Mosques in Middle America: The Next Christian Response to Islam
Debate over the so-called Ground Zero mosque, followed by the inflammatory press attention paid to Pastor Terry Jones's threat to burn Qur'ans on September 11, has stirred an excess of angst over the Muslim presence in America. Opportunists have exploited that anxiety for political advantage. The overheated debate may be moot: while the legal standing of the planned Muslim community center is solid, its financing is reportedly shaky.
What is not settled is the place of Muslims in American society. Anxiety about Islam has spread in response to proposed mosques in Wisconsin, California, and Tennessee, where an arsonist set construction equipment ablaze. Muslims who wish to build places of prayer meet resistance, both violent and verbal. How should American Christians respond?
Twenty years ago, Terry Muck, then CT's executive editor, wrote presciently about the presence of world religions in America. In Alien Gods on American Turf, he noted that the 1980s influx of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists caused little concern. Nevertheless, Muck observed that "the strain of this diversity" was moving Christians who were traditionally "bedrock supporters" of religious freedom to begin questioning the limits of First Amendment guarantees. "Ten or twenty years from now," he warned, "the full force of non-Christian religions will be felt."
Just 11 years later, terrorists from Islam's Wahhabist fringe attacked the Pentagon, destroyed the World Trade Center, and created an acute awareness of Islam's adherents in the United States.
Muck did not foresee 9/11, but he was certain that the relative invisibility of non-Christian religions would evaporate. He urged American Christians to work out an understanding of their relationship to these faiths. We have not done that well.
America's founding generation faced similar questions. In the article "The Founding Fathers and Islam," the Library of Congress's James Hutson tells how Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Rush, and Richard Henry Lee (who made the motion in Congress that the colonies declare independence) argued for religious freedom for "Mahomitans" to make them feel welcome in the new nation.
Not everyone in that era welcomed Islam. One preacher proclaimed that the religion "breathes nothing but arms [and] is propagated by arms." Yet the president of Yale praised Islam for its strong morality. Islam, like Christianity, taught a system of future rewards and punishments. The architects of America welcomed Muslims because they deemed belief in a carrot-and-stick afterlife essential to their experiment in liberty. If the new state were to prosper, it had to attract moral citizens who worked hard, supported their families, and sacrificed for the common good.
American Christians can adopt the Founders' pragmatism. We can admire the modesty of even the most progressive Muslim women as they resist our amoral society's immodesty. We can affirm the piety that prays five times a day, gives alms, and fasts. We can applaud Muslim efforts to build strong families.
However, Christians must move beyond both fear and mere pragmatism. We must probe our own principles and ask what they lead us to do.
First, Jesus' principles of neighbor love and the Golden Rule demand that we put ourselves in the place of American Muslims. How would we want to be treated if we were nurturing new faith communities and building new churches? At the least, we would want to be known as persons. Christians in communities where new mosques are planned could, for example, create chances for Muslims and Christians to discuss best how to raise their families in an increasingly secular society. Focusing on common challenges can replace fear and division with understanding and cooperation.