Seeing In Islam What You Want to See

First, secularists used Islam to expose the illiberality of Christians in the West:

“If we do not bind together as partners with others in other countries then this conflict is only going to metastasize,” said Steve Bannon in 2014. He was referring to a conflict he perceived between “Judeo-Christian values” and “Islamic fascism.” Speaking to a conference held at the Vatican, he seemed to call for Christian traditionalists of all stripes to join together in a coalition for the sake of waging a holy war against Islam.

The rhetoric of a looming civilizational war has proved persistent. Recent years have seen religious leaders from both the American Christian community and the Russian Orthodox community coming together to bemoan the decline of traditional values. One example is the 2015 Moscow meeting between Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Franklin Graham, son of the evangelist Billy Graham. The Patriarch lamented to Graham how, after decades of inspiring underground believers in the Soviet Union with its defense of religious freedom, the West has abandoned the shared “common Christian moral values” that are the bedrock of a universal “Christian civilization.”

Now, Neo-Calvinists use Islam to expose secular liberalism’s intolerance:

I submit that the Muslim schoolgirl who walks into her classroom with a simple scarf atop her head is performing a critical democratic function—one we should all be thankful for. Whether she knows it or not, she is offering a distinct contribution and precious gift to Western democracy.

Her hijab is doing the critical work of exposing several viruses growing at the heart of Western democratic culture: racism, colonialism, anti‐religious bigotry, cultural insecurity, and fear. Each of these viruses is potential deadly to the democratic experiment, and she is exposing all of them.

What is missing here is that secular liberals and Neo-Calvinists share far more in common than either group does with Muslims. Both liberalism and Neo-Calvinism emerged out of a Christian West that had no place for Islam and regarded the Ottomans, for instance, as an alien civilization. Secular liberals and Neo-Calvinists came down on different sides of the French Revolution, liberals for and Neo-Calvinists against. But both were not favorable to Islam. Secularists wanted to remove religious influences from public life (hence banning hijabs). Neo-Calvinists wanted/want to restore religion to public life and recognize God (the Triune one) as the foundation for civilizational advance (hence opposition to secular liberalism and false religion). In both cases, Islam is not an ally of secular liberalism or of Neo-Calvinism.

So why do those historically at odds with Oriental religion and society and currently distinct from Islamic culture think they have a friend in Islam? Is it really as simple as any enemy of President Trump is a friend of mine?

Jamie Smith’s Bait and Switch

I was afraid that neo-Calvinism’s refusal to distinguish the sacred and secular would go here — that is, to a defense of civil religion. Jamie Smith’s latest editorial does just that.

Mind you, he is aware of the defective versions of civil religion, especially the one that has sent U.S. soldiers “to die face down in the muck of Vietnam” (thank you, Walter Sobchak):

civil religion is what we get when we divinize the civitas, when devotion to “the nation” trumps other allegiances and inspires a fervor and passion that is nothing short of religious. David Gelernter names this in his 2007 book, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. Walter McDougall’s more recent book The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy, which Robert Joustra reviews in this issue, identifies the same problem in its subtitle: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest. In McDougall’s argument, civil religion carries the usual whiff of irrationality: the hard-nosed rationality of national interests is compromised because of vaunted values and misguided mythologies.

But Smith still thinks civil religion is salvageable.

The envisioned good of a diverse, pluralistic, yet civil society that liberal democracies hope for is not a generic vision. It has a particular history—rooted in Christianity—and demands particular virtues. In short, the very project of a well-functioning, pluralistic, liberal society depends on the formative power of tradition-specific, “illiberal,” non-democratic communities that can inculcate virtues of hope, respect for dignity, commitment to truth, and more. Families, synagogues, churches, mosques embed their members in a Story that makes such virtues “make sense.” These non-political spheres of society cultivate people who become the sorts of citizens who know how to be patient and forgiving precisely because they believe in something beyond the state.

See what he did there? Civil society in liberal democracies owes its existence to Christianity. In those societies synagogues, churches, and mosques embed citizens in “a Story.” They become patient and forgiving.

