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?

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Before You Put On Any More Sackcloth and Ashes

Consider that secular judges are not always out to get Christians (even though it’s a good narrative to whoop up hysteria):

A decisive legal victory in British Columbia has put an evangelical Christian university one step closer in its bid to secure recognition for its proposed law school.

The Appeal Court of B.C. released a decision in favour of Trinity Western University on Tuesday, describing efforts by B.C.’s law society to deny accreditation to the school’s future lawyers as “unreasonable.”

The legal dispute centres around the university’s community covenant that bans its students from having sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage.

In a unanimous decision, a panel of five judges said the negative impact on Trinity Western’s religious freedoms would be severe and far outweigh the minimal effect accreditation would have on gay and lesbian rights.

“A society that does not admit of and accommodate differences cannot be a free and democratic society — one in which its citizens are free to think, to disagree, to debate and to challenge the accepted view without fear of reprisal,” says the 66-page judgment.

Warning: stay on your meds. No reason to return to the mania of postmillennial optimism.

(with all that mind of Christ) Why Don't Christians See This?

Some people think that faith makes people more discerning, more willing to subject contemporary life to a higher norm. A while back, Ross Douthat picked up on this and Rod Dreher extended the conversation in reference to Charles Taylor’s account of secularity. In essence, Douthat was arguing that a secular outlook was more limiting and narrower than faith or religious experiences because it cut off certain perceptions and simply reinforced its own preferences.

That may be, but the question that Douthat and Dreher failed to address is the problem of civil religion. When the Bible tells Christians to put no hope in princes, why have Christians been some of the most gullible in seeing divine significance in political movements, and why have they been willing to overlook huge enormities in specific politicians in order to believe that said rulers are doing the Lord’s work?

Consider these comments by Gary Scott Smith in a review of a book on presidents and religion:

Presidents, like other politicians, use religion to further their own purposes—to gain the approval of various groups, enhance their popularity, win elections, fortify their claim to be virtuous and honest, and increase support for their policies. They employ religious and moral rhetoric to defend their own policies, programs, and actions and to criticize those of their opponents. Religious and moral appeals connect particular policies with transcendent principles, elevating them above mundane, pragmatic concerns and sometimes helping strengthen citizens’ commitment to them.

O’Connell maintains that presidents in earlier periods of American history probably used religious rhetoric more frequently and successfully. And, as noted, he focuses only on presidents’ use of religious and moral language to achieve their policy aims. My research indicates, however, that most post-World War II presidents regularly and effectively employed religious and moral rhetoric to help justify their policies. Examples abound, including Harry Truman’s approach to the Cold War and decision to recognize Israel, Nixon’s campaign to further world peace, Carter’s quest to advance human rights around the globe, Reagan’s endeavors to pass a school prayer amendment, secure tuition tax credits, and oppose communism, George H. W. Bush’s effort to gain support for Operation Desert Storm, Clinton’s promotion of religious liberty and attempt to reform welfare and resolve international conflicts, George W. Bush’s backing for faith-based initiatives and opposition to gay marriage, abortion, and the use of new embryonic stem-cells in research, and Barack Obama’s policies on poverty and homosexual civil rights.

Why don’t Christians find such a utilitarian approach to Christianity objectionable? Why no cries of blasphemy, taking God’s name in vain?

Conversely, why are Christians incapable of thinking about George Washington the way that H.L. Mencken did:

If George Washington were alive today, what a shining mark he would be for the whole camorra of uplifters, forward-lookers and professional patriots! He was the Rockefeller of his time, the richest man in the United States, a promoter of stock companies, a land-grabber, an exploiter of mines and timber. He was a bitter opponent of foreign entanglements, and denounces their evils in harsh, specific terms. He had a liking for forthright and pugnacious men, and a contempt for lawyers, schoolmasters and all other such obscurantists. He was not pious. He drank whiskey whenever he felt chilly, and kept a jug of it handy. He knew far more profanity than Scripture, and used and enjoyed it more. He had no belief in the infallible wisdom of the common people, but regarded them as inflammatory dolts, and tried to save the Republic from them. He advocated no sure cure for all the sorrows of the world, and doubted that such a panacea existed. He took no interest in the private morals of his neighbors.

Why does faith make Christians (some anyway) dumber?

