Islam: religion or political ideology?–Part 3

This concludes a series of three posts that together address the claim that a growing Islam population in America is a danger due to its being a political ideology flying under a false flag as a religion. I’ve pointed out that while Islam incorporates some political ideology—more than modern Christians are accustomed to—it is not alone in that; Christianity does as well, though happily less so since advent of the Enlightenment a couple of centuries ago. These two major religions have varied through the centuries with respect to their overlap with politics. Each has integrated its theology with political ideology at one time or another, to one degree or another. Insofar as the readership of this blog is largely non-Muslims living in so-called Christian countries in this decade, the focus of these three posts is on the fear of Islam afoot in North America now.

I’m not seeking to whitewash the oppressiveness of Islam as practiced in most countries that have a Muslim majority. There is a reasonable point of view (without proof I’m aware of) that as the percentage of Muslims in a population increases beyond, say, 10%, the likelihood of law and civic practice taking on an Islamic flavor multiplies. On a worldwide scale, Pew Research foresees a 25% increase of Muslims in the next two decades.

In Part 2 I argued that it is in the nature of Religion (I’ll capitalize it to indicate all specific religions) and specific religions (uncapitalized, meaning a specific faith of whatever size, like Islam, Baptists, or one congregation) to seek the strong arm of government to favor one’s own religion over non-religion as well as over other religions (such as bestowing tax breaks, giving official recognition, or criminalizing blasphemy). It is also in the nature of Religion and religions to diminish the strong arm of government in order to keep it away from one’s own religion, such as establishing that religion is above the law or promulgating some intrinsic goodness of religion, thereby giving it cultural shelter from scrutiny and a “pass” to which other pursuits don’t have access.

A religion may be more or less in alliance with government, but individuals within that religion—to the extent they have government jobs or need government contracts—are faced with representing a religion as well as a government. The more a religion is in the majority in a jurisdiction, the greater is the probability that its adherents are naturally in this two-masters dilemma. Within each person, then, exists a sentiment dedicated to a religious mission and a sentiment dedicated to a civic mission. Conflict between these intentions may range from minimal to overwhelming.

Since the purposes and obligations of religious faith and political ideology are different, in some jobs there’ll certainly be conflict, the amount and type of which are dependent on the nature of the civil society and the nature of the religion involved. In any event, maintaining the integrity of these dual roles requires clear, agreed-upon rules, followed by all parties respecting those rules. In the United States, the rules begin with the Constitution. In all but religious life, the supreme document in the U. S. is not the Bible, but the Constitution.

The conflict mentioned in the preceding paragraph is exemplified in workaday situations—as when a city council erects a Christian monument on municipal property, a courthouse displays the Ten Commandments, a school board equates creationism (a religious doctrine) with science, or gives a preacher access to the student body. It is also exemplified in sweeping decisions at a national level when politicians fudge on the principle due to their own religious inclinations or simply to ingratiate themselves with religious voters. Church and state have conspired to break down the wall Jefferson used to explain the Constitutional separation, a deterioration frequently covered in this blog.

Also weakening the wall of separation have been religious campaigns to popularize the “Christian nation” confusion, seeking a theocratic benefit at the expense of the government’s Enlightenment-inspired maintenance of a level playing field. The strongest resistance to the Constitutional principle is found in fundamentalist and Catholic religious camps, though less so in moderate Christianity. In any event such single-minded pursuit of special treatment from government abuses the freedom of those who do not share their theology, witness current enthusiasm among evangelicals to do just that.

Religious persons are so committed to the unquestioned truth of their beliefs that they tend not to see the damage they impose, therefore are unlikely to realize how widespread these alliances between church and state are. They occur in virtually every public school district in the nation, many courts of law, local government councils, coaches of high school sports, and more. I have collected hundreds of examples of this phenomenon.

But let’s take a step back. Just what are non-Muslim Americans afraid their Muslim neighbors and fellow citizens will do? That non-Muslim Americans will be attracted to Islam enough to convert? That children will be confused by a religion so greatly different from what they’ve known in dress, dogma, and rituals? Maybe. But the greatest fear seems to be that larger numbers of Muslims will change the complexion of government, even introducing laws that could penalize Christianity or reward Islam, such as the incorporation of Sharia into American jurisprudence. They may even fear radical Muslims wandering the streets armed by our almost non-existent gun laws or, at least, introducing Islam-friendly versions of political correctness.

Whether such fears are justified, however, it is certain that there are persons who endanger others for religious reasons. Those actions have never been specific to Islam. The Christian majority has produced its own share of lawlessness, including domestic terrorism. I’ve no suggestions for changing human nature, either its malevolence or its needless fears of malevolence, though what once was felt to be “human nature” can dissolve with familiarity and time, as it frequently has in human history. Besides, as stated by a Harvard study published in 2010, despite America’s long history of intolerance, “it also has a long history of overcoming intolerance” with “good reason to believe that Muslim Americans will eventually be part of this history too.”

(That quote and the next few are gathered from Andrea Elliott, reporter on Islam in America for the New York Times; Melissa Rogers, director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs, Wake Forest University; and Peter Skerry, professor of political science, Boston College.)

