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In Perspective: Religion in America

In the aftermath of the attacks there were worries, instantly voiced, that the images of the pregnant widows, the suddenly orphaned, and the martyred first responders would create a climate of anti-Muslim hate. But in fact in that hour, America was remarkably tolerant.

My liberal friends think I am wrong about the seemingly distant autumn of 2001, arguing that the country turned nativist then. I disagree. As George W. Bush — unlikely icon of diversity, but there we are — understood, to indict a faith for the sins of a few is not only wrongheaded but morally wrong:

“The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.  The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.”

To me, the remarkable thing about the 2001 attacks was America’s muted reaction to Islam itself. There were exceptions, but when you think of how much worse the anti-Muslim backlash could have been then, the country comes out well. No longer. In my native Tennessee recently, the lieutenant governor suggested Islam is something less than one of the world’s great faiths: “Is it a religion, or nationality way of life, or cult or whatever you want to call it?”

Shots were fired outside an Islamic center in a city south of Nashville. And we all know about that Florida preacher calling for people around the world to burn copies of the Quran this 9/11: “It is indeed a radical message but a very clear, radical message to Muslims, to Sharia law, that that is not welcome in America.”

Let’s be blunt — about both sides. The attacks of September 11 — and subsequent acts of terror from London to Madrid to Fort Hood, Texas — embody the most repulsive of human instincts, the will to power at the price of the lives of others. Radical elements of Islam were responsible for these deaths of innocents, and extreme interpretations of the Quran have provided inspiration and justification for terrorist violence. Yet it is equally true that Christians have massacred innocents before, and they have interpreted scripture to justify among other things, terror, slavery, and the subjugation of women.

I am a Christian, a churchgoing Episcopalian, and I like to think that I understand the failings and frailties of my faith. Because we have sinned, we have something to offer this moment in the long story of religion and power. If we remember our own hours of evil, then we can see the issues of this hour more clearly. What is being said of Islam in some quarters could have been said — can be said — of Christianity, too. But Christians of good will, I believe, like to think that the derelictions of the faithful were corruptions of Christianity, not manifestations of its core. We ought to extend the same courtesy and apply the same wisdom to Islam now. We are at war with terrorists who profess an extreme version of Islam, not with Islam itself.

So in America, now, let us — Christian, Jew, Muslim, agnostic, atheist, wiccan, whatever — fight nativism with the same strength and conviction that we fight terrorism. My faith calls on its followers to love one’s enemies. A tall order, that — perhaps the tallest of all.  I for one will always fail to heed those words, but I know this: the America that was attacked out of a bright blue sky nine Septembers ago was its best self — and we now are our best selves — not when we rage against differences but when we honor them.

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  • Tony Bal

    You write: “We are at war with terrorists who profess an extreme version of Islam, not with Islam itself.”. I’m glad you point it out, since many people freak out by the word “Islam”. I learned to respect all religions and I believe we should teach our kids to respect them too, regardless of what some extremists do. Great article!

  • Threesahandful

    Your monologue was spot on, your points were well thoughtout and convincing. Every American needs to remember we are at war with the terrorists and not Islam. Too much attention is given to these radicalized crackpots. The Rev. Terry Jones is a hipocrite. Calling to burn the Quoran is an assault on all people not just on Muslims. Rev. Jones is no different that the 19 terrorists that changed the world nine years ago. I’m not at all clear what message Rev. Jones is trying to send. Nonetheless, the act will serve to place all Americans at risk for retaliation by fringe element who have a skewed interpretation of the Quoran.

    Thank you for this. A lesson that I shall not forget for a very long time.

  • Robert L Mortimer

    I do not understand how any moderately educated person living through the 20th century into 2010 can continue to believe that the acts of committed in the name of religion were “corruptions… not manifestations of its core”. Those religions given birth in the “Desert”, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, do not deserve our respect, approval, approbation. These religions, driven by fear, death, guilt, revenge, will only end in self-hatred, disregard of the “other”, loathing, rancor and disdain. We’ll only be free when these religions are abandoned by all.

  • Shell Stenger

    Mr. Meacham, I so want to thank you for those wonderful words. People can be judgemental,even judgemental about Christians. There are people who like to think you are all the same way. You proved them wrong. Your words brought tears to my eyes. What you said was educated and much from the heart. Thank you.

  • Rebeccah

    “Very nice”…a profoundly American, educated-class “lovely” vision of tolerance. Through the years, I have come to realize that happy, connected, loved people are good Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, Wiccans, Hindus, etc. Unloved, angry, damaged, disenfranchised people are Christian, Muslim, etc., terrorists (al Qaida/ Crusaders), murderers, rapists, etc. I don’t believe that religion is the main determinate of character (in most cases–some exceptions). I must say, Robert Mortimer, that I’m also amazed that 21st century people define the universe in terms of the supernatural., but I doubt that the end of religion will bring freedom from what lies beneath the surface of the human cerebral cortex.