It's Secular But It's Our Secular

Worries about the Islamization of the West are curious when the Christians worrying so frequently lament the decadence of the societies that Europeans now inhabit (both in Europe and the Americas). William Kilpatrick, for instance, believes the West confronts a situation comparable to what Europe faced in Hitler:

It’s estimated that in Brussels, the self-styled “Capital of Europe,” Muslims will comprise the majority of the population within 15 years. If Muslims were assimilating to Western ways and values it might be a different story, but many European Muslims seem to have taken to heart Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s belief that “assimilation is a crime against humanity.” In France alone, there are 751 Muslim controlled “no-go-zones;” in England, Muslims have their own sharia courts; in Scotland, the country’s largest-ever child immunization program was halted following Muslim complaints; in many countries schools have dropped the Holocaust and the Crusades from their curriculums at the behest of Muslims and have complied with Muslim demands for all-halal menus. Moreover, in deference to Islamic blasphemy laws, critics of Islam have been hauled before inquisitorial courts, and across Northern Europe numerous counter-jihad rallies have been cancelled out of fear of the “Antifas”—gangs of street thugs whose mission is to silence those critics of Islam who escape the court system. Meanwhile, churches are burned, Jews are beaten in the streets, and violent crime has skyrocketed.

As in 1939, the European elites have reacted to this cultural putsch with cringing appeasement.

But wouldn’t the dominance of Islam mean that the days of pornography, sexual licence and confusion, abortion, divorce, and open disregard for God are numbered?

Or could it be that serious Christians in the West (Protestant and Roman Catholic) prefer secular society to the wrong religious guys ruling us? In which case, secular society is the welcome outcome of antagonistic believers having to live together and figure out a common way of life that minimizes faith? Charles Featerstone (via Rod Dreher) explains well how Christians came to terms with a different way of relating Christianity to social order:

The state in the Christian West swallowed the church whole, domesticated it, placed it in service to the state, and then slowly released its grip once it knew bishops and pastors and congregations would readily come to heel (and those who didn’t weren’t strong enough or numerous enough to matter). This took several centuries, and is mostly done, though somewhat rough on the edges.

But secularization came much more painfully for Muslims:

It happened much more quickly (and roughly) in the Islamic world, was imposed on Muslims largely from the outside, and we forget how thoroughly secular the nation-states of the Arab Middle East were up until about 30 years ago. And they were even more secular in the 50s and 60s. (Which is why Qutub wrote a book in the first place, and got himself hung by Nasser.) Those secular states and the ideologies that gave them energy are largely gone, being undone by military defeat and economic failure. They are the past. They are not the future.

So if Christians in the West don’t like secularization, why can’t they empathize with Muslims who also find it objectionable? Or could it be that Christians need to do a better job of appreciating the secular governments that domesticated us and so saved us from our inner extremist (read Constantinian) selves?

Reasons for Conversion

In the year 300, by some estimates, Christianity had roughly 6.3 million adherents, a little over ten percent of the Roman Empire’s population. By 350 those numbers shot up to 33.8 million and over 55 percent of the empire’s inhabitants. What might explain such a dramatic rise? The conversion of the emperor to Christianity undoubtedly was a factor. And throughout the early middle ages, one of the major strategies of evangelists or missionaries is to win the monarch as the way to saving the nation.

By the twentieth century, however, reasons for conversion take a dramatically different form. Monarchs are largely ornamental. Societies become secular and pluralistic. And so another set of reasons for considering Christianity emerges. In a review by Stratford Caldecott of a book on the string of English writers who converted to Roman Catholicism over the course of the twentieth century, the author observes how that momentum decreased after Vatican 2:

. . . through the reforms and changes associated with the Second Vatican Council, the Church “began to move way from the Italianate paradigm into which the converts had been received.” In many places, the Church appeared to be seeking an accommodation with modernity that undermined the appeal of conversion. “As Roman Catholics exploited ensuing new opportunities and began to enter the post-war middle class and to assume prestigious social and political positions, their previously homogeneous subculture fragmented. With it crumbled the assumption that being a Roman Catholic automatically made one distinct from, and opposed to, dominant British principles and structures.” Not only did the flood of conversions begin to dry up (from 12,490 per year at the end of the 1950s to about 4,000 per year by the 1970s), but writers such as G. K. Chesterton and even Dr. Dawson came soon to be regarded as marginal even among Catholics—representatives of a subculture that had had its day.

