There was a somewhat unhelpful article in the National Review recently entitled “Why Baptists Should Support Muslims’ Right to Build Mosques.” The link to it can be found below. It is not my intention to deal with everything found in the article, but to discuss a debate that sprang from it.
This article and a fan of it appeared on my social media page, so I replied, and that ended up being a major discussion with a few other folks as well, including the one who posted the piece in the first place. So here I want to share some of what I said in that discussion.
Let me preface all this by saying that this debate centres on a particular law case in New Jersey about Muslims seeking to build a mosque. I am not a lawyer or someone with legal training, so I am not competent to comment on the legal pros and cons of this or related cases.
But groups like the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and its Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) led by president Russell Moore have supported the rights of the Muslim group in the name of freedom of religion. So I will not weigh into the legal debate, but into the broader issues which arise here.
I merely write as someone who knows a little bit about how the American political system works, and how the Islamic political system works. And from that vantage point, I believe that the two are all rather incompatible, and so care must be taken as Christians seek to support the Muslims here.
The gist of the National Review article and the case of those pushing it is that American Baptists have had a rocky history in the US and know the importance of religious freedom, and therefore Baptists should extend that same freedom to Muslims as they seek to build mosques in the country.
I made a brief reply to this post with words like this: Positing a moral equivalence between Islam and Christianity is his first big mistake. His second is to foolishly think that setting up a mosque is the same thing as setting up a church. Just one line from the NR article highlights this: “It was not so long ago that Baptists were ‘the Muslims’ fighting for the right to construct their own houses of worship.”
Um no, not quite. So I posted a link to my article which explains what the mosque actually means for Muslims in non-Muslim countries: billmuehlenberg.com/2014/03/28/the-significance-of-the-mosque/
I urge everyone to read that article. But I then got a reply saying that this debate is not about Islam versus Christianity. “The issue is whether, in the context of civil government, free exercise of religion is equally a right for every religion, including Islam.”
To that I said that she was missing the point. When the Founding Fathers spoke about religious freedom, it was mainly in the context of various Christian denominations, not something as wholly other as Islam. And no, there is no right of every religion to do whatever they want – not when they hold to fundamental values and beliefs that are seditious and treasonous and anti-Constitutional.
The response I got to that was that ‘this is a topic that can get people riled up quickly’, I assured her that I was not getting riled up, and went on to say this:
I simply stated the glaring shortcomings of this article and why he is missing the point big time. The bottom line is this: Christians can live in many different countries with different types of government and various sorts of political setups and be good citizens while still being good Christians. But this is not true for a devout Muslim. Unless a nation is in submission to Allah and sharia law, the devout Muslim cannot be a good citizen. Their loyalty is to Allah and his will alone, not to any non-Islamic, infidel government. So by definition they cannot make for good citizens, unless they renounce their overriding loyalty to Islam and sharia.
Another person weighed in about the “guaranteed Constitutional right” to religious freedom and the like. I reminded him that the establishment clause of the First Amendment on religious freedom had to do with the state not establishing any one religion as a state religion. It never intended to say that all religions were equal in terms of being compatible with the Constitution.
The gal offered a lengthier reply stating in part 1) ‘free exercise of religion is the freedom of every American citizen to believe whatever they wish,’ and 2) my point about sedition and the like is a straw man. ‘The Constitution certainly does not allow every religion the right to DO whatever they want–including Christians.’
1) Beliefs lead to and are inseparable from actions, and not every religious belief is given complete immunity, especially when it is directly seditious, etc. 2) There is no straw man here. I take it you did not read my article on what Islam teaches concerning the mosque and its political importance. It is among other things a political unit and a declaration of Islamic intention of territorial expansion. And of course even Christians do not enjoy complete open slather in what they may want to do – often rightly so – at least with some aberrant groups. For this discussion to properly succeed and go forward, we need to know something about the Constitution and the Founding Fathers’ intentions, but we also need to know some basics about Islam. Sadly it seems not everyone here does as far as the latter is concerned. The US government has no reason to turn a blind eye to religious beliefs and practices which are inimical to its very values and foundational principles. Indeed, the Constitution forbids that. That genuine Christian beliefs and practices can wrongly be targeted by the government is of course a real concern, but it is apples and oranges when talking about Christianity versus Islam.
To expand on this a bit further, religious freedom is not an absolute, and there is always a juggling act in preserving religious freedoms while upholding other important values and goods. For example we know that the religious freedom of Jehovah’s Witnesses to follow their beliefs and keep their sick or dying children from getting blood transfusions has been overridden in some American law courts.
Another person said this: ‘if you give the government that power to ban certain things for Muslims, they’ll turn their guns on us as well’. Sure, I understand how dangerous it is for governments to decide which religious freedoms can be allowed and which cannot.
But as stated above, there are no absolutes here – many good things can be restricted in the interests of national security and the like. Do we have the right to shout “fire!” in a crowded theatre? Do we have a right to call for the overthrow of the US government and have it replaced by an Islamic caliphate based on sharia law?
So government already is deciding what is allowed and what is not. And we can discuss and debate those various things. So it seems to me only a radical libertarian would argue that there should be zero restrictions or limitations on all religious beliefs and practices.
That is because they are not all equal. And that sure is the case when we compare Islam with Christianity. The loyalty of a devout Muslim is usually to all sorts of things which are anti-constitutional – things impacting on the equality of women, religious pluralism, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, the rule of law, and so on.
So those mixed loyalties can make many devout Muslims rather poor citizens indeed in a free democracy. And when they openly say – as many do – that they will not be ruled by human law but only sharia law, they show that they reject the very values and basis of the American system of government.
Do I believe religious freedom is important? Yes I do, and in principle, I think we need religious freedom for one and all. As I said years ago about a case in France when they decided to ban Islamic religious symbols in public, that meant that Jewish and Christian symbols were also targeted.
So yes in a sense to allow restrictions to one group may well mean other groups get restricted as well. But there are limits to everything in a fallen world, including religious liberty. All social goods need to be weighed against other social goods.
Religious freedom is vitally important, but so too are the principles enunciated in the US Constitution. Allowing one religious and political ideology like Islam open slather can put at risk the very heart of the American system of government and the values of freedom and democracy.
Thus these are complex matters indeed, and we need to think through them prayerfully and carefully as we seek to find a way forward. As I mentioned above, many folks in this debate are pretty cluey about American law, the US Constitution, and the like. And that is essential.
But sadly it seems many of them are not very cluey about Islam and what it is all about, what its stated goals are, and so on. And that is essential to comprehend as well. Otherwise we will find our freedoms being used against us, and we may well lose our freedoms in the name of preserving freedom.
So we need to be wise and cautious here. Yes we must work to defend religious freedom. But we also must be aware of how this pans out with other religious groups that share few if any of our values of freedom, diversity, pluralism and the rule of law.