There are plenty of theological differences between Islam and Christianity. But there are also some profound differences in terms of political and social life under both systems. While these distinctions are a matter of historical record, some ideologues refuse to see the distinctions, and instead seek to lump all religions together in their secular crusade. Such attempts are made quite often on my own website.
Indeed, one good thing about running a blog site is you get a lot of great illustrations about what you are writing about by various commentators. As an example, I had no sooner finished a piece on sloppy thinking regarding church-state relations when yet another atheist/secularist trotted out some tired old arguments in his comment about how Christian influence in the West is just as harmful as sharia law.
This is the myth of moral equivalence: the idea that all religions are equal, or at least equally bad. The inability – or unwillingness – to make a distinction between life under sharia law, and life in, say, “Christian England,” reflects not only sloppy thinking but the power of ideology to hide facts and distort truth.
These secularists and atheists who are happy to lump all religions together and characterise them all as theocratic and dangerous are simply blinded by their hatred of religion. That is why a good term for them is misotheists. They hate God and this hatred often blinds them to rational analysis. They may have a particular hatred toward Christianity, but if they have to criticise militant Islam, they will argue that Christianity is no better.
Thus it is worth examining the historical record in this regard. Let’s look at how Christianity and Islam compare on several key items. The first issue concerns the notion of equality and the origins of democracy. The second deals with the broad issue of the separation of church and state.
Equality and Democracy
This is not the place for an extended treatise on the origins and nature of democracy, or the development of political equality, but just a few brief yet salient points can be made.
The Judeo-Christian worldview has probably done more to contribute to the idea of political equality and democracy than any other influence.
Christianity of course cannot take all the credit for giving us democracy. There were other roots as well. Ancient Greece especially comes to mind here. But democracy was really quite limited there. As social historian Rodney Stark puts it:
“While the classical world did provide examples of democracy, these were not rooted in any general assumptions concerning equality beyond an equality of the elite. Even when they were ruled by elected bodies, the various Greek city-states and Rome were sustained by large numbers of slaves. And just as it was Christianity that eliminated the institution of slavery inherited from Greece and Rome, so too does Western democracy owe its essential intellectual origins and legitimacy to Christian ideals, not to any Greco-Roman legacy. It all began with the New Testament.”
The equality of all men was first given concrete expression in the Judeo-Christian concept that all people are made in God’s image and therefore are of equal worth and dignity. Jesus reinforced that idea, and thus helped lay the groundwork for genuine democracy.
There is no such legacy of democracy in Islam of course. That has been true for its 1400-year existence. Democracy mainly thrives today in countries which had a Judeo-Christian heritage. In contrast, consider the Islamic world today. Where do we find a thriving democracy there? Most Islamic states are profoundly undemocratic. That is because Islam does not provide a theological or ideological basis for democracy.
Mark Steyn provides some numbers: “In the 2005 rankings of Freedom House’s survey of personal liberty and democracy around the world, five of the eight countries with the lowest ‘freedom’ score were Muslim. Of the forty-six Muslim majority nations in the world, only three were free.”
Separation of Church and State
Related to this is the issue of separation of church and state in both Islam and Christianity. Simply put, such a distinction is inherent in Christianity, while the absence of such a distinction is inherent in Islam. Islam never saw the need for such a division, while Christianity always has. Indeed, many scholars have pointed out how New Testament Christianity paved the way for the separation of these two spheres.
As philosopher Roger Scruton puts it, “The separation of church and state was from the beginning an accepted doctrine of the church.” Jesus himself set the stage for this way of thinking. He made it clear that earthly rule and heavenly rule were not identical. He said that we should “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” He also said “my kingdom is not of this world”. The early church accepted, and elaborated on, this fundamental concept.
Augustine, for example, in his The City of God argued that Christians are citizens of two kingdoms. We live in two realms, the earthly city and the heavenly city. The Christian has obligations to both, but they are to be kept distinct.
Of course in practise this has not always been easy to achieve, and at times in Christian history the line has been blurred. But the line was always seen to be there. No such line exists in Islam. While Christianity has always recognised two separate and distinct authorities which have overlapped at times and been blurred at times, Islam has only recognised one authority.
Says orientalist Bernard Lewis of the church: “Throughout Christian history, and in almost all Christian lands, church and state continued to exist side by side as different institutions, each with its own laws and jurisdictions, its own hierarchy and chain of authority.”
When the church has overstepped its jurisdiction, or when the state has overstepped its jurisdiction, there has been trouble. And both sides have been guilty of this. But at least there is the recognition that these are to be distinct jurisdictions, even if they overlap and are confused at times. Thus crime is punished by the state, while sin is dealt with by the church. In Islam sin and crime are one and the same, and church and state are one and the same.
Indeed, in Islam it is almost heretical to even suggest that such a separation should exist. This is rooted in the history of Islam, the example of Muhammad, and the teachings of the Koran. Consider again the remarks of Lewis: “Muhammad was, so to speak, his own Constantine.”
Stark explains, “Muhammad was not only the Prophet, he was head of state. Consequently, Islam has always idealized the fusion of religion and political rule, and sultans have usually also held the title of caliph.” Or as Dinesh D’Souza says, “The prophet Muhammad was in his own day both a prophet and a Caesar who integrated the domains of church and state. Following his example, the rulers of the various Islamic empires, from the Umayyad to the ottoman, saw themselves as Allah’s viceregents on earth.”
Lewis reminds us of how profound a difference there is between the two religions: “In classical Arabic and in the other classical languages of Islam, there are no pairs of terms corresponding to ‘lay’ and ‘ecclesiastical,’ ‘spiritual’ and ‘temporal,’ ‘secular’ and ‘religious,’ because these pairs of words express a Christian dichotomy that has no equivalent in the world of Islam.”
Thus the call to implement sharia law is fully in accord with the Islamic worldview. Everyone is to submit to Allah, and there is to be no law except the law of Allah. Christendom by contrast acknowledges the role of the secular state and the role of the church. They are not one and the same, and both have their legitimate demands and spheres of authority.
As has been mentioned, the Christian church has not always gotten it right in these areas. At times it has overstepped its bounds. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. In contrast, it is the exception to the rule to see a secular state running in a Muslim nation. Even in nominally secular Islamic states such as Turkey, the Muslim majority discriminates against non-Muslim minorities. As Robert Spencer puts it, “In no country anywhere in the Islamic world do non-Muslims enjoy full equality of rights with Muslims.”
And it looks to stay this way for some time. As Ibn Warraq states, “Islam will never achieve democracy and human rights if it insists on the application of the sharia and as long as there is no separation of church and state.”
The secularists who seek to push a type of moral equivalence between Islam and Christianity are simply wrong. There is no comparison, certainly on these major issues. Freedom, equality and democracy can all be said to have largely – though not exclusively – flowed from the Judeo-Christian worldview. All three elements are largely lacking in Islamic nations.
Moral reasoning involves the ability to make distinctions and to recognise differences. Ideological secularists do not wish to make such distinctions, because their fury against God blinds them to such differences. But the historical record stands. Christianity, for all its faults, is in many respects far superior to Islam when it comes to the rule of law, equality, the promotion of democracy, and the elevation of freedom.
If the secularists still seek to argue that there is no difference, let them go live in Saudi Arabia or Iran for a while. They might discover that things there are a bit different than in the US, the UK, or Australia.