This week, tragedy struck America. By now, the news of fifty murdered patrons of a gay bar in Orlando has circulated throughout the world; the Orlando shooting dominates news websites, social media streams, and the thought of American politicians looking for quick capital gains. Motivations for the attack are not yet fully clear: ISIS has claimed responsibility, the shooter’s father denies religious motivations, President Obama refuses to call it an act of radical Islamic terror. And yet, the ethnic origins of the attacker (son of Afghani immigrants) and the nature of the attack on a gay bar lend credence to the theory that this was a murderous act motivated by political Islam.
Russell Moore has artfully asked the question, “Can we mourn together?” This is a common tragedy on American soil; before posturing about gun control or acting to suppress homophobic tendencies, oughtn’t our corporate reaction be one of grief that fifty human lives were taken? In reading through the different responses to the Orlando shooting, an important connection seems to be missing: Omar Marteen was, in fact, working out the radical implications of Sharia law as demanded by a conservative reading of the Quran, and that this tragedy should force the western world to recognize that Islam does not lead to freedom.
Other scholars (for example, Roger Scruton in his How to Be a Conservative) have noted these connections, and given it a more robust expression than an essay permits. The argument I want to make, however briefly, is this: The Christian underpinnings of grace, freedom, and the importance of individual conscience allow for a culture of freedom; that culture of freedom is worth preserving, and it stands in direct contrast to the culture created by the application of sharia law. I want to first explore how Christianity departs from the ancient near eastern tradition of legal codes, outline where these Christian ideas have influenced the American experiment, and contrast this culture of freedom with modern Islamic countries which follow sharia.
Christianity rests historically on the Jewish legal tradition, yet has always had a difficulty reconciling theological impulses of charity and grace with the demands of Old Testament law. The Old Testament presents the strict legal and moral requirements of YHWH which are intended to map out the specifics of what this God means when he calls Israel to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This specific nation will be one in which evil is not to be tolerated: idolatry, adultery, bestiality, homosexuality, and murder are all spelled out as crimes demanding death. In outlining specific crimes and practices, the Old Testament resembles other strict ancient law codes like the Code of Hammurabi or the Twelve Tables of Roman Law. Such law codes seem shocking to modern readers; penalties often involve public maiming or death. There is a harshness to these laws which has been softened over the centuries, much of which comes from the Christian tradition.
Christianity begins historically in the first century AD, in the context of the Roman Empire. Rome also practiced strict legal enforcement in its territories; violation of Roman law was punishable by death, with the most famous punishment being crucifixion. In reading the New Testament, a different ethos emerges from the writings of the Apostles that oriented the Christian intellectual tradition in a different trajectory. Christian morality will not be focused on a list of do’s and don’ts, but on the right use of the moral freedom purchased on Calvary. During his teaching ministry, Jesus brought this concept up in the Sermon on the Mount, shifting the moral lens from external actions to internal motivations. “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, ‘Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.”
This shift from external actions to internal motivations is furthered by the message Peter received in Acts 10. In a vision, Peter learned that God no longer distinguished between clean foods (permissible to eat) and unclean foods (eating these would pollute the purity of a Jew). Instead, Peter learns that “What God has called clean, you must not call common.” The passage goes on to explain that God extends this grace to all mankind: No longer will God distinguish between Jew and Gentile, but all men may come to Him through the gospel.
In his masterful letter to the church in Rome, Paul adds to this vision of common humanity the replacement of legal codes (like the specific moral demands of the Old Testament) with the importance of the individual conscience. He argues that Christians who have been redeemed and transformed by the saving grace of Christ are not bound by the law, but free to act in accordance with the love of God. When Paul outlines the ethical demands of Christianity, he does so not by listing specific actions that Christians must completely avoid. Instead, he outlines the changed mindset and orientation towards life characterizing the freedom found in Christ. Paul writes:
Love must be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good. Show family affection to one another with brotherly love. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lack diligence; be fervent in spirit; serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Be in agreement with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:9-18).
The Christian ethic, then, is oriented towards freedom. Rather than listing the places Christians can go, the foods they can eat, or the possessions they can have, Paul gives a list of attitudes and virtues that the church should pursue. St. Augustine famously argued that a Christian should “love God and do what [He] want[s].” The Christian is called to live in light of his salvation, and the New Testament points the believer in specific directions, but leaves the working out of salvation in specific contexts to the believer and his conscience.
Over the past 1500 years, these principles have become more and more enshrined in western legal codes. The encouragement of individual freedom is a fascinating thread to study in modern Western history. As church and state become more separated over time, individual freedom becomes a larger emphasis in Western societies.
Christianity marks a shift in Western attitudes from the traditional methods in the Ancient Near East of listing forbidden and permissible actions, and that Christian Europe incorporated an orientation towards freedom within the confines of European Christendom. The flowering of freedom came to fruition in the American experiment.
The Founding Fathers were believers in limited government and self-government. James Madison famously said that the federal experiment would only work with a moral people who could govern themselves. Of course, government still needed to provide ordering functions since men are not angels. The American experiment with a largely self-governing people is an intellectual product of Christian theological convictions that grew out of the writings of the Gospels and the Epistles. Eighteenth-century philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes consciously drew on the mentions Paul makes of the conscience, and these modern philosophers built up individual conviction and the human conscience as foundations of their philosophies. Such ideas manifested themselves in a new nation without an established church and in a vision of a unified nation conceived in diversity. Each state in the United States could, for the most part, determine its own laws and cooperate in the federal vision.
