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God's Politics

Driving around yesterday afternoon, I was flipping between the news on two radio stations – a local talk station and BBC World Radio. During the same hour, both stations covered the same story about Islam: the findings of the first-ever nationwide survey of American Muslims, a study conducted by The Pew Research Center.

The commercial station led with the finding that one in four younger American Muslims support – under some circumstances – the practice of suicide bombing in defense of Islam. The BBC report highlighted the fact that American Muslims are far more middle class and assimilated to mainstream culture than European Muslims. The two stations, one sensationalistic and the other measured, seemed as if they were reporting on entirely different research! I went home and downloaded the whole study to check it out for myself.

Needless to say, the commercial station lifted the edgiest finding – one tempered by the fact that Muslim Americans reject religious terrorism by a much larger margin than do Muslims in other western countries. Older American Muslims almost completely reject Islamic terrorism, and half are “very concerned” about Islamic extremism throughout the world. And 53 percent also say that since Sept. 11 it has become “harder” to be a Muslim in the U.S.

The BBC got the big story right. According to the survey, American Muslims are happy, politically and socially moderate, and middle class. The data counters conventional wisdom. U.S. Muslims are better educated, have higher incomes, and express a higher degree of life satisfaction than European Muslims. Fifty-three percent think of themselves as “American” first and “Muslim” second. They believe the American dream: 71 percent agree that people who work hard can get ahead. Almost two-thirds said that “life is better” for Muslim women in America than in Muslim countries.

Muslim satisfaction with American life is a pleasant surprise; a result that should cause all Americans to consider how well immigration can work. However interesting that data may be, the story behind the story – that of the contrasts between U.S. and European Muslims – strikes me as more provocative. In Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, Muslims are much poorer than other citizens. Eighty-one percent of British Muslims consider themselves “Muslim” first and “British” second. French, German, and Spanish Muslims express little concern over Islamic extremism. Of all western Muslims, those living in Germany and Spain expressed greatest life dissatisfaction. Germany and Spain were, of course, places where the Sept. 11 terrorists had cells and financial support.

The primary historical difference regarding religion between the United States and these western European nations is the separation of church and state. Britain, France, Germany, and Spain have long – and often violent – histories of church-state establishments, often having made Christianity (or some form of Christianity) their official religion. In some cases, religious toleration was forced (either slowly or violently) upon European governments, not developing as a natural part of the society’s internal sense of identity. As recently as 2000, during the writing of the European Union Constitution, many Europeans still argued that Europe was “Christian,” and that religious identity should be part of the Union’s legal apparatus.

In the United States, Christianity was the religion of vast numbers of early settlers and political leaders. But it was never of a singular form, allowing for religious diversity since the nation’s founding (and, please, remember the native religions that inhabited this land). Diversity made it impossible for one church to gain hegemony over politics thus necessitating the establishment clause and guarantees for religious freedom. Eventually, the experience of religious diversity, a desire for toleration, and the prohibition of establishment led to the contemporary doctrine of the separation of church and state. At its best, America has a heritage of Christian liberality, intellectually influenced by Christianity but open to a wide range of ideas and peoples through the practice of religious toleration. Religious freedom is the great American contribution to classical liberalism and the foundation of contemporary liberal movements.

With its contrast between the U.S. and Europe, the Pew study suggests that the separation of church and state works to create a more generous, open, and safer society in regard to terrorism. In his recent book, Freedom’s Power: The True Force of Liberalism, Paul Starr argues:

[T]he guarantees of religious toleration and freedom of conscience exemplify the logic of liberalism as a foundation for a stable policy. Internecine religious conflicts and wars of religion, like revenge feuds, deplete the powers of states and societies. Religious toleration serves not only to allow people to worship differently but also to reduce conflict, facilitate economic exchange, and create a wider pool of talent for productive work and the state itself (p. 22).

Since Sept. 11, some Christians have called for an end to the separation of church and state to combat terrorism, claiming a stronger national Christian identity, a “Christian America,” is the way to defeat Islamic extremism – a tactic employed by some reactionary European political parties. The Pew study shows that approach is wrong-headed. The path to peace between Christians and Muslims is that of religious freedom, separation of church and state, and appreciative toleration in the best traditions of liberality.


Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) is the author of Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (Harper San Francisco), an award-winning study of mainline Protestant spirituality and congregational life.

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