is interesting, informative, and worth a watch or listen. Even the fact that such dialogues are happening today speaks to the happenings of our time.
However, it is frustrating that such interfaith discussions tend to degenerate into mere earthly-focused political chats which nearly disregard the whole premise of religion–that the supernatural grounds the natural. It is helpful to hear what heaven has to speak to earth; it is boring to bear with lips waxing eloquent on what earth wants to speak to heaven. Such talks will not be worth their salt until the supernatural comes into its own.
So far I have not found any official statements from the Vatican or other Roman Catholic sources regarding Fitna. If the Vatican’s past action of condemning the offensive Danish cartoons is any indicator, perhaps we should expect an official Vatican condemnation of Fitna soon. However, Vatican’s slow response may involve continued tensions in Vatican-Muslim relations due to Magdi Allam’s Easter baptism.
Ongoing Natural Law Tensions Perhaps Slowing Positive Momentum
Nayed’s condemnation received a rebuttal by Father Federico Lombardi, who reiterated the Vatican’s commitment to continuing the A Common Word dialog while at the same time re-stating the Pope’s arguments regarding Islam’s failure to navigate the church-state relationship in a post-Enlightenment world. (See Pope Benedict’s 2006 speech for his Enlightenment critique of Islam.) Speaking of the Vatican’s response to Nayed, Jeff Israely writes for Time.com:
Nonetheless, Allam’s public conversion is another reminder that the Vatican is not shying away from the more prickly questions in its complicated relations with Islam. Benedict has made what he calls a “frank” public conversation with the Muslim world a high priority of his papacy, arguing that Islam should address the violent minority within its ranks by incorporating the theories of “natural law” the way Christianity did with the Western ideas of the Enlightenment (A Muslim Critic Turns Catholic by Jeff Israely).
Thus, the differences between Roman Catholicism’s view of human rights as grounded in the Thomistic nature-grace dichotomy (and natural law theory) and Islam’s failure to distinguish church and state is thrust once again to the forefront of the Vatican’s relations with Islam.
In view of the situation that has arisen because of the film of Mr. Wilders, the executive leaders of the CMO, CGI and PCN felt it necessary to again meet and come to further agreements. The general secretary of the Council of Churches in the Netherlands also attended this consultation. The outcome of this consultation was the decision to jointly visit a number of Islamic countries, to show that the relations between Muslims and Christians in the Netherlands are good, and to explain that the churches strongly reject contempt for another person’s religion. The statements of Mr. Wilders show that his intention is to drive a wedge between the Islamic community and the rest of Dutch society.
As Muslims and Christians, we are convinced that, in these complex times, we have the task of building bridges, overcoming distrust and combining our efforts for justice and peace. The chief purpose of the visit is to draw attention to the fact that the majority of the Dutch people reject the insulting of Islam. (Quoted from the Declaration.)
Protestant Responses Outside the Netherlands
Netherlands churches were not the only Protestant groups to issue official statements condemning Fitna as bigoted propaganda. In another preemptive Protestant effort, the Council of Churches in Indonesia sought a ban on Wilders’ film. Likewise, in February of this year the World Council of Churches (WCC) issued a brief statement echoing “concern expressed in the Netherlands and in other parts of the world following rumours of the release of a film against the Qur’an by a Dutch member of parliament.” These statements make clear that the worldwide Christian community is starting to distinguish, at least on paper (if not yet in practice in local communities), between political propaganda (i.e. blatant attempts to stir up “Islamophobia”) and the actual faith and practice of the Muslims who live next door.
By reporting these official responses from the likes of the WCC I do not intend to give an unqualified affirmation that either (a) the WCC speaks for all Protestants (i.e. the WCC is not the “Protestant Pope”) or (b) that the WCC response represents a monolithic Protestant stance. The full spectrum of the Christian response needs to be filled out a little more.
As I mentioned in the introduction to part 2, I surveyed briefly international political responses to Fitna in order to draw a comparison between the ambivalent political response and the Christian world’s response. Accordingly, in my next post I will examine a bit of the “unofficial” Protestant response with the goal of filling out the Christian response picture more completely before drawing the concluding comparison.
