By Wendell Cantrell
(This is the second of four segments of Culture Watch looking at our right to religious freedom. Part 1 appeared in the December issue of Common Ground. You may access that segment at http://dentonbible.org/stories)
…Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ… (Ephesians 4:15)
…Always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence… (1 Peter 3:15)
Last month we looked at how the state can rightfully become involved when a particular faith group institutes practices that are either against US law or dangerous to congregants. Before we can address the state’s responsibility as it relates to our Muslim neighbors, we need to look at two incidents where many felt that actions taken by Christian leaders were unwise, unloving, and provocative.
The first was a local case where a Baptist pastor, at an “Ask the Pastor” event, weighed in on the difference between the Muslim jihad and the Christian Crusades. After giving a well-informed answer to this question, the pastor launched into the “deep dark dirty secret of Islam—that it promotes pedophilia and that Muslim men around the world engage in it.” A Dallas Morning News writer opined that the pastor’s broad-brush criticism of Islam went way too far.1 The paper chose not to mention that the pastor had called the writer willing to back off a bit and narrow the charge to Middle Eastern cultures (and not in the US where it is illegal). Although I agree with much of this pastor’s insight, I personally think a chance to speak the truth in love was missed. To his credit, he made it very clear that he and his church love Muslims and long for them to come to Truth as we all do. We mentioned last month that free speech is also a critical part of the First Amendment; so he had every right to speak as he did. Free speech, however, does not come automatically with judgment, reason, and wisdom. Frequently, wisdom and reason are in fact casualties and collateral damage of free speech. In this case the damage was done in a matter of minutes and wasn’t planned, as in the next incident.
The second case involves the pastor of the small Florida Baptist church that threatened to burn Korans on 9/11.2 We have to ask again if the church was protected by freedom of religion and freedom of speech. The answer is maybe. This scenario, known well in advance, could have had national security implications. General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Afghanistan, warned that the burning of Korans could put innumerable American lives at risk as they battle the Taliban. From a biblical perspective, Peter tells us that we are to be good apologists, but as we give people reasons for our hope in Christ, it has to be with gentleness and respect. “Burning the Koran will be taken as the height of disrespect by the Muslim world, where copies of the Koran are treated as sacred objects and are handled with the utmost care and reverence. Nothing in the Bible encourages us to treat Muslims or any other religious group with this kind of contempt.”3
These two incidents serve to highlight a deep-seated mistrust, if not outright phobia, of Muslims as they have tried to establish a place in America. This response may be a predictable historical pattern as Islam becomes more visible in American communities and nativism ensues (see definition below). The Philadelphia Nativist Riots took place in 1844 as a result of rising anti-Catholic sentiment as the Irish Catholic immigrant population grew. Rumors had been spread that Catholics were trying to remove the Bible from public schools. The ensuing riots resulted in two Catholic churches and numerous other buildings being destroyed and multiple deaths.
Our country continues to struggle to balance its deeply held values of religious freedom and tolerance with its fears, real and imagined, in an era of terrorism. Next month we will move from churches’ responsibility to be wise and loving to our Muslim neighbors, to the state’s role to trust but verify where there are real security threats.
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