposition of the Mosque being built, I would defend it on principle on the basis of a purely pragmatic, Constitutional right.

Perhaps, though, the Constitutional aspect of this debate ought to be enlarged by placing the safeguards of the Constitution next to the intent of Islam. When done, revealed in the outcome is the instability of the Constitution to protect itself from staving off attack by the very means it seeks to uphold. What am I saying? I'm saying we've caught ourselves in a mess.

Yet, the pragmatic, constitutional concern I harbor does not override much deeper political concerns I have over the building of this Mosque. One, as columnists for the Weekly Standard and National Review have pointed out, the funding for the Mosque is suspect. There are links that the builders of the Mosque have both political and monetary backing from radical strands within Islam. But, on another level, I freely admit that I hold the motives surrounding the building of this Mosque in tension: It is no surprise that history has often been wedged between the values of imposing empires.

How ought Americans see Islamic encroachment? First, we must beg for transparency on the financing and connections associated with the Mosque. Secondly, we must ardently denounce the attempts by some extremists in Western European countries to enforce Sharia law within the confines of the European nation-state. The presence of such law is a direct attack on a nation’s sovereignty and its own rule of law.

We must ask, though, how ought American Christians respond to Islamic encroachment? As we're instructed to do in Scripture: Love our neighbor. It is important to recognize that the perceived enemy of the State is not the enemy of the Christian. Yes, the Christian recognizes the authority of the state to distribute justice equitably, but the Christian also recognizes that the State is ordered to protect itself and its citizens. The bulk of this debate lies with the State and Christians portending despair ought to look upward. If there is any regret to be expressed in the building of this Mosque, it is in the sadness wrought by seeing individuals being eternally deceived by following a false god. The towering symbol of this particular Mosque communicates the commitments of its adherents. A large Mosque means a larger following—translating into a larger net effect of individuals separated from Christ.

On one level, the pain of this debate is great, for it provokes sacred first principles upon which our nation was founded. Americans, for the first time, are experiencing the birthing pains of a nation dedicated to religious liberty. But, for Christians, the pains of seeing individuals deceived ought to provoke even sharper pains of anguish.

Individuals still wishing to address the tumult surrounding the building of the mosque in terms simply of religious freedom have fallen prey to the limits of political discourse. Individuals keen to the inner-chamber of the debate now recognize that this has nothing to do with religion, per se. Individuals opposing the construction of the mosque recognize the political significance and symbolism of such a towering architecture. A Mosque no less threatens individuals within Western countries as does Islam, with its proclivity toward cultural monism and totalitarian regimes.

As critics are sure to denounce the opponents of the Mosque as nativists and bigots, it is the Mosque's proponents who I believe represent a naive and elusive commitment to religious pluralism. This type of politick inevitably relativizes the uniqueness and virtue of civilizations by simultaneously trying to uphold neutrality towards all others. And some socio-religious implications are not only impossible to be neutral towards, but must be opposed for the sake of safety.

To be for something, the State may need to be against something. But, this may result in forming an opinion unfavorable to the culture at large. Such is the burden experienced by those willing to value the virtues of a free nation. With time, if Islam can prove itself a catalyst towards Democratic freedom, then its case will have been naturally made in the public square. Until then, it has a lot of work to do in distancing itself from Islamic extremism. Peaceful Islam, if it exists, must pay for the sins of a few.

I'll end with a quote from Craig Carter, who states the terms far more ably than I:

If they [Moderate Muslims] are not willing to admit forthrightly that 9/11 was caused by a group of young Muslim men, mainly from Saudi Arabia, claiming to be inspired by centuries of Islamic aggression against the infidels - then they should not be allowed to build their mosque.

If they are not willing to apologize for the atrocity committed against America by members of their own religion and in the name of that religion, regardless of how misguided they may be regarded as having been, - then they should not be allowed to build their mosque.

If they are not willing to meet with representatives of the victims families and listen to their suggestions of how the design of the building could incorporate a suitable memorial to the victims, a clear repudiation of the ideology that motivated the attackers and a commitment to American principles of separation of church and state and liberal democracy - then they should not be allowed to build their mosque.

Why not? Because if they wish to be at war with the West, the West should treat them as enemies. Religious toleration ends where murder begins. St. Augustine could have told us that.

Andrew Walker

Andrew T. Walker is an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.