Peter Berger weighs in on the subject of evangelism, in this case Rome’s “New Evangelism” and adds that in a period when religion is less important to social life, the tendency of churches will be to appeal to converts as part of their rejection of secularism:

Highly secularized Western Europe, the Italy of Communione e Liberazione and the Bavaria that was the home of Pope Benedict, Poland under a regime of militant atheism, which Pope John Paul resisted and eventually helped demolish, and Latin America, the locale of John Paul’s address, a continent where the main challenge to the Catholic Church has not come from secularization but from the explosion of Evangelical Protestantism. Despite the big differences between the three cases, what they have in common is the loss of Catholic hegemony. Curiously, conservative Catholics and Evangelical Protestants in the United States have also mobilized against “secularism”, which, in the most religious Western country, is a numerically small sectarian movement seeking to use the federal courts to banish religion from the public sphere. And of course “secularism” is blamed by religious conservatives of all sorts for the post-1960s changes in sexual behavior of which they disapprove.

Also curiously, the Russian Orthodox Church has defined itself as the defender of traditional values against the alleged degeneracy of modern morals. Not only has the Moscow Patriarchate found an ally in this campaign in the Putin administration, but has sought better relations with the Vatican on the same basis. In 2009 Patriarch Kirill of Moscow established warm relations with Benedict XVI.

But Berger thinks that pitting faith against secularism is a false dichotomy and argues for a way to evangelize that is remarkably congenial with 2k because it springs from a recognition that people don’t spend all their days thinking like they do when the assemble on the Lord’s Day:

Pluralism affects the faith of individuals, the character of religious institutions, and the way in which the state relates to religion. Therefore, the theory must span the psychological, institutional and political dimensions of the pluralist phenomenon. The individual lives with a diversity of worldviews and values, between which he must choose. Faith is no longer a matter of fate, but of decisions that may be reversed. It follows that religious certainty is hard to come by. Faith is typically tinged with doubt.

I would say that this situation realizes more fully what “faith” actually is. Preachers frequently counter-pose faith and unbelief, further suggesting that the latter is a terrible sin for which God will punish us in hell. Leave aside that this (Calvinist) God is not one I would want to worship. More relevant for the present argument is that the aforementioned counter-position is misleading: The opposite of faith is not unbelief but knowledge. I know that the skyline of the city I see from my desk is Boston and that this is where I am right now. I don’t need faith to make this affirmation. I do need faith if I affirm that there is the city of God, beyond all the skylines of this world, and that this city is the eternal destination intended by God for his creatures. Christians in particular should not deplore the fact that the pluralist situation points them back to the proposition of the New Testament: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

It follows that religious institutions, even if they don’t like this, become de facto voluntary associations. This creates anxiety, and a nostalgia for certainty. It also provides a market for fundamentalist movements (not all religious), who promise absolute certainty. An important factor in the pluralistic situation is the presence of a secular discourse, which necessarily dominates in a number of modern institutions (notably those based on science and technology, on the market economy, on bureaucracy). This is where secularization theory was not completely wrong; it just exaggerated the hegemony of the secular discourse.

Aside from explaining Jason and the Callers, Berger recognizes (or at least permits the recognition) that faith in Jesus Christ is one thing but not everything. Contrary to w-wists where everything is either for or against Christ (or the French Revolution), 2k understands that faith is one part of a person’s life. It is the most important and it has clear implications for some aspects of natural life (sex, marriage, procreation). But Christianity is not a totalizing with which to one-up Richard Dawkins or Rachel Maddow.

Speaking of Special Pleading (in Scotland no less)

David Robertson is not happy with one of the letters — the secularist one — to one of his many columns about Christianity in Scotland. According to the correspondent, “Scotland was a theocracy for 1,000 years, which left nothing but bloodshed and heartache in its wake.” To which Robertson responds:

In a post-modern age this 
Alice-in-Wonderland view of history, where history is just what you want it to be, may ring true for the more fundamentalist secularists whose faith tells them that any public expression of religion is bad, but anyone who actually reads history would know that this is a grotesque and laughable caricature.

The Romans did not bring their law beyond Hadrian’s 
Wall, although Christians writers did adapt some aspects of Roman law (Christianity does, after all, teach about God’s common 
grace reaching to all human 
beings who are made in the image of God).

Theocracy is the rule of the state by the Church, and that clearly did not happen in the supposed “1,000-year reign”, although, as my letter pointed out, there have been those who have used Christianity for political ends and vice versa).