In part 1 I simply set the context for discussing Geert Wilders’ Fitna film by briefly explaining its origins and purpose. Now in part 2 I will briefly survey Fitna’s international political fallout in order to set up a comparison between political and religious responses to Fitna in part 3.
Ambivalent International Political Reaction to Fitna
Media attention prior to Fitna‘s release expected a violent aftermath upon the film’s debut. For example, this pre-Fitna CNN interview with Wilders anticipates international outrage:
Since Fitna’s internet debut last Thursday, two general responses are apparent among both political laymen and leaders: (a) either downplaying the film as insignificant, or (b) strongly condemning the film as a bigoted straw man.
(a) Downplaying Fitna
Those who seek to downplay Fitna claim that the pressurized hype has deflated into a collective political shrug, as if to say, “Yeah, yeah, Wilders, we’ve seen this all before.” This general “shrug feeling” among both Muslims and non-Muslims can be seen in reports such as:
These “shrug” reports make Fitna out to be just one more of the same old tired argument against radical Islam. And perhaps this is the general feeling among more progressive Muslims and Westerners living in countries which are not experiencing Islamization to as high a degree as Europeans. However, not everyone is shrugging, and the strong worldwide political condemnations against the Fitna film along with anti-Fitna protests should not go unnoticed. For example:
And Mid-East Strategy at Harvard blogger Josef Joffee writes a cautious “so far so good,” pointing out that historical precedent should inform us that we are not yet free from the threat of violent reactions against Fitna.
Ambivalence Reveals Continued Underlying Cultural and Political Tension in Europe over Islamization
The distance between the “shrug” responses and the strong condemnations is evidence of the continuing underlying tension in Europe’s political reaction to Islamization. Project Fikra director J. Scott Carpenter describes this tension as “a deep ambivalence about the cultural drift taking place within Dutch and broader European society, and the fact that too few people are reflecting on what it means.” Carpenter continues:
Whether it’s the Dutch foreign minister stating explicitly that Islamic culture will become part of Dutch culture, or the Archbishop of Canterbury stating that Sharia should be made part of British common law, there is the sense that European leaders are simply surrendering to political correctness without asking basic questions about what it is to be Dutch, British, European or—for that matter—Muslim. (Source: “Overcoming ‘Fitna‘” by Scott Carpenter.)
But the Tensions Run Deeper: Human Dignity and Metaphysics
Carpenter’s astute political observations lead into more profound, fundamental (dare I say “religious”) questions surrounding Fitna specifically and Christian-Muslim relations broadly, questions that go beyond the immanent realm of politics to the transcendent realm of human dignity and, ultimately, metaphysics.
This overlapping between the metaphysical (religious) realm and the political realm is unavoidable. Notice, for example, when Carpenter observes that underlying questions of identity are involved with Europe’s Islamization tensions (i.e. What does it mean to be Dutch, British, European), the religious question cannot be avoided (What does it mean to be Muslim?). Further, when one begins down the road of identity questioning, one cannot help but to arrive at the ultimate destination of human dignity: What does it mean to be human?
I want to unpack this overlapping realms idea further, but first, in part 3, we need to survey the religious responses to Fitna.
Fitna, the Arabic word loosely translated “division,” “strife,” or “dissension” (with a religious connotation) is the title of Dutch politician Geert Wilder’s extremely controversial film which antagonizes against European islamization, especially in the Netherlands. See the International Herald Tribune’s Dutch lawmaker releases anti-Quran film for a brief news-media report about the film and the ensuing international response.
Fitna and Christian-Muslim Relations
I am not a political blogger, and I do not write this post for political purposes. Rather, my interest in Fitna arises from my current research into Christian-Muslim relations, especially the recent A Common Word initiative. Accordingly, I’m exploring this issue from the perspective that American Christians need to consider how political films such as Fitna (and media portrayals of Islam in general) impact both individual Christians’ and the institutional church’s views of Muslims in America.