Christianity did that? Or was it the Enlightenment (which owes its existence in part to medieval and early modern Europe). Maybe by using the indefinite article in “a Story” you can get away with blurring churches, synagogues and mosques into one happy, fuzzy, gentle, and kind civil society. But that is certainly not the experience of most western societies where Christians ran things and established their churches.

Smith really pours it on when he leads the following cheer:

But one of the by-products of a healthy church forming citizens of kingdom come is that they are then sent into the earthly city with Christlike virtues that also contribute to the common good. We might miss this because it doesn’t primarily play itself out on a national scale; rather, it is enacted at the parish level, in a thousand different neighbourhoods. There we also find Christians, Jews, and Muslims collaborating for the sake of the vulnerable, the lonely, and the marginalized while also nourishing the virtue incubators we call families.

Well, in point of fact, when Christians go into public with a comprehensive w-w they have to be especially aware that they are not like Jews or Muslims. Pot down the w-w gauge and perhaps you have less conviction about being distinct from those people who do not profess Christ. But I don’t know how Smith gets the Chamber of Commerce view of Christianity’s civil nature from Christ’s own words:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (Matt 10:34-35)

That explanation of the antithesis is what makes Abraham Kuyper’s pillarization of Dutch society so intriguing. The Netherlands was not the American melting pot (or even the Canadian multicultural stew). It was a series of religious subgroups that kept to themselves the way that states’ rights advocates in the United States thought about relations between local and federal government.

But if Christians want a seat at the table of a liberal international order that preserves democracy from autocracy, Smith does a pretty good impersonation of 1950s mainline Protestantism.

Can Fairy Tales Do More than the Holy Spirit?

As much as I live and breathe and have my being in conservative circles in the United States, I cannot understand how conservatives who are Christians can write so cheerfully about virtue and what it takes to cultivate it:

Mere instruction in morality is not sufficient to nurture the virtues. It might even backfire, especially when the presentation is heavily exhortative and the pupil’s will is coerced. Instead, a compelling vision of the goodness of goodness itself needs to be presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination. A good moral education addresses both the cognitive and affective dimensions of human nature. Stories are an irreplaceable medium of this kind of moral education. This is the education of character.

The Greek word for character literally means an impression. Moral character is an impression stamped upon the self. Character is defined by its orientation, consistency, and constancy. Today we often equate freedom with morality and goodness. But this is naïve because freedom is transcendent and the precondition of choice itself. Depending upon his character, an individual will be drawn toward either goodness or wickedness. Moral and immoral behavior is freedom enacted either for good or for ill.

The great fairy tales and children’s fantasy stories attractively depict character and virtue. In these stories, the virtues glimmer as if in a looking glass, and wickedness and deception are unmasked of their pretensions to goodness and truth. These stories make us face the unvarnished truth about ourselves while compelling us to consider what kind of people we want to be.

Calvinists have a problem with this, obviously, since they put the T in Total Depravity. But shouldn’t any Christian who considers himself Augustinian or any theist who believes in the fall (recorded in the not so fair tale of Genesis)? Can’t we at least, if you’re not going to talk about effectual calling, reserve some space for baptism and the sacraments more generally?

Or, are we supposed to conclude that a kid reared on Beauty and the Beast has as much a shot at virtue as the one who’s baptized? If that’s the case, then why is cult so much the bedrock of culture?

If Princeton Refuses to Award a PCA Pastor, Why is Redeemer NYC Awarding a Liberal Congregationalist?

Word on the street has it that Redeemer Presbyterian Church has given Marilynne Robinson its first Commission of Faith and Work. Doesn’t Robinson know that Tim Keller is kind of toxic? Has she no sense of solidarity with her mainline Protestant women and LBGT+ ministers and church members? (Or, didn’t Princeton’s president know that Keller was about to approve an award to Robinson?)

Better question: why is a church whose officers subscribe the Confession of Faith and Catechisms recognizing a woman who sometimes preaches and whose theological reflections, while thoughtful, hardly line up with the PCA’s confessional teaching?

