My most recent post (April 13) began to address a reader’s claim that Islam is not a “true religion, but a political ideology masquerading as a religion . . . incompatible with the Constitution.” I argued that defining religious doctrines and political ideologies so there’s no overlap can be extremely difficult. After all, each is integral to a person’s overall way of looking at life. Religious beliefs inform our choices about political systems, just as beliefs about political systems affect our choices about religion. Those overlaps influence fine points of politics (e.g., candidates for office, issues of school bonds) and religion (e.g., baptism, burkhas). But they also influence broad matters of politics (e.g., economic systems, warfare) and of religion (e.g., Islam, Christianity, none).
Let me establish at the outset that I am wary of the effects on civil government by any religious ideology, particularly the manifestly theocratic inclination of Islam. I don’t question that Islam is a religion just as truly as is Christianity. It is the theocratic influence that Islam has on politics that frightens me, though over many centuries Christianity at one time or another has been more entangled with politics than Islam. Happily, that sad circumstance is no longer true here.
Due to the Enlightenment the West has for a couple of centuries experienced a historically significant church-state separation. We in the United States benefitted uniquely in that the (admittedly partial) severance, coming at the time of its founding, gave us a head start on a great shift in political philosophy with respect to religion. We owe our great fortune, then, to both an accident of timing (near simultaneous growth of America and of Enlightenment reasoning) and the wisdom of wise—often deist—founders. While in the U.S. there is even now no completely clean separation of politics and religion for each seems set on meddling in the other, there is far more than in countries where Islam is dominant.
So despite there being less religious influence on politics in countries with church-state separation, there’s still a propensity for politics and religion to seek liaison with each other. The greater that association, the greater is religion’s alliance with all or part of political ideology, and the greater is political ideology’s alliance with all or some religious beliefs.
Relating that point to the reader’s question that began this post, we can say that Islam (or Christianity) risks becoming less “purely” religion due to political contamination. Conversely, a given political ideology can be contaminated by religious considerations; that is, it goes both ways. This latter effect may seem less obvious than the former but consider a city council (or federal function) trying to make consistent law or administrative choices, but altering what it thinks is best in order not to offend one or another religious group. Those religious considerations showing up in politics—thereby altering its ideology—may seem advantageous to a specific religion, but can result in its appearing to be not a “true religion,” but a political ideology masquerading as a religion.
Why can’t the obligations of optimal governance and the fulfillment of religious commitments be pursued on their own turfs? Perhaps it would be useful to pose the question another way. What do politics and religion have to give each other? What is it that religion has to gain from influencing politics? What does politics have to gain from influencing religion? I don’t know all the ways these questions can be accurately answered. But I do know that which, by itself, is enough to explain the phenomenon: power.
Religion is founded on and bolstered by strong feelings of fear and hope, both assuaged by having access to power. Consequently, religion is often jealous of the power inherent in politics. Specific religions wish for power not only to enhance their missionary desires, but to advance their religious hegemony. Similarly, religious leaders as individuals, if sanctioned by the “powers that be,” can fortify their own careers and influence. Piggy-backing on political authority strengthens religion’s (and religionists’) hands.
In like manner, politics as a field and politicians as individuals desire power useful in taming the zeal of religion where it would conflict with political intentions. The supernatural has little place in the very concrete issues of politics but being identified with popular beliefs and dogma might usefully strengthen the political grip on a populace. Thus might political ideology seek to link itself to the universal, supernatural authority religion promises.
So it is that religion is drawn to politics and politics to religion, each one wanting to share in the approval to which the other has access. Though each possesses power in its own right, the power differs as to derivation and type. Political power is mainly physical and derived from masses of human beings and control of resources. Religion’s power is mainly one of deep commitment derived from beliefs about the ultimate human spiritual condition. Combining these power sources produces a supremacy of the combined influence as would be expected, but the cost is loss of the integrity of either or both sources, whether political ideology or religion. Contemplate how much religion and civil government both suffered in order to sustain the beliefs and practices attendant to the divine right of kings doctrine.
Turning to the present and to the spread of Islam in the United States, consider the numbers. Pew Research Center estimates that approximately 1% (3.3 million) of the United States population are Muslim, a number expected to be 2% in thirty years. (In world population, 1.57 billion Muslims form 23% of the total.) The political strength of Islam to influence America’s politics or its religious landscape now and for decades to come is clearly not significant whether viewed through a local or nationwide lens. But that growth rate might be more if even a slightly greater Muslim presence causes the U.S. to be more attractive to new immigrants than would have been the case,, thereby causing America to become more Muslim than now projected.