Watch Geert Wilders’ Film
Fitna was published online on 27 March 2008. Due to death threats, the film was removed from its originalsources. However, Fitna is now available on multiple servers such as the following two:
(Warning! This film is very graphic in nature.)
What Has Fitna to do with Christian Faith?
Stay tuned as I plan on following up with further posts, including:
a brief overview of the international political reaction to Fitna,
with an eye to how such political reactions influence the international religious response to Fitna,
and suggestions on what ethical factors American Christians ought to be thinking about in pursuit of a thoroughly Christian response to Fitna in our American context.
Daryl Hart delights in thought-provoking ironies. Recovering Mother Kirk had us Christians looking into the apparent paradox of “high church Calvinism” as a liturgical way of life. A Secular Faith now invites us to become “Christian secularists” (p. 15) when it comes to politics. Both books hold in common a robust, classic, historic Protestant doctrine of the spirituality of the church, an ecclesiology that maintains a distinction between the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven and the keys to the local polis. Accordingly, both books overlap somewhat in the topics covered, but from very different starting points (ecclesiology and politics, respectively). So, you can expect to read about (explicitly and implicitly):
natural law, providence, and common grace,
eschatology and the Kingdom of God (spirituality of the church; two-kingdoms theory)
special office and common vocation,
neo-Calvinistic transformationalism, fundamentalism, and Evangelicalism,
and American religious history.
Hart’s premise in A Secular Faith is that “…Christianity in its classic formulations, especially the Protestant traditions of Lutheran, Reformed and Anglican, has very little to say about politics or the ordering of society” (p. 10). He quickly adds as the next sentence, however, “This does not mean that Christianity has nothing to say.” And so one enters the heart of Hart’s book by wrestling with the perennially debated question, What does historic, orthodox Christianity say and not say about American politics (or politics in general, for that matter)?
Hart takes a unique starting point in this debate, giving him a unique, colorful, and provoking voice:
Instead of asking what role is permissible for Christians and their religious institutions in a liberal democracy, this book begins with a very different question: What does Christianity require of its adherents politically? … My argument is that the basic teachings of Christianity are virtually useless for resolving America’s political disputes, thus significantly reducing, if not eliminating, the dilemma of how to relate Christianity and American politics (p. 11).
Furthermore, Hart states strongly, “…efforts to use Christianity for public or political ends fundamentally distort the Christian religion because it is essentially an otherworldly faith” (p. 16). But, recognizing that he is dissenting from Jerry Falwell, Jim Wallis, and “much more significant church luminaries, from parts of John Calvin to the encyclicals of John Paul II,” Hart wants his arguments to be taken as “more suggestive than assertive” (pp. 16-17). Thus, this reader takes Hart’s call to become a “Christian secularist” as sort of tongue-in-cheek, but the kind of irony that is designed to make you think twice about one’s own understanding of how ecclesiology and politics ought to interface.
No matter if you are a right-wing Moral Majority fan, a left-wing evangelical emergent, or a staunch confessionalist, Daryl Hart will make you take a hard look at the implications of Jesus’ words in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world.” If nothing else, this book is a welcome challenge to the controlling tacit assumption permeating much evangelical thought that the state is an instrument of divine redemption.
In this essay Hart examines the Christian attitudes of America’s founding by looking at John Winthrop’s famous 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” as it is often understood to exemplify the Puritan post-millennial influence upon America’s founding. Hart concludes that up until the Civil War’s devastations, “The mix of biblical teaching, republican politics, and technological innovation was indeed a potent elixir that turned otherwise sober Protestants tipsy with vision of American as novus ordo seclorum” (p. 32). In other words, many early American Protestants saw themselves as having divine sanction to bring God’s heavenly kingdom to earth through building America.
After the Civil War, Protestant post-millennial optimism turned to pessimism with the rise of Dispensational pre-millennialism’s disparaging downward spiral eschatology.
Chapter 2: Whose Freedom, Which Liberty?
Chapter 2 explores the nature of religious freedom, arguing that from its inception American Evangelicalism has oddly sought political expression of its spiritual beliefs even though the Gospel offers spiritual, not political redemption.