Here’s the explanation:

The commission aims to address the tide of uncertainty that the humanities now face with distinctly Christian support. Historically, in times of uncertainty and transition, the humanities have provided reminders of hope and grace to combat our fear and doubt. They center us in the miracle of the Imago Dei, sounding the peal of God’s presence in our lives. As Robinson so wisely states in one of her many erudite essays: “I experience religious dread whenever I find myself thinking that I know the limits of God’s grace, since I am utterly certain it exceeds any imagination a human being might have of it. God does, after all, so love the world.”

The logic is that the humanities are on the ropes. The humanities need support from Christians. The humanities need such support because they testify to God’s “presence in our lives.”

Imagine the testimony to God’s presence if a pastor proclaimed that Jesus Christ died for sinners. Why clutter the gospel with the valuable though limited insights of the humanities?

Humanities are valuable. So are the social and natural sciences. But the humanities are not divinity — duh. The church doesn’t gain status by hanging out with celebrity writers. It reduces God’s saving power to human aspirations.

Which novelist can say she does this?

Remember this, at least — the things in which the world is now interested are the things that are seen; but the things that are seen are temporal, and the things that are not seen are eternal. You, as ministers of Christ, are called to deal with the unseen things. You are stewards of the mysteries of God. You alone can lead men, by the proclamation of God’s word, out of the crash and jazz and noise and rattle and smoke of this weary age into the green pastures and beside the still waters; you alone, as minsters of reconciliation, can give what the world with all its boasting and pride can never give — the infinite sweetness of the communion of the redeemed soul with the living God. (Selected Shorter Writings, 205)

Postscript: Do humanists of this sort need the support of a confessional Presbyterian church?

Do you believe in sin?

Well, it depends how you define the word. The way I would read Genesis is a phenomenon . . . what it describes is a human predisposition to what amounts to self-defeat — to be given a wonderful planet and find yourself destroying it. Or, to have a wonderful civilization and then engage yourself aggressively in ways that destroy your civilization and another besides. If you look at human history or practically any human biography, it’s very hard to say that people don’t incline toward harmful and self-destructive acts, whether they intend to or not.

You are talking about sin on a large scale as you talk about it now. What about cheating on your wife?

Definite sin. A big 10. I think that in a certain way I was perhaps taught that the Ten Commandments are like a lot of the law of Moses in the sense that they name as transgressions things that you might not derive by reason as being transgressive — things like keeping the Sabbath or not making idols. These are markers in reality that are divine in their origins in the sense that human beings might not necessarily have come up with them.

Aside from that, one of the things that is true of the Bible certainly — in the case like David, for example — is that people do things that are utterly prohibitive to them, evil even. And I am speaking here of David arranging the death of Uriah so he could marry Bathsheba. And yet, there is always a huge variable at play — how does God respond to this and the difference of what we could measure as projected transgressions, the difference between that and the same thing as seen through the eyes of love or grace. These are very different things.

So I believe in sin in the sense that people do harm. I believe in grace in the sense that we cannot make final judgments about the meaning or the effect of what we do.

Christendom Exceptionalism

Not sure what Peter Leithart is working on, but recent posts on medieval and early modern Europe have shed new light on the claims that exalt Christendom and blame Protestantism for ushering in a disordered, licentious modernity.

Just how united was Christendom, you ask? Not much:

In a 1971 essay, H.G. Koenigsberger challenged the notion that the Reformation broke up a unified Europe. He criticizes historians and social scientists for assuming a norm of unity: “We have assumed that the theological and ecclesiastical unity of Catholic Christendom was its natural condition and that, in consequence, the Reformation was a dramatic break in this condition which ran counter to all previous Christian experience and which, in a sense, destroyed the natural order of things.”

Much of the essay presents an analysis of the kind of unity that existed in pre-Reformation Europe. Koenigsberger poses the question this way: “For the thousand years of the Middle Ages, Christendom and its institutions remained obstinately divided, and Christians remained distressingly prone to engage in deadly wars with each other. Why was it that only the Church survived as a unified institution?”