  • Robert Gamble

    The philosopher Will James observed that ‘in its broadest terms, religion says that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in rightful relations to it.’ Defining what that “supreme good” is for us, both individually and collectively as part of this mysterious cosmic organism, may forever tax the best minds of our species. But perhaps we’re slowly & painfully beginning to comprehend that a spirit of non-egoistical tolerance & compassion — as well as respectful curiosity that prompts us to learn about and understand other viewpoints — may be a critical part of this process. Your thoughtful commentary, Mr. Meacham, seems to honor this viewpoint. Like you, I too am a church-going Episcopalian and a southerner. And I am all too painfully aware of the shortcomings of both the man-made religious structure and the culture into which I happen to have been born. In fact,our Sunday morning adult forum class often wrestles with this inescapable fact.

    Your words remind us that human beings everywhere may have the potential of tapping something deeper and profoundly good — aided by religion and philosophy at its best, as much as by physics, science, great music, and art: all that pushes us as a species to rise “out of the old familiar lies,” as one of my favorite hymns puts it. Thank you.

  • Cynthia Dubé

    Beautifully said. I have been receiving many emails spreading hate towards Islam recently. I can only think of how blind fear can lead to further misunderstandings and conflicts. Let us not wish that on ourselves. A neighbor of yours, in Québec, Canada.


    If That ‘Mosque’ ISN’T Built, This Is No Longer America

    OpenMike 9/11/10
    Michael Moore’s daily blog

    I am opposed to the building of the “mosque” two blocks from Ground Zero.

    I want it built on Ground Zero.

    Why? Because I believe in an America that protects those who are the victims of hate and prejudice. I believe in an America that says you have the right to worship whatever God you have, wherever you want to worship. And I believe in an America that says to the world that we are a loving and generous people and if a bunch of murderers steal your religion from you and use it as their excuse to kill 3,000 souls, then I want to help you get your religion back. And I want to put it at the spot where it was stolen from you.

    There’s been so much that’s been said about this manufactured controversy, I really don’t want to waste any time on this day of remembrance talking about it. But I hate bigotry and I hate liars, and so in case you missed any of the truth that’s been lost in this, let me point out a few facts:

    1. I love the Burlington Coat Factory. I’ve gotten some great winter coats there at a very reasonable price. Muslims have been holding their daily prayers there since 2009. No one ever complained about that. This is not going to be a “mosque,” it’s going to be a community center. It will have the same prayer room in it that’s already there. But to even have to assure people that “it’s not going to be mosque” is so offensive, I now wish they would just build a 111-story mosque there. That would be better than the lame and disgusting way the developer has left Ground Zero an empty hole until recently. The remains of over 1,100 people still haven’t been found. That site is a sacred graveyard, and to be building another monument to commerce on it is a sacrilege. Why wasn’t the entire site turned into a memorial peace park? People died there, and many of their remains are still strewn about, all these years later.

    2. Guess who has helped the Muslims organize their plans for this community center? The JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER of Manhattan! Their rabbi has been advising them since the beginning. It’s been a picture-perfect example of the kind of world we all want to live in. Peter Stuyvessant, New York’s “founder,” tried to expel the first Jews who arrived in Manhattan. Then the Dutch said, no, that’s a bit much. So then Stuyvessant said ok, you can stay, but you cannot build a synagogue anywhere in Manhattan. Do your stupid Friday night thing at home. The first Jewish temple was not allowed to be built until 1730. Then there was a revolution, and the founding fathers said this country has to be secular — no religious nuts or state religions. George Washington (inaugurated around the corner from Ground Zero) wanted to make a statement about this his very first year in office, and wrote this to American Jews:

    “The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy — a policy worthy of imitation. …

    “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens …

    “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

    3. The Imam in charge of this project is the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet. Read about his past here.

    4. Around five dozen Muslims died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Hundreds of members of their families still grieve and suffer. The 19 killers did not care what religion anyone belonged to when they took those lives.

    5. I’ve never read a sadder headline in the New York Times than the one on the front page this past Monday: “American Muslims Ask, Will We Ever Belong?” That should make all of us so ashamed that even a single one of our fellow citizens should ever have to worry about if they “belong” here.

    6. There is a McDonald’s two blocks from Ground Zero. Trust me, McDonald’s has killed far more people than the terrorists.