Consider three further points: Assume that scattered fears of Sharia among largely fundamentalist Christian groups in the U.S. are not exaggerated. To be harmful, the political strength that would be needed to change even local laws is unattainable except in very Muslim-concentrated localities. Far more important, government and law at all levels in the U.S. is constructed with principles that some parts of Sharia would violate and is, therefore, in those respects unlawful even in the absence of frenzied fears.
A second: One can describe Muslims as a group, whether world-wide, national, or local. But in one Muslim family or, indeed, in a single Muslim individual, behavior and beliefs might be very different from the group statistic. This is no different from recognizing that, say, individual Methodists might differ widely from the average of Methodists. Therefore, the average belief of 100,000 Muslims is not the belief of 100,000 Muslims.
And a third: It would be insulting and incorrect to suppose that a significant percentage of Muslims would convert from Islam when they are in the U.S. Still, it seems reasonable that converts would be more numerous when socially enveloped by an overwhelming number of non-Muslims, as would be the case in the U.S. Although in Muslim dominated countries, leaving Islam is made difficult or dangerous, it would be easier in the U.S. where individual Muslims are subject to strong forces of conscience and social conformity. The summary of these thoughts is that while frantic fears of a Muslim 2% and even then may be diluted due these considerations, Christians’ Muslimophobia will still find plenty to worry about.
Frankly though, my central response to fears of Muslim take-over is largely this: “So what?” It’s hard to imagine what meaningful damage Islam presents in a country strongly built on—and consistently practicing—the relationship between government and religion established in the U.S. Constitution. Put another way, as long as Muslims practice their faith as they see it, but without violation of U.S. law, what is to be lost? In the past two centuries the country has peacefully added faiths at odds with rather “standard” Christianity (though not always smoothly). Beliefs once seen as blasphemy just added, in turn, more “producers” in America’s religious marketplace. My point is, the law held; Constitutionality prevailed.
Lest my faith in America’s plasticity appears to be a Pollyanna trust that America is not vulnerable to control by one religion or them all, especially to any new religion hitting our shores. So I need to point out the critical importance of the Constitution being faithfully followed in protecting America from, at the same time, theocracy and loss of religious liberty, that is, maintenance of both freedom of and freedom from religion. The social contract implied requires public officials willing to stand firm against religious overreach, just as it calls for religion not to encroach on governmental power. Pity, politicians and those who would influence them regularly fail in that duty.
One reason we have not been good at that crucial balance is that there are many religious persons in government and government people in religions. Although we do have the ability to play different roles (e.g., umpiring a kids’ game team vs. parenting a player), doing so requires discipline. Religious persons can fulfill their roles as public officials, just as public officials can be true to their roles as representative of the state despite their piety. The importance of distinguishing the different roles and their attendant obligations was played out in the evening news when Rowan County, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis in 2015 demonstrated failure to understand or to accept her roles with respect to same sex marriage, so she defied a U. S. Supreme Court decision. She believed that her role as a religious person justified being disloyal to her oath as a representative of the state. What if she had been Muslim? Would the Christian leaders who flocked to her side have done so? If not, exactly which principles were they following?
Another reason we fail at the religion/state balance is having had decades of only loosely respecting what Thomas Jefferson called the “wall” separating government and religion, we don’t notice how in large and small ways we routinely violate the principle. Some Christians, stirred by fundamentalist revisionist David Barton, have even gone so far as to claim that separation was never intended. It seems many Christians, due to being the a majority, have only modest interest in preserving the separation, for they profit from making up rules so as to make government their partner—in federal income taxation, in local property taxation, in public school indoctrination, in the bully pulpit of local county and city councils, in statuary on public lands, law enforcement, and in a plethora of ways. It is my unhappy perception that Americans, due to being oblivious to the ubiquity of these Constitutional violations, fail to appreciate the combined effects of their steady drumbeat.
I acknowledge that it’s incumbent on me, after making these comments, to demonstrate the ubiquity of these threats to Americans’ religious freedom and civic integrity, particularly as it relates to the fear of Islam which began this discussion. For that reason, I will go further with this series of posts. My point will be that the relevant question for non-Muslim Americans is not what proportion of Islam may, in fact, be political rather than religious, but how America can be saved from Islam’s theocratic tendencies by restoration of what our Enlightenment-inspired founders designed in the beginning.
Therefore, in a few weeks I will post “Islam: religion or political ideology?–Part 3, building on the foregoing train of thought. I will argue that while threats to religious liberty do exist, they do not arise from increasing numbers of American Muslims, for Muslims are not a threat to American life and especially not to its precious freedom for religious beliefs, practices, and missionary zeal.