Chapter 3: For Goodness’ Sake
This chapter argues that Christianity’s spiritual moral virtue is of a different order than the civic virtue that American founders claimed as necessary for supporting a free republic; however, this distinction between spiritual and civic freedom has been mostly ignored in the history of America’s “Christianized” politics. Rather, American Protestants tend to think that Christian freedom is the same as civic freedom.
Though Hart explains spiritual freedom in the chapter, it would have been helpful to have an explanation for “civic virtue” as well (especially as this phrase is used on the last sentence on p. 97).
Chapter 4: Under God
Using the phrase “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance as his metaphor, Hart examines American Protestants’ view of the Kingdom of God. Of the first 4 chapters, chapter 4 most clearly puts forth theological reasons supporting Hart’s Christian secularism/two-kingdoms argument. (See, for example, Hart’s exegesis of Stuart Robinson’s (1814-1881) book, The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel, pp. 116ff.)
The heart of Hart’s argument is that there exists a subtle distinction between the Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Christ (p. 117). Although Christians who have held to this distinction have always been in the minority in America (p. 119), this minority view offers a sound “middle way” between attempts to Christianize politics or to politicize Christianity. By keeping the ends of the church and state distinct, Americans can avoid the degeneration to both Christianity and politics that occurs when they are mixed. Seeking divine blessing for one’s own political policies confuses the purposes of the church and the state and inevitably solves very few political problems (p. 122).
What would be helpful for Hart’s argument, and what he has not yet provided, is explicit exegetical and theological support. His historical arguments are thus intriguing and piquing my interest in his way to look at the church-state relation question, but historical examples alone are not fully convincing. Furthermore, his reasoning is starting to sound repetitive at this point in the book: Mixing the goals of Christianity and politics rather than distinguishing their scope and ends is problematic. Historical figure X mixed Christianity and politics. Therefore, historical figure X caused problems….
Chapter 5: The People’s Faith
Hart argues in this chapter that the 19th century advent of revivalism and the influx of Roman Catholicism combined to transform America’s historic Christianity into “democratized Christianity.” The distinctives of this new Christianity are: anti-creedalism, anti-clericalism, and anti-traditionalism (pp. 130-131). Hart points out a reoccurring assumption in American thought that has gone unchallenged: namely, that liberal democracy is the divinely-revealed form of government, or is at least the form most suitable for Christianity (p. 141). In other words, “…more often than not American Protestants have felt compelled to defend democracy under a veneer of Christian devotion” (p. 152). This mixture, according to Hart, damages the integrities of both church and state.
Picking up on my critique from chapter 4, in chapter 5 it would have been nice to have claims, such as the following one, substantiated: “…Scripture’s teaching on human dignity is fundamentally different from the premise assumed by modern democratic theory” (p. 152). What are the premises, and in what ways are they different?
Chapter 8: The Dilemma of Compassionate Conservatism
I liked this chapter the best so far, perhaps because it deals with contemporary evangelical engagement in politics and current political issues such as charitable choice. (Not too many years ago I served as a summer intern in the congressional office of a prominent conservative politician, which gave me at least a small measure of an “insider’s” perspective to these issues.)
The dilemma Hart targets here is how government-sponsored “faith-based” initiatives violate both the First Amendment and Christian doctrine. The root problem to this dilemma, in Hart’s estimation, is that Protestants have not stopped to ask “whether Christ and the apostles intended the church to be an agency of social transformation” (p. 238; compare p. 213).
In order to show from whence comes evangelicalism’s social action assumption–that the church has a divine duty to be an agent of social transformation–Hart traces the “dramatic shift within post-World War II evangelicalism over the church’s involvement with national politics” (p. 227). This “fairly remarkable” shift from right-wing social conservatism to left-wing social policy that occurred between 1950-2000 (p. 216) can be seen by evaluating the following evangelical personalities and institutions:
Carl F. H. Henry and Billy Graham represent evangelicalism’s “cautious intervention” (p. 218). Hart points to Henry’s 1947 book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, as an example of an evangelical argument for reserved social engagement by individual Christians. Henry warned Christians not to lose sight of the church’s essential evangelistic role as these Christians pursued social transformation. Hart also points to Billy Graham’s view as fairly similar to Henry’s, the former urging Christians to rejoice in social transformation while not neglecting the necessity of Christian evangelism.
