The current debate about having a mosque built near the site of the World Trade Center – and, the constant roiling of European nations wrestling with the place of Muslims in their societies – brings to the surface a very important question.
Underneath any particulars of specific situations, and putting to the side for the time being all questions of whether Islam is “right” or “wrong” as a religion – and bypassing all useless rabbit trails about racism or bigotry – we who are Americans are forced to look very plainly at this issue:
Is Islam compatible with American culture?
And this opens up an even broader question that goes beyond Islam – is ANY theocratic expression of government compatible with American culture?
If you’re not familiar with the term, a theocracy (theos – god / kratos – rule) is a government where a god or deity is viewed as the supreme ruler, and the revealed laws that flow from that god or deity provide the framework of government. The view that the laws of a deity should shape the laws of society is called theonomy (nomos – law). By and large, in a theocracy, laws of worship and society are co-mingled – the religion is codified into the social fabric.
With me so far? Good – these are important terms. They provide the key to understand how America can or cannot co-exist with any particular form of religious expression.
The opposite of theonomy is autonomy – everyone is free to do what they want. No society can be founded on autonomy – utter chaos will result. So a system of laws must come from somewhere.
Our founders drew from both divinely-revealed principles AND perceived truths about natural revelation to come up with our core documents of government and society, and came up with a very interesting hybrid that also includes a popular element – people decide who governs them and those representatives are charged with interpreting and applying law. As originally conceived, our system of government also included broad swaths of autonomy for the citizens, assuming that moral behavior and good sense would lead to judicious personal and social decisions. Government was not conceived as the controlling fountain of all rights and behaviors, nor as the author of them – that, in fact, is exactly what was being left behind.
Europe had bouts in the past with theonomic experiments, both Roman Catholic and Protestant versions. America was founded to escape religious repression; but even so, the early colonies had flirtations with theonomy. However, religious tolerance and social diversity became the light that set us apart from the vast majority of other cultures. Here, people have the freedom to practice their religions – as long as it does not conflict with legal principles embedded in the founding documents and applied (in a valid way) by the legislative and judicial process. There was a separation of worship codes (does NOT belong to government) and social codes.
We are a society of religions, and a society founded on the rule of law. But we are decidedly NOT a society founded on the supreme rules of one religion.
If you’ve stuck with me this long, here’s the first payoff:
Bottom line: No theocracy can be compatible with American law and society.
This principle, if embraced, liberates us to properly view a host of religious movements. For instance…
Any valid and lawful religious expression that does NOT see its end as a takeover of society and imposition of its deity-derived laws onto the government comes under the umbrella of our American value of religious tolerance. This is why so many have fled to these shores – to find freedom of religion. Therefore, any expression of Islam that eschews cultural and governmental domination of a society by religious rule can be welcome in this country.
On the other hand – any movement, including Militant Theocratic Islam with its sharia law, its intolerance of the right of other religions to practice in our society, and its readiness to violently impose judgment on those who do not conform, is alien to our culture.
We are not at war with Islam. Militant Theocratic Islam is at war with everything that is not itself (including a more moderate expression of Islam).
Let’s take a step into the laws of logic. If you believe that you have THE truth, and that part of that truth is that a god and his laws MUST be imposed on society now (all societies – remember, this is universal truth from the singular deity), and that UNBELIEVERS who refuse this rule are so much garbage to be taken out to the curb – then the violent takeover mentality and actions of radical jihadists make perfect sense…logically. Blow up innocents? Hide instruments of war among civilians? Separate from secular society? It’s all consistent. The end justifies the means (in a twisted sense). Including…terrorism. Because the end is to defeat evil, and one expression of evil is a pluralistic society that tolerates other beliefs, and includes secular aspects of life and law.
When other beliefs are a cancer, you feel justified wielding the scalpel.
Now, let’s make a crucial distinction. Absolutist religions (religions that believe that there is, in fact, a solitary God and a fixed Truth) have always been woven into the fabric of America. The Pilgrims were certainly of this mind, as were many of the nation’s founders. But to believe in a God and Truth (religious and moral absolutes) is NOT the same as being theocratic. The combination of natural law and religious principles that shaped this country assumed that people would have different views and beliefs, and that tolerance and freedom were a bedrock of society and government. The government was to make no rule establishing one religion, nor was it to restrict varying religious expressions.
People are free to believe in one God, many gods, no gods – and tolerance does not mean that we give up or restrict our expressions of belief, or that we have to shut up about them, but that we value the ability to live under a government and in a society that does not impose monolithic beliefs and allows a diversity of lawful practices.
Militant Theocratic Islam – theocratic anything – departs right here. Government and religion are to be joined at the hip, and intolerance becomes a social norm. In America, we are free to believe and speak and protest and choose our leaders (except maybe on college campuses, where regressive group-think has pulled off a mostly-successful jihad). But don’t try any of that in a theocratic country.
That is why a theocracy is not compatible with American society. What a predominantly Muslim nation chooses to do on its own soil is one thing. But we are not bound to tolerate certain expressions of intolerance – namely, theocratic intolerance – on our soil. We are bound to respect other people in their varying beliefs. But we most certainly are not inclined to roll over and play dead when someone points the spear of jihad at us.
I am a Christian. But if some home-grown group of quasi-Christian theonomists decided that they had a divine calling to take over government and society by any means necessary – if they militantly believed that American needed a “Christian theocracy” – I’d be the first to denounce them. They have the right to practice their religion in peace, they have a right to vote or run for office, they have a right to speak and try to persuade – but as soon as it’s a theocratic jihad, they are no longer compatible with American society. We threw off the yoke of slavery long ago.
The same would apply to theocratic Jews or any other religious group, and – the subject of a separate post to come – radical secular jihadists, who practice the same form of elitist intolerance as religious theocrats.
Now, this opens up a whole host of other questions and issues, but before even thinking about those, it’s critical to identify and embrace the hinge on which all else turns. It’s not a mosque. It’s not 9-11. It’s not the Koran. It’s not even terrorism.
It’s the place of any militant form of theocracy in America. I say it has no place. What about you?
(by the way, I wrote this a couple of weeks before finally hitting the Publish button. And in the interim, others have publicly said the same things.)
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