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FIRST-PERSON: Americans need to be vigilant against a Taliban-like tyranny

DALLAS (BP)–A lot has been said about the changes in our nation since Sept. 11. It is a common topic because we note it in so many ways each day. The changes are as pervasive as salt in water, affecting the smallest and farthest parts of our culture. Movie releases have been indefinitely delayed; the Emmys were canceled; sporting events were disrupted. Transportation has become less convenient and more serious. Road rage is, at least temporarily, less common. Some jokes are now taboo in a society that once bragged about its irreverence. Comedians known for their sarcasm or cynicism wave the flag alongside the former victims of their wit.

It is not clear if we are temporarily sentimental or if a whole generation has been cured of what George Will refers to as a “seriousness deficit.” I hope we are cured. Our people will be stronger for it.

Our newly rediscovered unity has a threatening side, however. A satirical opinion poll recently proclaimed, “Everyone in America Agrees on Everything!” The humorous part is that it is almost true. It implies additionally that we should agree on everything. Our desire to stand together and comfort all those around us risks the creation of a hostile environment for religious distinctives.

A recent news article is characteristic of the way some Americans are thinking about religion. In a discussion of the division between moderate and militant Muslims, the story lists the various offenses of Muslim, Hindu and Christian fundamentalists. After reminding us of crumbled skyscrapers, blown up abortion clinics and razed mosques, the article says, “And while such beliefs do not necessarily lead to acts of violence and terror, it has become chillingly apparent that they can.” The discussion then goes on to describe a movement to moderate Islam by conforming its practice to modern sensibilities, compared to those more disturbing spokesmen for Islam who insist on a legalistic, literalist understanding of their faith. We who are often called fundamentalist, legalist, literalist and worse by other Christians should find this discussion ominous.

It implies a proscription of beliefs rather than of illegal action. Should believing that America is the Great Satan be illegal because some of that opinion are murderers? Should a hatred of abortion be forbidden because some sociopaths also hate abortion? Our overstated efforts to affirm law-abiding Muslims do not call to mind any time when Americans felt obliged to point out that most fundamentalist Christians don’t shoot abortionists, for example. Instead we are told that all religions are essentially the same and that the problem comes when those who follow a religion do so too seriously. This attitude is a threat to the orthodox adherents of all religions.

Note that, to the modern mind, the only good Muslim is a “moderate Muslim.” This can be understood as one who attempts to conform the faith to modern beliefs. His religion is not based on objective truth, then, but on a collection of interpreted principles. This is a perversion of the faith as surely as is a mostly cultural liberal Judaism or a liberal Christianity that despises the supernatural. Sophisticated and anxious, America loves any religion that is without real distinctions.

My intent is not to defend or attack Islam. Its adherents can be law-abiding people. Islam is also admittedly difficult for westerners to grasp. I assume the various cultural nuances and expressions of Christianity are hard for other cultures to understand. My concern is for the free expression of our faith in America. In most Muslim countries, religious freedom is denied by the enforced, exclusive observance of state-sponsored religion. From the other direction, America shows tendencies to devalue freedom in favor of politically correct ecumenism. It is as if our nation favors no particular religion and thus neither should an individual American.

We are probably a long way from any widespread persecution. We may never get to that point. But persecution begins with caricature and ridicule. Beliefs portrayed as laughable today are seen as dangerous tomorrow. In our current setting, fundamentalism — ill understood, carelessly defined and broadly described — is the bogeyman in all religions. As a more literalist devotee of the fundamentals of Christianity, my ears burn when my countrymen suggest that following any religion too closely is a fault that may lead to violent behavior. It is a ridiculous perversion of religious freedom to suggest that one may believe as he likes as long as he does believe it too strongly.

It is a strange discussion, I admit. I believe Islam to be a false religion, however it is practiced. I am happy that our Christian foundation has led to an America that tolerates peaceable people of many faiths. The idea that no one can command the conscience of another is a biblical one based on salvation by grace through faith. In America, we may believe as we want and worship (mostly) as we wish. It must be said that this means that we may seek to convert those of other faiths. We may say those things that Scripture says are true about truth, eternity, morality and peace with God. Our relationship with God must not ever be compelled, by any crisis, toward moderation for the sake of political unity. This would be a tyranny as sure and effective as any conceived by the Taliban.
Ledbetter is communications director for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and editor of the Southern Baptist Texan newsmagazine.

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  • Gary Ledbetter