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Mosque meltdown: God v. country

Supporters demonstrating in favor of an Islamic prayer center near New York's World Trade Center site. Credit: David Shankbone

The other day someone asked, “Why didn’t you write something on the Ground Zero Mosque thing?” It sounded as if he was going to go on to say, “Everyone else did,” which would have been part of the answer to his question.

As that controversy boiled, I happened to be reading Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power by the philosopher Josef Pieper. At one point, Pieper makes the observation that, “The place of authentic reality is being taken over by infectious reality.” Pieper’s phrase, “infectious reality,” struck a chord.

Here’s more Pieper: “It is entirely possible that the true and authentic reality is being drowned out by the countless superficial information bits, noisily and breathlessly presented in propaganda fashion.”

Pieper actually wrote this pre-Internet. The Internet has exponentially increased the rapid and relentless spread of “infectious reality,” which is only tangentially related to authentic reality. Particularly successful communication is now described as a sort of epidemic, a story or video is said to have “gone viral.” What’s the inoculation against this virus? Do we have adequate supplies?

The Mosque story, of course, does raise some important questions. And yet the story was an instance of infectious reality overtaking authentic reality.

Moreover, it seemed to me this was a story principally designed to inflame the Culture Wars and galvanize their legions. I resist being conscripted in that war. I resist it because the Culture Wars, like some other wars, seem trumped up, based on faulty intelligence, and designed to bring power and wealth to the few and despair to the many, all the while not solving any actual problems.

I was heartened to read those who wondered which was the better analogy for this story: Was the Ground Zero Mosque this summer’s version of last year’s “Death Panels?” Or was it more like the “Balloon Boy?” (Remember him?) Those comparisons suggest we’re becoming more aware of the way that both media and politicians manipulate us by spreading “infectious reality.” They release a little highly contagious bacteria and sit back to watch.

In mid-August Ross Douthat, a conservative-leaning op-ed writer for The New York Times, tried to locate a middle-ground position on the mosque issue. In a column titled “Islam and the Two Americas” (Aug. 16), Douthat argued that there were two legitimate schools of thought at work — or in conflict — here. One, the religious liberty school, emphasizes freedom of religion. The other Douthat dubbed “cultural assimilation.” This perspective asks newcomers to adopt American culture, language, and values. That struck me as an interesting framing of the issue. Douthat’s column aroused relentless attack from the liberal side, for it seemed to credit people like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich.

In truth, the question of how a religion relates to its host culture is a significant, and often vexing, one. That Christianity in America doesn’t more often find itself in tension with national policies and values may not be something Christians should feel particularly proud of.

All too often being Christian and being American are simply equated. Personally, I’ve always admired and appreciated those Christians who are not so assimilated to American norms, for example the Amish and the Mennonites. They remind us, as do Christians the world over, that “Christian” does not equal “American.” When I taught in Canada recently I found Canadian Christians particularly emphatic and sensitive on this point.

How a religious group manages its relationship to the nation and culture around it is a tricky business. Early Christians sought to be in but not of the world, which in their case meant the Roman Empire. They thought of themselves as “resident aliens” and claimed Christians should aspire to such a status. Being resident aliens meant residing in a place, taking part in its life, and contributing, but not totally belonging to it nor completely fitting in or assimilating. Their true home lay elsewhere. It would be an understatement to say that Roman officials did not always appreciate this position.

In the wake of 9/11, many Americans returned to churches whose doors they had not entered in years, sometimes decades. Some of those driven back by the trauma of the attacks were shocked to find that there was no longer an American flag displayed in the church sanctuary. They assumed that nation and church were one and indivisible and that an American flag was a liturgical symbol as surely as the cross.

But in the 20 or 30 years they had been absent, at least some clergy and congregations had been busy trying to sort out the relationship between church and nation. One frequent outcome has been symbolic (which is not a word for “unimportant” or “unreal”): American flags were taken out of some sanctuaries, sometimes removed from churches entirely, sometimes relocated to fellowship halls that are used for civic purpose and events.

Nor is this unique to America or our moment in history. At the time of the Crusades, soldiers were baptized before setting off to the wars. Many were immersed with one exception: They extended their sword arm, keeping it from the baptismal waters so that they might be free to use it to kill. Sounds crazy. But we moderns, too, have been known to be pretty effective at compartmentalizing our professed values, limiting them to parts of our lives.

What do religious people owe to their faith and to their God? What do they, as citizens, owe to their nation? What happens when the two loyalties conflict? How will, and should, this play out for Muslims in America? What do Muslims owe this country and what do they owe their faith?

But instead of laying such questions at the door of American Muslims alone, let Christians, Buddhists, and Jews struggle with them as well.

This strikes me as a conversation worth having. On one hand, a nation has a right to expect certain forms of allegiance and participation from sub-groups like religions. But on the other, part of the virtue of religion can be that it embodies values that transcend and challenge a society. Wouldn’t it be great to hear religious leaders of all faiths, as well as civic leaders, wrestling with and addressing such questions?

But such important issues are lost amid the world of “infectious reality.” We choose up sides: for the Mosque or against it. We battle it out and think we’ve done something. No middle ground, no reframing, allowed in the world of viral, infectious reality. I was a CO (“Conscientious Objector”) during the Vietnam War. I guess I’m still one — a CO amid the Culture War.

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