Robertson is certainly correct to react against secular fundamentalism, though he might do a better job of explaining the modern era’s debt to the medieval world — constitutionalism, universities, cities. But shouldn’t he also say something about a complicated relationship between church and state in Scotland that concedes that the head of the church — the British monarch — is also head of the state. Might not he also understand the complaints that secularists do have legitimately about the sometimes less than progressive mixing of religion and politics in the United Kingdom? It may not be theocracy, but the king’s headship within the church is some variety of Caesaropapism. Not to mention that the king’s and queen’s sovereignty within the church sent Presbyterians into a rightful tizzy to protect the crown rights of Christ as head of the church.

Turkey Needs the United States (not for the reasons you think)

Do politicized Christians in the United States understand what Turkish Muslims are recognizing, that it’s not the morality but the scale of the government? Ponder this from Mustafa Akyol:

As you probably well know, Turkey has long been stressed by political tension between religious conservatives and secular nationalists, the latter also known as the Kemalists. However, that main fault line is somewhat passé these days given the emergence of a new kind of tension between the religious conservatives who had triumphed together in (OR: previous) tension from years gone by. This time, it is the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government and the powerful Fethullah Gülen Movement that are at odds with each other.

This new tension, like the old one, includes lots of mind-boggling details and jaw-dropping conspiracy theories. However, like the old one, it actually renders down to a simple question: the nature, and the masters, of the state. Since we have such an all-powerful and all-encompassing Leviathan, its control is a matter of life-and-death. Hence come all our bitter and zealous power struggles.

Another element in this new political tension is the Islamic credentials both sides have, according to their somewhat similar yet still distinct interpretations of religion. This religious element inspires a strong sense self-righteousness and causes the tension to get deeper and deeper.

But is there no way out? An interesting perspective came from an Islamic intellectual, Sibel Eraslan, who is a renowned novelist and a columnist for the conservative daily Star. She wrote:

“The [Gülen] Community-AKP conflict invites us to think more seriously on ‘secularism’… [because] the fight for political space and power among the pious forces us to look for a new referee.”

The term I translated here as “referee” (“hakem”) is a powerful word in Islam, referring to a neutral and fair judge who can settle disputes. And it is interesting that Ms. Eraslan, a pious, headscarf-wearing Muslim, thinks that this “referee” may be none other than secularism. Of course, this would not be the type of secularism that Turkey’s Kemalists have imposed for decades. That peculiar ideology, called “laiklik” (from the Frenchlaïcité), was based on the assumption that there was something wrong with religion and therefore it needed to be suppressed by the state.

What Ms. Eraslan probably implied, and what Turkey indeed needs, is a more American-like secularism. In other words, it should be based on the recognition that there is a problem not with religion, but with the concentration of political power.

Is Joseph Epstein Off Limits to a Christian?

About a year ago, Joseph Epstein, one of (all about) my favorite writers, produced a piece on the value of liberal learning. It is smart and clever, as Epstein’s essays always are, and this one helps me try to convince freshmen in Western Heritage of the value of Greek philosophy (during a wee peek at the Epicureans and Stoics; truth be told, it also allows the philosophically challenged like me to find a network time killer in the third week of classes).

But it occurred to me this morning while preparing for class that Epstein is also useful for exposing the posturing of transformationalists as either theonomists, fundamentalists, or both.

Epstein talks about the value of a liberal education in ways that seem impermissible to many neo-Calvinists who employ the language of w-w:

The death of liberal arts education would constitute a serious subtraction. Without it, we shall no longer have a segment of the population that has a proper standard with which to judge true intellectual achievement. Without it, no one can have a genuine notion of what constitutes an educated man or woman, or why one work of art is superior to another, or what in life is serious and what is trivial. The loss of liberal arts education can only result in replacing authoritative judgment with rivaling expert opinions, the vaunting of the second- and third-rate in politics and art, the supremacy of the faddish and the fashionable in all of life. Without that glimpse of the best that liberal arts education conveys, a nation might wake up living in the worst, and never notice.

