What A Turkey! Part 4: When Christianity Imitates Islam

For this trip I brought along reading that might give me some acquaintance with Turkey and its culture and history. This meant including a novel by the Nobel Prize author, Orhan Pamuk, who has set most of his stories in Turkey or the Ottoman Empire. I also brought along a book about Turkey’s political predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, just to get an overview of that regime. And because I wanted to consider the character of contemporary Islam, and because I have wanted to read the book for some time, I included in my bags Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. I trust any readers of Turkish descent will not take offense that somehow I have equated Turkey with Iran. I brought along Nafisi precisely to see the difference between Turkey, a secular state that is demographically Muslim, and Iran, a republic ruled by Muslims. (In this sense, the U.S. is closer to Turkey than to Iran — a secular state that is demographically Christian.)

While reading these books I can’t help but notice parallels between political Islam and those Reformed Protestants who most emphasize the antithesis – to the point where it goes all the way down to every square inch. Pamuk’s novel, Snow, is all about the tension and sometimes conflict between radical Muslims who hate the West (i.e. Europe) for its its secularity and therefore its rejection of God. The following is an exchange from the novel between a Turkish official and a proponent of political Islam:

. . . because I happen to be a free man who can do as he pleases, I sometimes end up getting on a bus and traveling to the other end of Turkey to track down the perpetrator, wherever he is, and have it out with him face-to-face. So please, sir, answer my question. What’s more important, a decree from Ankara or a decree from God?

– This discussion is going nowhere, son. What hotel are you staying at?

– What, are you thinking of turning me int to the police? Don’t be afraid of me, sir. I don’t belong to any religious organizations. I despise terrorism. I believe in the love of God and the free exchange of ideas. That’s why I never end a free exchange of ideas by hitting anyone, even though I have a quick temper. Al I want is for you to answer this question. So please excuse me, sir, but when you think about the cruel way you treated those poor girls in front of your institute – when you remember that these girls were only obeying the word of God as set out so clearly in the Confederate Tribe and Heavenly Light chapters of the Holy Koran – doesn’t your conscience trouble you at all?

– My son, the Koran also says that thieves should have their hands chopped off, but the state doesn’t do that. Why aren’t you opposing this?

– That’s an excellent answer, sir. Allow me to kiss your hand. But how can you equate the hand of a thief with the honor of our women? According to statistics released by the American Black Muslim professor, Marvin King, the incidence of rape in Islamic countries where women cover themselves is so low as to be nonexistent and harassment is virtually unheard of. This is because a woman who has covered herself is making a statement. Through her choice of clothing, she is saying, Don’t harass me. So please, sir, do you really want to push our covered women to the margins of society by denying them the right to an education? If we continue to worship women who take off their head scarves (and just about everything else too), don’t we run the risk of degrading them as we have seen so many women in Europe degraded in the wake of the sexual revolution? And if we succeed in degrading our women, aren’t we also running the risk of – pardon my language – turning ourselves into pimps?

Of course, radical American Calvinists who detest what the West does to male and female relations and roles, don’t advocate that women wear scarves. But they do insist on female subordination to men, and some also speak favorably of Old Testament penalties being carried over to places like sixteenth-century Geneva. Why I have had exchanges in the blogosphere that resemble this one. A theonomist brings up the death penalty for adultery. I respond by mentioning that the state does not outlaw blasphemy and idolatry, a situation that works well for theonomist’s Roman Catholic or Mormon neighbors. But rather than trying to kiss my hand, this theonomist interprets my response as a form of infidelity, as if I don’t love the Lord.

Thankfully, political Christianity in the United States has imbibed enough of the West and its differentiation between religion and politics not to try to enforce their religious convictions with physical violence or political treason. The worst they do is defame other Christians and excoriate certain public officials — always in the name of God and his law.

As welcome as the pacifism of political Christianity in the United States is, I do wonder if the Calvinists who hate secularism and its cultural consequences ever ponder their resemblances to political Islam. (Not to wind up the neo-Calvinists too much, but have they ever considered how intoleranttheir views of the French Revolution and political liberalism are.) Of course, Islam is not wrong simply because of its political embodiments like those in Iran. It could be that Christians should imitate regimes like Iran with imprisonment and execution of political dissidents and intolerance of deviations from orthodox practices. But since Jesus and his apostles left no traces of the political profile exhibited either by Joshua, David, or Mohammad, it could be that Christians pining for a regime that enforces their faith and practice is actually an alien notion among Christ’s followers. To prove the point, just imagine the Baptist Republic of South Carolina where Presbyterians are forced to dunk their adolescent children and Episcopalian men are required to wear white patent leather shoes.

Speaking of Leithart and Language

Actually, it is Peter Leithart offering up some Habermas with some Peter Gordon thrown in. The post concerns the burden that secular societies place upon religious citizens. Leithart quotes Habermas on the burdens that modern societies, in trying to bracket religious convictions, place upon both believers and secularists:

Religious citizens who regard themselves as loyal members of a constitutional democracy must accept the translation proviso as the price to be paid for the neutrality of the state authority toward competing worldviews. For secular citizens, the same ethics of citizenship entails a complementary burden. By the duty of reciprocal accountability toward all citizens, including religious ones, they are obliged not to publicly dismiss religious contributions to political opinion and will formation as mere noise, or even nonsense, from the start. Secular and religious citizens must meet in their public use of reason at eye level.

