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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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