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How to respond

Special Issue | The Greatest Spin Ever Sold

Issue: "Osama bin Ashcroft?," April 27, 2002

The double historical mistake-underestimating both the historical involvement of Christians in American government and the historical discrimination against Jews and Christians in Muslim society-creates a belief beloved to secularists: All religions are the same, and the particular one really doesn't matter. American Christians who insist that it does matter appear unreasonable, and those who claim discrimination against Christians in America look like whiners and complainers. That's exactly what secularists want, because then they do not need to contend with the validity of the critique but can merely echo historian Richard Hofstadter's generation-old screed about the paranoid tendencies of the religious right.

The best way for Christians and conservatives to approach such bigotry is to focus rationally on the questions at hand, starting with how to deal with the emergence of mass terrorism. We need to note that the problem on Sept. 11 wasn't strong religious belief; the problem was murder. The problem on our highways isn't the existence of drivers; it's reckless driving. The rational way to cut highway fatalities is not to demand that everyone ride bicycles; it's to prosecute drivers who kill. The rational way to deal with Mr. bin Laden's terrorism is not to decry strong religious belief; it's to keep the murderers from murdering again, and to ask whether Islamic history, unlike that of Judaism or Christianity, suggests that purists have a license to kill. (The murderers of three of the first four caliphs acted with the goal of keeping the faith pure. The Assassins also killed for that reason, as did Muslims who conquered Anatolia.) Journalists need to learn and explain the history.

But how do we deal with the bias of some journalists against biblical Christians? Biblically, even though we know how hard it is for reason to slay bigotry, we are called to try. Andrew Sullivan, for example, seems to believe that the Inquisition has booths on every corner, and that fundamentalists are trying to coerce others so as to build a world in which "sin is outlawed and punished and constantly purged-by force if necessary." But he evidently doesn't understand that Christianity is based on belief, not rites, and belief can't be forced. Nor does he recognize the way revelation and reason go together, and the deep respect Christians have for conscience. He doesn't seem to understand the basic Christian teaching that man cannot outlaw sin and build walls against it, because sin comes from within.

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Mr. Sullivan and others view free religious faith as impossible unless politics and religion are totally separated, yet such a separation is logically impossible. That's because all political positions are based in views that some things are good and evil-and those are religious characterizations. As Don Feder, an Orthodox Jewish syndicated columnist, has explained, "It's said the religious right wants to force its faith on the public. But whose faith are we talking about? [All groups] in the political arena want to see their morals reflected in our laws and governmental institutions-including the National Organization for Women, the National Abortion Rights Action League, and the American Civil Liberties Union, whether or not they are willing to admit it."

We should patiently reason with writers like Andrew Sullivan, and even diehards like The New York Times's Anthony Lewis. Complaining about fundamentalists, Mr. Lewis charged that people who are certain of their own views harm the world, yet the columnist idolized Nelson Mandela in 1990, calling him "a man of extraordinary conviction and strength." Does Mr. Lewis now believe that only wimps should be trusted? A careful study of history would have shown him that decency and humanity hold out against barbarism only when their defenders are certain that these principles are worth defending. Osama bin Laden, after all, argued that the United States could readily be defeated because Americans hold no moral convictions.

Christians should suggest to Mr. Lewis that the real enemies of humanity and decency are those in academia and media who ridicule faith in God. After all, if we dismiss the understanding that we are created in God's image and thus have an inalienable value, we are merely chance collections of atoms, and what decency and humanity do we then possess? Mr. Lewis's charge that critics of Darwin are anti-science should also be disproved by a showing that conservative Christians have been the foremost defenders of the scientific method, with its emphasis on laboratory experiments and careful observation. Proponents of "intelligent design" have been unwilling to accept on faith Darwin's conclusions, since they cannot be tested in a lab.

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