Leithart doesn’t believe the burden is equal and grabs support from Peter Gordon:

Does it even make sense to say they are both burdens? Consider the analogy of translation between profane languages: If a Frenchman is asked to express his claims in public where English is the only language in principle intelligible to all participants, then of course the Frenchman can be required to obey the rules of English grammar. That is surely a burden, and it may be a great challenge for someone who has spent his entire life thinking in French. But it makes no sense to say that the Englishman bears a symmetrical burden because he cannot think of himself as a “judge” concerning the comprehensive merits of France. There is nothing about speaking English that makes such a judgment plausible, let alone necessary. Habermas, I suspect, is trying to dress up the unidirectionality of the burdens of translation in a way that promotes a more favorable vision of reciprocity. This may be diplomatic—and, given the frequent intolerance of both parties, religious and secularist, some diplomacy may be called for—but the notion of a shared burden in translation does not accurately capture Habermas’s deeper commitments to profane reason.

According to Leithart, who continues to invoke Gordon, Habermas’ notion of translation is weak and invalid because the very idea of translating religion into the secular public sphere is — I guess — unequal. Gordon writes: “Translation, after all, is a linguistic event of semantic transfer, from a language of origin to a target language—from religion to the secular public sphere. The analogy thus reveals how Habermas’s earliest ideas concerning the character of public reason have not lost their validity.”

I am not interested exactly in Habermas’ or Gordon’s points, but I am intrigued that Leithart finds the idea of translation to be revealing of the difficulties that believers confront in secular societies. Is it the case that Christians do speak a different language of government, or law, or public policy from non-Christians? Do Christians even have their own language? This is particularly important since the Reformation sought to put the Bible, the liturgy, and theology into the vernacular. That included indirectly Luther’s translations of the Bible setting the agenda for modern German and Calvin’s French functioning as an important stage in the development of modern French (so I’ve read; I don’t presume to be a historian of language).

In other words, language is a common human activity. When the Holy Spirit regenerates Christians they don’t and shouldn’t speak in new languages (at least cessationist ones don’t). When Christians talk about politics, nations, and laws, they use the same words, syntax, and punctuation as other citizens. They may use words like morality, justice, king, Lord, or law. But non-Christians don’t have any trouble understanding what those words mean. They may disagree about the virtue of a monarchy, since they live in a republic (or an empire that in its “aw shucks” moments pretends to be a republic). But the words that Christians use, even the words to describe Christ as king of kings, or the magistrate’s duty to enforce the entire Decalogue are not foreign to non-Christians. Just because someone disagrees with you does not mean you are speaking a foreign tongue. To think that a difference of opinion is really a problem of translation is bizarre.

But it does indicate the lengths to which the application of the antithesis between believers and non-believers may run. In the haste to assert that Christianity goes all the way down and claim a victim status for believers who live under oppressive secular governments, Federal Visionaries, transformationalists, and neo-Calvinists make the world safe for thinking that Christians are so different that they speak in ways that other people can’t understand. In other words, they pave the way for those Christians who really do think they have a Christian language — Pentecostals.

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.

Should a Reformed Christian Receive Treatment at a Roman Catholic Hospital?

heart-monitorAfter a visit to my father at his local hospital, I had a worldview moment. What should have alerted me from the outset was the name of the place – St. Mary’s. But then I noticed that the spiritual services wing of the hospital had dropped off for him a brochure about their activities which was included with information about television channels and daily menus – talk about trivializing the eschaton. But the kicker was the crucifix in my dad’s ICU room. Shazzam!!! That’s a whole lot of idolatry for a man who is on a heart monitor.

But is Roman Catholic medicine really any different from Reformed medicine or even – dare I say – secular medicine. If worldviews go all the way down to the very tips of our toes, and if we can’t escape the claims of Christ in any parts of our lives, can I really look the other way in good conscience when entering a hospital room that displays an image of Christ on a cross?

And then there is the concern for quality of health care. If Abraham Kuyper was right that Roman Catholicism “represents and older and lower stage of development in the history of mankind” and if Protestantism occupies a “higher standpoint,” shouldn’t my dad try to find treatment at a Protestant hospital? Kuyper, by the way, wasn’t real complimentary of Roman Catholicism on science either.

It could be that I have once again misunderstood the claims of neo-Calvinism and that some algorithm exists for taking the gold of scientific advances from the dross of defective worldviews. But it could also be that the language of worldviews and the difference they make for every aspect of human existence is overdone, simply a rallying cry for inspiring the faithful, but not anything that would prevent my father from receiving treatment from unbelieving nurses employed by Roman Catholic administrators. Then again, the power of modernity is stunning, making all of those religious claims about connections between spiritual and physical reality look fairly foolish – as if a creed actually produces better medicine.

I mean no disrespect to the neo-Calvinists and their epistemological purity. But if they could help me out on this one, I’d be grateful. Does a Reformed worldview really make a difference for modern medicine and the ordinary decisions a sick believer must make in seeking a physician or hospital – under the oversight, of course, not of the elders but the insurance company.

Postscript: yes, I am preoccupied with neo-Calvinism. Shouldn’t Keller’s fans be happy? Oh, wait a minute.