    7. During an economic depression or a time of war, fascists are extremely skilled at whipping up fear and hate and getting the working class to blame “the other” for their troubles. Lincoln’s enemies told poor Southern whites that he was “a Catholic.” FDR’s opponents said he was Jewish and called him “Jewsevelt.” One in five Americans now believe Obama is a Muslim and 41% of Republicans don’t believe he was born here.

    8. Blaming a whole group for the actions of just one of that group is anti-American. Timothy McVeigh was Catholic. Should Oklahoma City prohibit the building of a Catholic Church near the site of the former federal building that McVeigh blew up?

    9. Let’s face it, all religions have their whackos. Catholics have O’Reilly, Gingrich, Hannity and Clarence Thomas (in fact all five conservatives who dominate the Supreme Court are Catholic). Protestants have Pat Robertson and too many to list here. The Mormons have Glenn Beck. Jews have Crazy Eddie. But we don’t judge whole religions on just the actions of their whackos. Unless they’re Methodists.

    10. If I should ever, God forbid, perish in a terrorist incident, and you or some nutty group uses my death as your justification to attack or discriminate against anyone in my name, I will come back and haunt you worse than Linda Blair marrying Freddy Krueger and moving into your bedroom to spawn Chucky. John Lennon was right when he asked us to imagine a world with “nothing to kill or die for and no religion, too.” I heard Deepak Chopra this week say that “God gave humans the truth, and the devil came and he said, ‘Let’s give it a name and call it religion.’ ” But John Adams said it best when he wrote a sort of letter to the future (which he called “Posterity”): “Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present Generation to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.” I’m guessing ol’ John Adams is up there repenting nonstop right now.

    Friends, we all have a responsibility NOW to make sure that Muslim community center gets built. Once again, 70% of the country (the same number that initially supported the Iraq War) is on the wrong side and want the “mosque” moved. Enormous pressure has been put on the Imam to stop his project. We have to turn this thing around. Are we going to let the bullies and thugs win another one? Aren’t you fed up by now? When would be a good time to take our country back from the haters?

    I say right now. Let’s each of us make a statement by donating to the building of this community center! It’s a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization and you can donate a dollar or ten dollars (or more) right now through a secure pay pal account by clicking here. I will personally match the first $10,000 raised (forward your PayPal receipt to If each one of you reading this blog/email donated just a couple of dollars, that would give the center over $6 million, more than what Donald Trump has offered to buy the Imam out. C’mon everyone, let’s pitch in and help those who are being debased for simply wanting to do something good. We could all make a huge statement of love on this solemn day.

    I lost a co-worker on 9/11. I write this today in his memory.

    “The man who speaks of the enemy / Is the enemy himself.”
    — Bertolt Brecht

  • Reuben Naranjo Jr

    Excellent piece. Thank you for being just and accurate via your essay.

  • Steve Heimbecher

    Great essay. As a student of religion it is uplifting to hear someone speak about the core of religion even myself, a non believer, recognizes has good to offer to the world.
    It is true that atrocities were carried out by the crusaders in the middle ages, but one need not go back that far to find a Christian counter-example to the Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks. In my mind a more apt and relevant comparison would be the Oklahoma City bombings carried out by Timothy McVeigh.

  • Ssedwards

    Thank you for your calm, reasoned and articulate words. It was the best comment I’ve heard on this divisive subject and much needed. I have forwarded it to some of my friends who may have missed the show and a friend, who is planning a sermon.

  • Bob Cummings

    “So in America, now, let us — Christian, Jew, Muslim, agnostic, atheist, wiccan, whatever — fight nativism with the same strength and conviction that we fight terrorism. My faith calls on its followers to love one’s enemies. A tall order, that — perhaps the tallest of all. I for one will always fail to heed those words, but I know this: the America that was attacked out of a bright blue sky nine Septembers ago was its best self — and we now are our best selves — not when we rage against differences but when we honor them.”

    Interesting ending.
    In the name of tolerance should we be forced to tolerate the cruelist intolerance? Respect other cultures at the disparagment of our own? People who forget who they are can be much more easily manipulated. It reminds me of Orwell’s “memory hole” in his book “1984″. I agree with some of your sentiments, however, what are Western Cultures to do when the sentiments of other governments and religions are onesided? It seems to me that we’ve gotten away from the truth. We should truthfully call things by their correct names.

  • Dorcas

    Please read “The Search for Al Qauda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future” by Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution to see how spot on this essay is. A broader picture needs to evolve and not one focused just on this small group of religious terrorists, as horrific as they may be in their plans. Additionally, we must get out of Afghanistan and Pakistan – we cannot change those societies in their present state.