Here is the controversial part of this essay’s argument: This Christian dedication to freedom and to following one’s conscience creates the atmosphere in which homosexuality can exist. Let me be clear: Scripture condemns homosexuality as a sin. And yet the United States has historically been a nation inhabited by Christians of all stripes committed to the biblical concepts of liberty and conscience. Even as the nation has become less Christian over the past fifty years, these commitments, shaped by centuries of Christian conviction and practice, have allowed for an environment in which the Sexual Revolution could occur, eventually leading to a cultural moment where Obergefell could exist.
It is important to contrast this orientation toward freedom and this emphasis on the individual following his conscience (an idea rooted in the Christian intellectual tradition) with the origins and practice of Sharia law, which underpinned Omar Marteen’s attack on a gay bar in Orlando.
In 632 AD, the prophet Mohammed died. Over the previous thirty years, he had formed a group of ragged nomads into an army. Their identity came from the series of divine revelations Mohammed recited, and their leadership instituted a new military expedition to conquer the world for Islam. As the Islamic Empire expanded across North Africa during the eighth century, cities were placed under the legal code Mohammed recited. This strict law code echoed the harshness of the desert. It defined permissible habits, forbidden practices, and cultural norms with the authority of divine revelation. The Quran contains these laws, and they remain the basis for the law codes of modern Saudi Arabia (where women cannot drive), Iran (where any non-conformists are imprisoned, tortured, or killed), and seemingly Western-friendly countries like United Arab Emirates (which just fined a Dutch tourist who reported being date-raped nearly $900 for having extra-marital sexual relations).
The Quran teaches that Allah demands righteousness, and it then proceeds to define that righteousness rigidly. There is no room for different contexts, historical change, or recognizing different ideas of human freedom. At the same time, it is a compelling vision, inspiring adherents with the knowledge that they can participate in Allah’s project of establishing the global Caliphate. It appeals to a superficial sense of justice. We know pornography is wrong; we know adultery is wrong; we know stealing is wrong. Sharia promises to end all of these and replace sinful practices with external righteousness.
It is this theology, philosophy, and dream of cultural change that undergirds the young Islamic terrorist. He longs for a world of righteousness, to fight evil, to bring about anew world order. These hopes took Omar Marteen into a gay bar and prompted him to murder fifty individuals.
Where does that put us as twenty-first century Americans wrestling with this attack on our soil? It should prompt us to three realizations.
First, while as Christians and conservatives we may disagree with homosexual practices on solid grounds, we must defend the equal humanity and human dignity of homosexuals. There is no room for homophobia or for denying their humanity. We have both the Christian tradition and the Western tradition to draw upon to ground our recognition that, regardless of lifestyle choices, we all possess equal human value. The value of another does not come from his agreement with my position or his adoption of a certain creed; instead, he is infinitely precious because he is made in the divine image.
Second, we need to recognize the constitutional responsibilities and freedoms regarding religion. America as a secular state is governed by the Constitution, which guarantees the right to private religious practice, expression, and association. This freedom is a vital one for Americans to uphold as a unique cultural good. And yet, it comes with limitations. America cannot survive unless the different religious identities within her recognize the legitimacy of other religious expressions. An Islam which follows the teachings of Mohammed yet also respects the practices of Christianity, Judaism, and atheism is an Islam which can flourish in America. The majority of cultural and practicing Muslims fit in this category; it is the minority which cannot join in the American experiment. An Islam which operates with murder is not an Islam we can permit within the public square of American life.
Thirdly, we must recognize the intellectual fervor and attraction of radical Islam. There is a strength and beauty to absolute claims; as a college student, I found Roman Catholicism attractive precisely because of its claim to be the correct expression of Christianity grounded in history, theology, and tradition. While I did not embrace that expression of Christianity, I recognize that its argumentative appeal is stronger initially than the Protestantism I embrace. I think the weakest part of Protestantism is its reliance on individuals reading Scripture correctly. In a sense, Catholicism has it easier: The Magisterium removes the possibility of misreading divine writ. And yet I believe that this is the position Scripture calls us to. I raise this example to highlight the strength of Western culture today. In the West, we value a multi-cultural experience unique in human history. That pluralism is both our glory and our shame. Radical Islam looks at the pluralistic West and argues that we have abandoned any adherence to truth, beauty, and goodness beyond materialism. In place of vapid consumerism, radical Islam upholds a coherent theological vision asking men to die for an ultimate Good.
The vision of radical Islam is not compatible with the western world. Christianity and the West are not identical, but in many places they are compatible. Christianity promises a vision of human flourishing which can exist within the secular state; radical Islam demands the death of the secular state and the enshrining of sharia as the public good.
Until we recognize the nature of our cultural enemy, we will continue to misdiagnosis the Omar Marteens of the world. Stronger gun laws will not prevent terror; celebrating gay rights will not stop homophobia; ethnic persecution of Muslims will only increase tragedy. Recovering a firm view of the good, the true, and the beautiful will accomplish two ends: It will give us a cultural ground on which to stand, and it will allow us to recognize that there are those in the world who oppose goodness, truth, and beauty, and that we are called to stand firm against them.
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