Notice that Epstein makes these assertions without any reference to God, special revelation, or regeneration. (Why would he? He is not pretending to be a Christian.) He is thinking entirely as a human being. Some might say he is doing so — gasp — autonomously. But can anyone who is serious about literature and learning (Christian or no) really take issue with Epstein’s notion of a liberal education and its value? Someone like Bill Smith has questioned the idea of Christian math or Christian pedagogy with all the sense that common sense yields. But when it comes to a liberal education, are Calvinists really supposed to say that Christians know a liberal education better than non-Christians? Even though the liberal arts and their derivation from classical languages and letters by Christians predated Reformed Protestantism, we are now supposed to conclude that only faculty with a biblical or Reformed w-w will be the ones to yield a genuinely liberal education?

This is complete nonsense and amazingly smug, as if regeneration somehow gives Christians insights into tragedy, epistemology, or historical contingency. I have been around lots of Christians where those awarenesses have never shown the slightest signs of presence. And that’s because an education comes through lots of long hours of reading and reflection, and even then doesn’t necessarily take hold. You need a certain natural acumen for such things; regeneration cannot make a Christian intelligent (only God can and he does it through nature, not supernature).

And yet, transformationalists continue to opine that 2kers are the ones who are rocking the boat and upsetting the consensus of Reformed churches, as if a hyper-antithesis is not far more radical than anything 2k advocates are saying. Just yesterday I heard a podcast which described the Christian scholar’s task as one of bringing secular universities into conformity with biblical truth. The reason is that secular learning is illegitimate since it denies the fountain of all truth. Well, if secular universities are illegitimate, then what of secular governments? And if secular governments are illegitimate, what of secular persons? Is there a place in this world between the advents of Christ for non-Christian learning, non-Christian governments, and non-Christian persons (like Joseph Epstein)? If Epstein is wrong about sound learning and informed aesthetic judgments, if persons can only know good from bad literature by reading the Bible first, or can only form valid political arrangements by having Christians perform the political founding, or persons are not worthy of reading or hearing unless they are first regenerate, then Christians are in the same position as some forms of political Islam.

But Reformed Protestantism has never insisted on such a construction of the antithesis because it never questioned the legitimacy of contributions from non-Christians. Once you accept that people who do not know Christ, along with the institutions they found, are legitimate and reflect in some measure of the image of God in man along with the truths of general revelation, then you can aspire to be learned the way that Epstein is, or try to follow constitutional republicanism the way the founders of the U.S. did, or even read Plato and Thucydides for profit the way most college students in the West for centuries have (if you were rich and smart enough). If you appeal to common grace to free you from the polarities of such hyper-antithesis, by all means, go right ahead. That means you have to stop bellyaching about secular learning, secular governments, and secular persons because common grace is a way of affirming that all of those institutions and people have a legitimate role in God’s gracious ends. It also means giving up transformationalism because common grace has already done what you seemed to think transforming the culture would do.

But if you draw a line between the regenerate and unregenerate and extend it to intellectual life, or institutions, whether political or educational, you have removed yourself from the history of the West and taken a harder line than even some popes were prepared to go. You have not gone to the Land of Chocolatebut to the Twilight Zone.

What Makes the Religious Right Different from Political Islam?

I (all about me) will be in Chattanooga this week to speak at the University of Tennessee in the LeRoy Martin Distinguished Lecturer Series. I will be drawing on recent reflections about Islam and Turkey to consider the assets and liabilities of Christian political engagement in the United States. Here is the description from the Philosophy and Religion Department, which is hosting the event:

D.G. Hart’s comparison of Political Islam to Christian activists in the United States is a provocative and even inflammatory juxtaposition. Aside from obvious and significant differences between political activism and the use of violence, conservative Muslims and evangelical Protestants do register significant objections to secular understandings of society and the state. They also seek to have secular governments recognize, if not implement, the morality taught in sacred texts. In sum, both groups are raising important questions about the secular politics and whether efforts to bracket religion actually end up imposing a secular version of morality on citizens. And yet, some political observers in the United States do not find the Religious Right to be as threatening as political Islam. On the other hand, other commentators see no difference because all politically motivated religious groups are at odds with the norms of liberal democracy. These considerations raise important questions about whether Christianity is more compatible than Islam with liberal democratic societies, and whether secular constructions of public life owe their existence the developments of Christianity in the West. D. G. Hart will explore these questions in the light of his recent book From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism (Eerdmans, 2011).

The event is scheduled for Thursday, September 27, 2012, Thursday, September 27, 2012 at 5:00 pm in the University Center’s Raccoon Mountain Room (269). The public is welcome. Rotten tomatoes are not.