In fact, as the same study added, there is a parallel concerning Catholics as late as the early 1900s when there were “wild overreactions to Catholic immigrants.” Catholics were seen as untrustworthy and unpatriotic because of widespread belief that they were more attached to their religious identity than to their national one.” Those impressions faded over time. I can recall my father’s—and, I’m ashamed to say, my own—opposition to presidential candidate John Kennedy solely because of his Catholicism. It sounded much like today’s fear of Muslims. “They just can’t be good Americans,” we said, for the dominance of piety over patriotism in Catholics seemed self-evident. Looking back, what we might now excuse as human nature diminished and, given a little time, almost disappeared. It was overcome by the “widening circle of inclusion . . . between different religious communities” to which Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others can attest. There is little reason to suppose that human nature’s plasticity doesn’t apply to Muslims.

These are instinctive, pacifying tendencies at work requiring no special treatment except patience. Further, most Americans think of Islam as a monolithic whole. But there are many denominations of Islam, just as there are in Christianity. Strong governmental restraints in Muslim majority countries (no wall of separation) diminishes the need of Muslims to deal with their own pluralism. Because government allows less diversity, dealing with it under safe conditions may in some ways be a new experience for Muslims. Further integration may be at least as much about everyone living in pluralism as about Muslims against Christians and Jews. Religions in America are given liberty for their beliefs in exchange for responsible citizenship (e.g., no violence). That applies to Muslims and Christians alike, just as it applies to every individual of whatever conviction, including atheists.

There are, then, relatively natural influences toward Islam’s being seen less as “the other” in ways similar to previous American experience. But I doubt that most Americans who fear Muslims will feel better just because they’re told they’ll have less fear later. So I wish to share here what might be a faster resolution, one that builds on a strength the American democracy has had—though carelessly used—since its inception, a gift from the Enlightenment which informed framers of the Constitution. So let’s assume that none of the foregoing mollifying factors exist. What then? We would have to focus on more near-term, decisive steps that promise to work whether Muslims and non-Muslims get along better at all. The key relies on addressing our long negligence about the independence of civil authority and religious liberty.

Growth in the voting strength of Muslims frightens many non-Muslim Americans. In fact, it frightens me if Muslims prove to be as destructive of church/state separation as Christians have been. I would be disturbed about an America turned into a Muslim nation. But I’d have much the same reaction to an America dominated by the likes of Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Timothy Dolan, or a host of other Christians eager to pave the way for the harsh dogma of dominionist zealots. Dominionists view the Constitution as secondary to God’s law and argue that while the First Amendment prevents government from influencing religion, religion is free to influence government. Whose version of “God’s law” and whose type of religious influence they have in mind is pretty clear. In fact, if you are religious, but don’t fit their theology, worrying about Muslims would hardly be your only concern.

I’m arguing that we already have a framework that holds promise for a resolution worthy of our historical love of liberty. The most available guarantee of freedom of religion is the best guarantee of freedom of all thought. Government is guarantor of freedom of religion—but it is neither religion’s partner, guide, nor judge of how “deeply sincere” is an individual’s faith. Our framers were ahead of us on that matter, but we’ve failed to take them seriously.

In other words, the conceptually simple—but apparently quite difficult and adamantly resisted—resolution is for the country to conduct itself in the way the nation’s founders sought to establish to begin with. Government would not be responsible for—or exercise power over—religions’ vitality, its missionary success, healing its occasional schisms, or deciding which faiths prosper and which fail. Government would not concern itself with theology, favoring or choosing one religion over another, nor choosing religion over non-religion. Religions would not be responsible for government beyond the freedom of individual speech we all have. It would neither seek special favors from government nor appease government’s occasional desire to draw on religions for support.

Moreover, Christians’ cheating on the constitutional church/state separation that protects their liberty of conscience must be recognized for the intermittent theocracy it is. As citizens, we’d applaud the eradication of religious ideology from governmental decisions. No government decisions should occur because a certain religion instructs this way or that; no government decisions would be avoided because of religions’ disapproval. Religions that attempt to pressure decisions in government would be disregarded. Christians and their churches that act as if empowered to make the rules for others must be recognized as anti-democratic, political crusaders, and summarily ignored. The remedy for an increasing presence of Islam is the same as that which, though inadequately, has saved us from a hegemony of Episcopalians, Southern Baptists, or Latter-Day Saints.

A growing Muslim population would enjoy liberty equal to Christianity’s, but have all the obligations as well—obedience to laws that apply to all and exercise of no power but persuasion. With government staying on its side of the church/state divide, there’d be no state pressure to conform to one interpretation of Islam over others. Varieties of Muslim belief would have room to bloom in a civic atmosphere of liberty, yielding an array of Islam denominations as has occurred in Christianity, assuring that religions themselves compete with each other without government’s thumb—or the that of a dominant Islam group—on the scale.

Clearly, religious liberty, like any liberty of conscience, must be preserved as integral to the meaning of general freedom. Our history and our present are filled with freedom-damaging violations of those simple conditions of secular government paired with unbridled freedom of conscience, including religion. But the more government is allied with or defines what is right in or about religion, the less is that freedom. This is the most promising path to peace among religions, for it reduces or eliminates whatever political ideology either Islam or Christianity might wish to wield. Individual Muslims, like individual Christians could still voice their political opinions and partake in all the functions of citizenship.

Is the human discipline necessary for such a distinction even possible? We must remind ourselves of the spectacular discipline attained in other parts of life and, for that matter, even in religion to some degree already. Reforms in the West have made religion-state relationships enormously better since the Dark Ages. Separation of the domains of government and religion as a robust feature of advanced democracy (in America, an element of the Constitution’s “more perfect Union”) sets the stage for simultaneously sustaining freedom of religion while safely absorbing virtually any brand or any degree of religious fervor.


About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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1 Response to Islam: religion or political ideology?–Part 3

  1. Sharon Nickle says:

    Another good post, John!

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