Muslims and Baptists Together (Calvinists too)

Barry Hankins observes that Baptists are beginning to understand the experience of Muslims in the United States:

what if Baptists, like Muslims, wanted to live by a different set of laws than the state of Texas or the United States? Funny you should ask, since in the run up to the Supreme Court’s gay marriage case, the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission (CLC) urged churches to insert in their bylaws a clause specifically defining biblical marriage. Anticipating the Court’s ruling, expected in June, CLC writer John Litzler said that if gay marriage becomes legal, this “will affect the relationship of all Texas Baptist churches in their dealings with local, state, and federal laws.”

Under current civil rights law, churches should be exempt from a redefinition of marriage. But no one can be sure where this issue may go in the future. . . .

So, what does the CLC warning to Baptists on gay marriage have to do with Sharia law? It’s simply this: Muslim leaders acknowledge that their religious practices are at odds with some facets of American law. Baptists are beginning to realize the same thing could happen to them. Under Sharia law, a panel of Muslim clerics wants the right to say to mosque members, “American law may say you can divorce or have an abortion, but Sharia says ‘maybe not.’ ” Likewise, Baptists want to be able to say, “American law may say gay marriage is legal, but it will not be practiced in a Baptist church. Baptists live by a different moral code.” Of course the individual Muslim or Baptist can choose to leave the mosque or church. Neither Sharia law nor Baptist bylaws can be enforced by the state.

It has been a long time since Baptists have had to live with this sort of tension between their theology and their nation’s civil law, but it was once the norm. As my new book Baptists in America: A History shows, for the first two centuries of their history Baptists were outsiders. In order to practice their faith they had to violate laws. Their colonial governments said they had to pay religious taxes. They refused.

In point of fact, all Christians have had to live with differences between civil and ecclesiastical (or canon law) since the disestablishment of churches in Massachusetts in 1833. Blue Laws might close down all businesses but the state wasn’t going to make you go to the evening service. State laws about divorce may have reinforced Christian notions about marriage but finding a church to let you out of a marriage (unless you’re Ted Kennedy) was much harder once upon a time in the church than in the legislature.

2k would have helped Christians set their expectations for public life appropriately. But from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama, Christians have loved the fusion of religious and national identity. Should we thank homosexuals for reminding that we seek a better country?

Whither Muslims In Doug Wilson's American Christendom?

The Kuyper of Idaho (you know, pastor, college founder, magazine editor, culture warrior – so far, no prime ministry) has spoken on the proposed mosque in New York City near Ground Zero. As complicated as the issue is, because of the delicate balance between legal freedoms and democratic politeness, Wilson has used the occasion to denounce – you guessed it – secularisim. (Thanks to the Brothers Bayly for the link.) Wilson concludes:

. . . Muslims know what they are doing. What is that exactly? They are exposing the intellectual, theological, and ethical bankruptcy of secularism, and they are doing it on purpose. . . . Someone really does need to tell secularist America that her gods are genuinely pathetic. And currently, the Muslims are doing this because the Christians won’t. And the Christians who won’t do this are not so much in need of a different kind of theology as they are in need of a different kind of spine.

According to Wilson, the problem with America’s gods is that all sectarian faiths need to go along with the president in order to get along. He doesn’t like what such accommodation means for those who protest abortion and gay marriage on religious grouds. But if the United States prohibited abortion and gay marriage, would Wilson be content? Would Muslims have a place in Christendom. Over at another site Doug and I went round on this one and he seems to argue that Christendom makes plenty of space for freedom of conscience. He allowed that Servetus would conceivably grow to a ripe old age in Moscow, Idaho, if Wilson were in fact prime minister, and that Muslims would be free to hold their views, just not to practice their faith in a Wilsonian Christendom. I am not sure that Wilson’s version of Christendom does justice to the actual history of Christian Europe, where the relations between Christians, Jews, and Muslims was hardly harmonious. So if you want the freedom to practice your faith in America, don’t you need to allow for the freedom of other religious adherents to practice? I guess you don’t have to if your religious group is the one holding keys to the White House. But if you are going to make the cult the basis for the cultus, you are going to have a few conundrums about how to handle those “poor” and “tired” “masses,” streaming to the United States, “yearning to breathe free.”