His first answer is sardonic: “it did not do so. Throughout the Middle Ages there existed Christian churches in Africa and Asia which were never in communion with Rome at all.”

The more elaborate answer answer is that “medieval unity, insofar as it existed, was a function of an economically poor society. The small surpluses of production of any given area would not be wanted in the adjoining area, which was probably producing the same commodities, but rather in much more distant areas. Medieval trade was, therefore, small in volume but covered large distances.”

Craft skills were specialized and scarce, and thus craftsmen had to be mobile: “Bell founding was a highly skilled and specialized craft. After a master founder had cast the three or four, or even six or eight, bells for the church of a small town, he would have to move on, for there would be no further work for him in this town nor, very likely, in the neighbouring towns. It was the same with all other skills, from the cathedral builder to the learned scholar, from the forger of fine weapons . . . . Different areas of Europe might advance in certain skills, as Flanders did in the weaving of fine cloth; but no single area of Europe could support all of the skills which European society required. Only the whole of Europe could do this.”

Cultural unity thus depended on a “thin crust of men highly skilled in the production of sophisticated commodities or in the performance of complex services. This upper crust was international in education, attitudes, and often, physical mobility; for this was the only way it could function.” Cultural unity depended on a low rate of entry into this upper crust. European unity was a unity of the “1%.”

Sounds like modern America. Substitute media elites, policy wonks, federal government workers, Ivy League professors, and Hollywood types for “thin crust of men highly skilled in the production of sophisticated commodities or in the performance of complex services” and you an American exceptionalist unity that rivals Christendom’s.

That means, the Reformation was not a break with the past but a fulfillment of medieval Europe:

Signs of centrifugal forces are evident throughout the centuries leading up to the Reformation – reforming movements within the church, sometimes breaking free into independent movements; rival papacies, with kings taking sides, anticipating the anti-papalism of their sixteenth-century Protestant counterparts. The conciliar movement tried to arrest this process but “the defeat of this movement, and the subsequent concentration of papal energies on Italian power politics made it virtually impossible for the Church to adapt itself to the changing conditions of European Society.”

Koenigsberger acknowledges that the Reformation broke the camel’s back, but sees it as the culmination of several centuries of mounting instability. He identifies two factors that made the sixteenth century decisive in this process: “the increasing political tension between the monarchies and the papacy over the question of the control of the institution of the Church and its personnel in the different countries of Europe; and the spread of the printing presses, which made the Bible available to the Christian laity and thus undermined the claim of the Church to act as the indispensable intermediary between God and man.”

Now if we reboot those arguments about the Reformation as the forerunner of 1776, we have lines of continuity between Roman Catholicism and Americanism.

The Whig historians will set us free!

So You Want Christian Law but Not Shari’a?

Don’t forge that Christians can be as threatening to non-Christians as Muslims to Christians (and we’re barely talking about Old Testament law):

So with all other great movements in malignant morals. For example, that of the Lord’s Day Alliance. There are plenty of members of the alliance, I venture to opine, who devote at least a part of Sunday to recreation–perhaps automobiling, or piano-playing, or gastronomy, or novel-reading, or the beating of children. But that doesn’t take anything from their noble passion to destroy and prohibit the recreations of the common people. That doesn’t detract from their gallant effort to make the average man’s Sunday a day of tedium and horror, of sullenness and gloom. That doesn’t make the less laudable their vicious and violent attack upon the poor fellows who go to Back River on their one day of rest to sit under the trees and drink a few bottles of beer and hear a happy song or two and get a breath of fresh air.

The Anti-Cigarette League follows the examples of these elder lodges of chemical purity. It does not ask its members to stop smoking themselves; it merely asks them to advocate laws putting heavy penalties upon smoking by others. Its funds will be divided fairly into two parts. One part I shall keep myself, as a modest recompense for my laborious shaking down of the pious. The other part will be devoted to the propaganda. Rabble-rousers will be supplied to Sunday-schools and Chautauquas. Horrible examples will be exhibited to trembling children. Eminent cigarette manufacturers will be denounced by name. Candidates for public office will be browbeaten into line. Literature will be distributed showing that the cigarette is the mother and father of crime, that every cigarette smoker is a potential pirate and murderer, that all the sorrows of the world are caused by the abhorrent coffin-nail.

