All press is good press. Perhaps not always true, it is often a maxim of politics. A day after the backlash over his ‘a Muslim should not be president’ comment, Ben Carson announced windfall fundraising of one million dollars.
But perhaps it is also a maxim of religion? With the name of Islam dragged through the mud of Republican politicking and right-wing punditry, the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) seized the media spotlight and announced a campaign to freely distribute the Quran to citizens and civic leaders alike.
Back in 2001, CAIR chairman Nihad Awad reported that 34,000 Americans converted to Islam after the attacks of September 11.
It is a very natural phenomena. Media loves a negative story, which draws attention to an otherwise obscure issue. People begin to investigate, and discover the issue is not as completely negative as first reported, or stems from an extreme fringe. Then the counter-narrative emerges, in which the issue is hailed as good, or at least complicated. Conflicted over the original outrage, a moderating tone enters the issue into the mainstream.
From here, the politicking – or proselytizing – continues with precious momentum.
If conservative American evangelicals are not already concerned about Ben Carson’s comments, perhaps they should consider another pillar of culture war outrage: gay marriage.
I was raised in the 1980s. My first memory of homosexuals was local news coverage of a gay pride parade in some northeastern city, as transvestites and drag queens shouted at the cameras in an otherworldly display of an underground subculture I could never have imagined. The TV announcer could barely contain his chuckle, if I remember correctly.
Sitcoms and movies were rife with mocking humor. The AIDS scare lent credence to cries of God’s judgment. But over time society discovered the human behind the identity. Media attitudes shifted, both shaping and reflecting public opinion. The louder the protest, the greater the spotlight. Today the Supreme Court declares marriage equality.
Consider the distance traveled in three short decades. Imagine Islam in America three decades to come.
Note that in the examples above no statement is offered on the merit of Carson’s comment nor the appropriateness of gay marriage. There is a place in America for worthy debate on the morality and policy of queer issues. There is a place to discuss the nature of Islam and its compatibility with American values.
At least there should be. The fact this space is shrinking is perhaps commensurate with the retributive empowerment of the previously marginalized. May the conservative American evangelical reflect, and where necessary, repent.
But consider also the sub-Christian flaw in my argument above, quite akin to much popular discourse about Islam. The motivation is fear. Perfect love will not permit this.
Punditry highlights the illiberal character of sharia law and links the savagery of ISIS to the Quran and Islamic history. But it equates this otherwise worthy research with Islam in its entirety. Worse, it suspects imitation within every Muslim. Beware, it cries, lest one day we see Syria in Springfield.
My argument risks being similar. Beware, I cry, lest the crassness of your rhetoric win ground for Islam.
There is a better way. The conservative American evangelical must win ground for Muslims.
Islam is a religion, an idea, a way of life. Let it be praised or criticized according to its merits. But the better way is to do so with respect, humility, and hope. Muslims around the world deserve honest assessment of their faith. Whether of its religious, social, or political aspects, Christians should speak.
But Muslims in America deserve much more from their Christian neighbors. The better way is to bless, rather than demonize. To secure rights, rather than restrict them. To speak up in their defense, rather than rally a political base.
Conservative American evangelicals should be the first to depoliticize this issue entirely.
What this argument lacks is sufficient consideration of the proper place of denunciation. There is truth that is opposed to error. There are valid interests opposed to vile manipulations. There are Muslims in America and the world with political agendas to match any lobby from the right or the left.
There is a place for religion in politics. But great care should be taken against the politicization of religion. America has navigated this minefield for centuries, and Islam provides a particular challenge.
“But no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States,” says the constitution. Let American citizens vote as they wish, from any, all, or no religious motivation.
But let American Christians both engage and transcend the politics of the day to embrace a kingdom greater than the republic. Their obligation is to help all participate in both.
Jayson Casper is a journalist in Cairo contributing to Christianity Today, the Middle East Institute, Lapido Media, and other publications. You can view more of his writings at A Sense of Belonging.