The discussion about Islam in America has grown more heated – and ugly – in recent weeks, but the debate is not the same in every community. In some places the talk is concrete – there are diverse populations and Muslim neighborhoods; in others, the chatter is more esoteric.
But the socially conservative Evangelical Epicenters communities offer a unique window into the controversies of the last few weeks — the fight over the proposed Islamic center and mosque in New York City and the proposed Quran-burning day. Religious adherence levels are higher in those places and Christian religious leaders have an especially powerful role.
So how are people reacting to those stories in Nixa, Mo. – an Evangelical Epicenter Patchwork Nation has been visiting since 2008? It is a decidedly mixed bag, according to people we talk to there – a blend of religious tolerance combined with some anger about “fairness.”
And there are differences between what we hear from church organizations and worshippers.
Church Leaders Speak Out
Many evangelical denominations made strong statements denouncing the proposed burning of Qurans by a small church in Florida.
The Assemblies of God, based outside of Nixa in Springfield publicly objected to the burning. “I don’t believe that [burning the Qur’an] is respectful toward the very people we want to love into the Kingdom,” said [Assemblies of God Superintendent George O. Wood](http://ag.org/top/News/index_articledetail.cfm?targetBay=c97d4d5c-a325-4921-9a9e-e9fbddd9cdce&ModID=2&Process=DisplayArticle&RSS_RSSContentID=17277&RSS_OriginatingChannelID=1184&RSS_OriginatingRSSFeedID=3359&RSS_Source=). “It only drives Muslims farther away from the Lord Jesus and reinforces the false notion that followers of Jesus are crusaders from the Middle Ages.”
The World Evangelical Alliance urged the pastor of the church to cancel the burning – the event was later indefinitely postponed.
On a more local scale, Chad Mattingly, pastor of the Nixa Christian Church, in an e-mail called the Quran-burning idea “an embarrassment to all Jesus followers for it represents hatred and division among people of faith. Jesus said, ‘You will know my followers by their love.’ Also, many do not realize the common roots that Islam, Judaism and Christianity share through the line of Abraham. We worship and follow the same God, Yahweh.”
And others in Nixa told us many evangelicals opposed the burning for similar reasons to Gen. David Petreaus, who is overseeing the U.S. military’s fight in Afghanistan. Like soldiers, missionaries might find themselves the targets of retaliation in Muslim countries abroad.
Is Amount of Criticism Fair?
Along with those condemnations, however, there are questions by some Christians around Nixa about how Terry Jones, the pastor who proposed the burn, has been treated in the media.
A blogger in the area known as Bungalow Bill found something distressing in the way the media — and particularly President Obama — treated Jones. “Reverend Jones says this was a calling, as from God. Who is to question that if you have faith?” he wrote on his blog, which usually does not concern religion. He continued “Yet, Obama who claims to be a Christian, shows no respect for Jones’ faith. Rather he condemns it. Now, as a Christian, how does Obama know Jones wasn’t called upon by God to carry this out? No Christian should question the faith of this man.”
Other Nixans who are less political than Bungalow Bill and also thought picking on Jones was somewhat unfair.
Pastor Gary Swearengin, of the Nixa Church of the Nazarene, says he agreed that the Koran burning would have stirred up emotions unnecessarily, but added “[Jones] is on the air and the media are just crucifying him. … I probably don’t agree with his plans to burn those Qurans, but I can see his thinking – that we’re not making a stand for God.”
Swearengin says he understands and preaches that a Christian’s job is to do as Jesus Christ would and “be like him to the point where we control out emotions” but that is not necessarily easy.
Those sentiments help explain why Islam will likely remain a hot button issue into the fall. Swearengin says he considers the proposed Islamic center project near Ground Zero in New York “like spitting in the eye” of the people there. It’s not a question of whether it should be allowed, it’s whether it should be done.
One writer on the Southern Baptist Convention’s website said called the Quran-burning idea “foolish and wrongheaded” but questioned why “an obscure pastor of a tiny congregation” would get so much international media attention while the Folsom Street Fair, a San Francisco festival devoted to bondage and leather that is attended by tens of thousands, doesn’t.
Much of the coverage of the political environment this year has centered on fiscal issues – taxes, spending and deficits – but there are still broad swaths of the country where cultural issues are dominant. And as November approaches in the Evangelical Epicenters, voters are tuned in and motivated around them.
Sara Johnson contributed to this report.