So You Want the Magistrate to Enforce both Tables of the Law?

Does that make you more extreme than a Muslim? It very well may, according to Aaron Rock-Singer (you can’t make up a name like that).

On the one hand, Shari’a law admitted a diversity of mechanisms for enforcement:

Historically, Muslims understood the Shariʿa as a broad framework within which one could live a proper Islamic life. The Shariʿa represented a comprehensive ethical system, the bulk of which was not understood as law in the sense of regulations that state authorities must enforce. Instead, acts were divided into five categories: obligatory, recommended, neutral, disapproved, and forbidden. Crucially, it was only those acts that fell into the category of “forbidden” that were to be enforced by the state. Put differently, prior to the last 200 years, the obligations set forth by the Shariʿa, though they were obligatory for Muslims, neither assumed nor depended on enforcement by state authorities.

That’s an intriguing point if only because ecclesiastical authorities won’t enforce the Fourth Commandment (Third for the Roman Catholic slackers).

On the other hand, the insistence that civil authorities enforce Shari’a was a function of the West’s brilliant diplomatic hegemony:

With the onset of colonial rule, British and French officials made a momentous decision to implement foreign legal codes while limiting religious law to questions of personal status such as marriage and divorce. While Islamists today recall this moment as decisive because it limited the role of Shariʿa, just as important is the shift that they do not mention: that it codified the Shariʿa. In the place of the relative flexibility and accommodation to local diversity exercised by judges who were tied to local communities, state-appointed graduates of modern law schools, with little knowledge of over a millennium of Islamic legal scholarship, now interpreted a code of Islamic law. Crucially, however, legal codes were not solely a colonial imposition: in the late 19th century, the Ottoman Empire introduced a legal code, based on the dominant Sunni legal school in that area (Hanafism) in an attempt to formalize and define a civil legal code throughout the empire.

As Middle Eastern states gained independence over the first half of the 20th century, new secularist elites, like colonial officials, restricted the Shariʿa to family law. Notwithstanding their opposition to colonial rule, they were no more interested than their colonial predecessors in empowering Muslim scholars to interpret the Shariʿa. Instead, these new elites wanted to reshape the legal system to their own liking and in terms that they understood. Looking abroad, they saw the combination of military, political, and economic power that had enabled colonial rulers to take control of their countries, and sought to use law as a tool to expand the reach of their newly independent states. The appeal of a powerfully interventionist state would only grow as the United States and Soviet Union vied for Cold War supremacy.

In the shadow of a codified family law, powerful post-colonial states, and Cold War ideological contestation, Islamists began to argue that Shariʿa was central to state power.

The good news for folks worried that behind every Muslim is the Islamic equivalent of [insert name of favorite theonomist here], most Muslims are content with a separation of civil and religious law (in good 2k fashion, mind you):

A community whose roots go back to early migration between 1875 and 1912 from Greater Syria (an area that included what is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine), Muslim American ranks grew following World War I following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Between 1947 and 1960, Muslims increasingly arrived not only from the Middle East, but also from Eastern Europe, South Asia, and the Soviet Union. The past 40 years, in turn, have seen, once again, substantial immigration from the Middle East.

The American Muslim community is, as a 2007 Pew survey puts it, “Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream.” In this vein, American Muslims have, by and large, sought to live according to their religious obligations through a set of daily practices that bear little resemblance to the specter of “Creeping Shariʿazation.” Whether by securing permits to build mosques, observing dietary laws through Halal butcheries and restaurants, or buying shares in Islamic finance companies that allow them to purchase homes or pay for higher education while avoiding interest-bearing loans, American Muslims today work within the American legal system and live devout lives. And like members of so many other religious and ethnic minorities, Muslims have set up a number of political advocacy organizations. There is no evidence, however, that American Muslim organizations have ever attempted to replace the American constitution with an Islamic legal code.

America, the beautiful.