What’s your reaction to President Obama’s recent statements to the Muslim world that “the United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam” and that “we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation”?
President Obama’s claims about both America’s relationship with the global Muslim community, and the extent to which we are not a “Christian nation”, are partial truths which express a hope more than a reality. I share the President’s hopes, and appreciate the utility of aspirational rhetoric in public, but it needs to be tempered with a fuller statement of the challenges we face both abroad and at home, at least in more reflective spaces such as this.
Of course the President is correct that the vast majority of Americans do not favor a return to the Crusades of centuries past. In fact, many more of us would fight to keep that from happening that would march off on that kind of Crusade.
America is not at war with any religion, including Islam. But the President’s over-simplification of the situation cost him a valuable opportunity to address the real struggles we do face with any people that attempts to use religion to dominate those who do not share their beliefs. And about that, there is a real war going on in the world – with bullets abroad and words (mostly) at home.
The truth is that there are multiple and competing understandings of what it means to be a Christian nation — understandings which shape an ongoing culture war in this country and about which we ought not to be complacent. Many Americans do believe that they are “losing their country”, and are increasingly belligerent in their fight to hold on to it.
These folks feel the loss of the culture dominance long-held by a white, protestant majority which celebrated not only the theological roots of our nation’s founding, but their own ability to practice what Tocqueville called the tyranny of the majority i.e. not only have their way, but expect all those who differ from them to become increasingly like them. They are correct about losing that kind of dominance.
Because our contemporary culture warriors are so angry, and feel that their backs are already to the wall at home, they are quickest to declare that we are in fact at war with Islam. Ignoring them or pretending that they are part of some fringe minority strikes me as a poor idea. It’s also a claim that probably does not make a great deal of sense to most Muslims around the world.
Even those Muslims who are relatively secular in terms of personal practice, proudly proclaim the Muslim nature of their nations. So it might be more helpful for the President to explain to the world how we are, in certain respects, a Christian nation, not simply declare that we are not. This would address both the ongoing debate at home and stake a powerful claim for a redefinition of what it means to be a Christian nation, while teaching a powerful lesson to the rest of the world.
The president had the opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to acknowledging the religion of the majority of our citizens without slipping into the kind of cultural/religious hegemony so common in much of the Muslim world and sometimes right here in America. I don’t know if that makes a Christian nation or not. But I am certain that it’s a perspective which needs to be nurtured in all places, and it would be good to see President Obama make use of every opportunity to do so.