There is a surreal aspect to many of the events in our world of late. So many changes. So many alarms and threats. "The old order changeth," but what is to come?
I think it axiomatic by now that much of the violent expression of radical Islam derives from a sense of panic at changes beyond the control of true believers and whole societies. "Modernization," "globalization" and "democracy" present real challenges to Islamic communities, not just because these will sweep away often archaic social norms, but because important elements of the new models being imposed on them are indeed an affront to basic tenets of deeply held faith. Not to recognize this is to trivialize the matter into one of conservatives versus moderates, and to imagine that so long as holy books are not flushed down the toilet we are ok.
I can only hope that Islam is able to adapt to a changing world and its norms without being forced to rewrite its theology. We in the West are becoming a little aware of the historic tensions between Sunni and Shiite, and other minor sects. And it strikes me that rather than recognizing the real issues of legitimacy and spiritual emphasis in these subsets of belief, we are all too ready to play them off against each other as though they are political parties or special interest groups.
Given the situation with Islam, there is an especial surrealism to the "culture" wars being fought in the United States. As the battle for America heats up it is worth paying at least as much attention to what is going on here, as we have been forced to give in response to airborne Jihad blown in from a distant place.
More and more I hear radio and television types invoke the charge of "un-American" against those who do not share a litmus test of "moral" issues. More and more I hear religious leaders repeating it.
More and more I see efforts to construct a "Christian America"-a building project, we are assured, more of a renovation than a revolutionary construct. But more and more I see the mullahs of this movement as less concerned with protecting the holy book, than with realizing a new vision of church-state conflation.
Of course the United States was, is, and, I pray to God, will remain, a Christian nation in the practical sense. Indeed it is our current shame that so much of the non-Christian world judges Christianity by what "we" do in places like Abu Ghraib and by the products and entertainments "we" urge upon them. You and I recognize that not everything in our society reflects the religious values that at the same time permeate most communities. Why? Because we still have a practical appreciation of how a separated church and state work-even as some of our politicians and religious leaders work to demolish this very fundamental element of what made America.
Not too long ago, after a death watch that had lasted some years, Pope John Paul II passed away. Given his obvious personal piety and his consistent enunciation of such basic moral issues as the value of human life and the dehumanizing effects of modern culture, it was no surprise that the world community should respond emotionally to his passing.
With that as a given, the response from Protestant America included much that was unseemly. Flags at half mast showed more than respect, they showed a historic acknowledgment of a status never contemplated by earlier generations. Not many years ago there was a crimonious debate in the United States as to whether we should have an ambassador to the Vatican. And when it was done, it was done slowly and quietly.
I am old enough to remember a few popes before John Paul II. I well remember grandfatherly Pope John, the architect of Vatican II reforms, and a man well thought of by much of the world. But I don't remember any presidents bowing before his bier. Something has changed. And it is a matter of substance, not just style.
Somewhere along the line America has forgotten its past, even as zealots attempt to redefine a Christian America.
While Thanksgiving sits perilously close to the irreligion of Halloween, it provides an annual tableau of Protestant settlers seeking a new world where faith could exist beyond the controls of big religious interests and government patronage.
Americans today seem unwilling or unable to connect any historical dots before the Mayflower. Too often we are fed a caricature history of an insatiable Henry VIII and a lusty English Reformation. And we are lately more reminded of the sainthood of his Catholic antagonist Sir Thomas Moore, than of the very real issues that divided them and split England and, coincidently, much of Europe away from the overlordship of Rome.
But you may ask why I should write this way in a magazine dedicated to religious freedom-religious tolerance? To be sure, on a religious liberty model, doctrinal differences become almost irrelevant-and are to be protected and defended.
I am emboldened to speak out on two levels. First, the doctrinal differences are important as they define what a group is. In this case the United States dare not shrug off the deeply Protestant assumptions behind the Bill of Rights and the Constitution (particulary the First Amendment-free exercise and disestablishment clauses). Fading, it seems, is the historic national determination not to fall prey to the dynamic that in the Europe of the Middle Ages-and later-allowed compulsion of religious belief.
The second and most immediate level of my concern is that we not blind ourselves to the imminent peril for religious liberty as our leaders match the paradigm of Rome.
The Vatican has city-state status and acts that way with world leaders in projecting its power. It is almost missing the point to dwell on the role of Benito Mussolini in reinstating the Holy See to a secular legitimacy once won by the sword by popes who warred with the fractious Italian states. Protestants and Catholics can, and should be allowed to argue as much as they like over claims of legitimacy and doctrinal integrity. But the facts of history up to the present are plain on religious freedom-a union of church and state at best shows favoritism and nearly invariably results in persecution of religious minorities and dissidents. Protestant America understood this and intended to preserve the model of separation of church and state.
And now at precisely the moment the major religious forces in America are arguing against a separation of church and state they seem ready to embrace the great exemplar of church/state union. That is deadly peril in my book!
If the performance of both Catholic and major Protestant figures in the last U.S. Presidential election is any indication of the future, we are in for severe challenges to faith and conscience.
If the methods of some of those presently in power say anything to me it is that they will use any power, given or assumed, to pursue a moral agenda. I may applaud their morality, but I fear their agenda necessitates removing the very underpinnings of religious freedom.
Lincoln E. Steed
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."