Just as thorny as Wilson’s ideal of Christendom is his denunciation of secularism. In his post he cites what he regards as an ineffective piece by Charles Krauthammer on the “hallowedness” of Ground Zero’s ground. I concede that the idea of sacred space in secular America is a puzzle and I also believe that more effective arguments can be made about the impropriety (as opposed to illegality), for instance, of putting a German Lutheran church across the street from the National Holocaust Museum. It’s just not right.

But Wilson is so intent to denounce secularism (in order to prove the merits of Christendom) that he misses other fine points in Krauthammer’s secular piece. The op-ed includes this:

Even New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who denounced opponents of the proposed 15-story mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero as tramplers on religious freedom, asked the mosque organizers “to show some special sensitivity to the situation.” . . .

Bloomberg’s implication is clear: If the proposed mosque were controlled by “insensitive” Islamist radicals either excusing or celebrating 9/11, he would not support its construction.

But then, why not? By the mayor’s own expansive view of religious freedom, by what right do we dictate the message of any mosque? Moreover, as a practical matter, there’s no guarantee this couldn’t happen in the future. Religious institutions in this country are autonomous. Who is to say that the mosque won’t one day hire an Anwar al-Awlaki — spiritual mentor to the Fort Hood shooter and the Christmas Day bomber, and one-time imam at the Virginia mosque attended by two of the 9/11 terrorists?

And not to be missed is what Wilson’s secular pal, Christopher Hitchens wrote about the mosque. Hitchen’s calls for a discussion of the matter based less on the feelings of both sides – whether the Muslims or the survivors of 9/11 – and more on reasonable premises of American law and knowledge or recent experience.

Even within Wilson’s own post he acknowledges that the Supreme Court of the United States, in its Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942) decision was able to see clearly through the lens of secular reason that “that freedom of speech did not include the right to stand on the sidewalk outside the funeral of somebody’s mom in order to taunt the mourners.”

Which leads to the question: why does Wilson go out of his way to denounce secularism when secular people in the United States provide plenty of evidence that secularism has its moments. One of those moments is the distinction between public (involuntary) and private (voluntary) associations. According to this division, religionists have the freedom to maintain their own institutions and keep out those who disagree. But in the public ones, everyone has access, no matter what their faith. This was the arrangement of secular America and it has worked reasonably well for Christians since they still are able to worship freely (along with Mormon, Jews, and Muslims). And it is what Wilson rejects, as if not maintaining one’s private views in public settings is a form of bad faith.

Of course, a secularism that tries to impose public standards on private associations is a real danger and this has been a feature of court rulings for the last four decades where justices do not respect either private associations or the rights of states. I understand that this is partly responsible for the reaction of the Religious Right. Many evangelicals felt and still feel threatened by the federal government extending its reach into private associations. (I also think this is more a political than a religious problem.)

But Wilson’s solution is not to return to the good secularism because for him only Christendom is good and secularism is always bad. In which case, his Christendom model is an effort to impose private rules of association on public institutions. That presents a problem not only for the construction of mosques but the presence (if you’re Reformed) of Roman Catholics and Anabaptists in the United States. One of the more perceptive readers of Wilson’s blog made this very point:

Interesting post, Douglas. But I’m not entirely clear about what you are saying. You say that building a mosque so close to ground zero should be prohibited because the existence of such a mosque would be “fighting words.” But using that standard, wouldn’t the building of any mosque be prohibited anywhere in the United States?

In fact, if we applied that standard, wouldn’t the establishment of New St. Andrews College in downtown Moscow be unconstitutional using the “fighting words” standard?

It seems to me that you should stay away from the constitution (you don’t like it much anyway, do you?) and stick to the Bible. The Bible is clear: permit only correct forms of worship (like Christ Church) and destroy all others.

In which case, the problem with the situation in New York City is not America’s gods but the nation’s feelings. Many officials are worried about offending the sensibilities of some aggrieved group, and they want to be sure to be seen as sensitive (as opposed to intolerant and insensitive). Now, if I were prone to the single-cause explanations as Wilson appears to be, I’d be tempted to blame the current predicament on evangelicals. After all, ever since Jonathan Edwards wrote Religious Affections, born-again types have been far more attentive to sincerity of motives than to formal expressions of doctrine or worship. If this is so, then the moral and political impasse to which this blessedly secular land has come could be the direct result of the success of Whitefield, Finney, Graham, and Rock the River Tours. But I am far too charitable to take the bait and blame it all on evangelicalism.