The younger evangelicals, however, were not content with this cautious, conservative approach. Thus evangelicalism’s attitude become more socially aggressive (i.e. started moving leftward, politically), as is evident in the 1973 Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern(scroll to the bottom to read the declaration) produced by the Evangelicals for Social Action. The younger evangelicals, like their Social Gospel forebearers, re-defined the kingdom of God in terms of social involvement, proclaiming that all Christians have a divine mandate to promote “social righteousness,” an idea borrowed from older liberalism’s Social Gospel (p. 219).
Hart argues that evangelicalism’s leftward sliding was furthered by leftist evangelicals such as Ron Sider and his 1977 book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, and Jim Wallis, who in 1976 published Agenda for a Biblical People. However, in an ironic twist, Hart shows that the Ronald Reagan evangelical right-wingers borrowed the logic of these evangelical lefties in order to justify the right’s Moral Majority.
What happened in the 90s, Hart contends, is that Marvin Olasky capitalized on this leftist logic of Christianized social involvement with his idea of “Compassionate Conservatism,” which then served as the impetus for George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative. As his final piece of evidence that the evangelical right is capitalizing on the leftward logic, Hart points to the National Association of Evangelicals‘ 2005 statement, “For the Health of the Nation,” an attempt to provide an evangelical approach to public policy (p. 225) by blurring the lines between church and state (p. 227).
The dilemma, then, of mixing church and state becomes a religious tragedy. For, in Hart’s words, religious conservatives have, in the name of the love of neighbor, lost sight of their love to God (p. 239).
Chapter 9: A Secular Faith
In this concluding chapter Hart attempts to take the negative edge off of the word “secular” by showing how, historically, “secular” is a Christian eschatological concept that refers to the present evil age (as opposed to the eternal heavenly age). The Christian concept of “secular” was originally stated by Augustine in his City of God, developed and re-stated by Pope Gelasius I with his “two swords” concept, and clarified further by Marsilius of Padua in his Defensor Pacis. (p. 245).
Hart argues that one of the main reasons why Christians have lost this historical idea of Christian secularism is the anachronistic notion that culture always flows out of cult. From the perspective of redemptive-history, this idea is anachronistic in that it uses terms of thinking proper to theocratic Israel (and similar to Islam’s conception of church-state relations) wherein cult and culture are one and the same. However, in the New Covenant, cult and culture are appropriately distinguished since (a) the church is the New Testament fulfillment of Israel’s typology; (b) the Gospel is to extend to all nations, all peoples, and all cultures, and as such is not tied to geography or cultural mores; (c) Jesus’ statements such as “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36) and “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:21) clearly show that Jesus was neither a politician nor a political revolutionary.
Even though I am sympathetic to Hart’s line of reasoning, I am unsatisfied by his formulation on p. 250, in which he makes the (overstated?/unclear?) claim: “just as human investigation into the arts and sciences may be a human activity distinct from forms of religious devotion and in no way dependent on faith, so too political endeavor may not relate directly to piety” (emphasis added). I think the “in no way dependent on faith” part needs to be qualified a bit.
Perhaps this is why Hart states a few pages later that “Christians may fruitfully participate in public life not as a site of redemption but as an essential part of their humanity” (p. 257; emphasis added). One of the distinctions I’m after, which Hart would undoubtedly agree with as he hints at it in this quote, is that although politics is not, on the terms of Christian secularism, a redemptive task dependent upon faith in Christ as redeemer according to special revelation, insofar as general revelation (to which Christian secularism looks for grounding politics in natural law) is God’s revelation, a measure of faith is required. Upon the Christian worldview there is an important broad sense in which knowledge of anything is dependent upon faith in God as the creator and sustainer of everything, even as God sustains the natural order and human life so that activities such as politics are possible.