A Distinctly American Islam?

We need to establish two facts about Jesus at the start: First, Jesus rejected political power for Himself, while urging obedience to the existing authorities (John 6:14-15). After Jesus miraculously fed thousands, they showed up the next day to make Him king by force. His reaction? He walked away to be by Himself. When people offered Jesus political power, He reacted the same way He did when people wanted to throw Him off a cliff.

Second, Jesus allowed His disciples to leave (John 6:53-67). When His teachings became too hard to understand or apply, some of His followers bolted. His reaction? He watched while they walked away.

Islam does not offer many examples of a Christlike rejection of political power and religious oppression. Unfortunately, Christianity often does not either.

In April of last year, the Pew Research Center published an article entitled “Why Muslims are the world’s fastest-growing religious group.” The opening paragraph sates that “Muslims will grow more than twice as fast as the overall world population between 2010 and 2050 and, in the second half of this century, will likely surpass Christians as the world’s largest religious group.”

The most recent estimates peg the current American Muslim population at around 3.3 million, or one percent of the total population. Pew projects that Islam will overtake Judaism as the second most popular American religion by 2050. Worldwide, Islam now thrives in areas that were historically Christian.

Perhaps the most dramatic example is Turkey. Home to the seven churches in the early chapters of Revelation, Turkey was Christian for 1000 years. Today, Turkey is 98% Muslim. Given the ongoing spread of Islam in America, what does the future hold for American Christianity? Should American Christians be scared of Islam?

In order understand the present, we need to understand the past. The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. The first amendment guarantees Americans liberty of conscience, the freedom to worship – or not worship – as they see fit:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Most third graders can tell you that America was founded when Puritans fled persecution in England and wanted to establish a free place to worship. Funny hats, Native Americans, Thanksgiving and turkeys and all that stuff.

But how many people realize the extent of religious oppression that took place in the American Colonies prior to the Revolutionary War? I’m writing as a Baptist, and I’m proud of the role that Baptists played in the creation of American religious liberty as we know it. For a much deeper look into this subject, I would direct you to Louis Asher’s 1997 biography of John Clarke (1609-1676).

Very early in its establishment, the Massachusetts colony legislated both civil and religious obedience; the secular and ecclesiastical arms became inseparable. The colony of Massachusetts General Court ruled in 1631 that membership in a church of the Bay area was prerequisite to full rights of citizenship” (Asher).

The Puritans wanted to reform the Church of England from within. They still considered themselves to be Anglicans, calling it the Mother Church. They were centered in Boston, starting in around 1628. The Pilgrims wanted to reform the church from outside. They left England first for Holland because of persecution by Queen Elizabeth I, and then came to Plymouth Rock in 1620.

Baptists suffered greatly at the hands of the theocratic leadership of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Thoroughly Puritan, they were violently oppressive of divergent theologies held by Quakers, Baptists and other dissenters. It is ironic that the same Puritans who had fled religious persecution in England practiced religious persecution of others once they had control in New England.

Dr. John Clarke was a Cambridge-educated physician and Baptist pastor who voluntarily left Massachusetts in about 1637 to help start a new colony where people could be free to worship as they pleased… or not worship at all. That colony became Rhode Island. Dr. John Clarke founded a religiously free colony 154 years before the ratification of the Bill of Rights.

That’s the same amount of time that has passed from the Civil War to today. In Rhode Island, Baptists were instrumental in the establishment of religious liberty long before the Bill of Rights. Baptists were fighting for freedom of conscience 100 years before James Madison (author of the Bill of Rights) was even born.

In Rhode Island, people were free to be Baptists,  Quakers or atheists. They were free to observe the Sabbath by going to church, or ignore it by plowing their fields. Such was not the case in Puritan Massachusetts. Baptists were instrumental in creating and preserving liberty of conscience, even for those who did not agree with them.

On July 16, 1651, Baptist pastors Dr. John Clarke and Obadiah Holmes, along with Deacon John Crandall, traveled 80 miles from Newport, Rhode Island to Lynn, Massachusetts. They went to assist one of their elderly church members who had lost his sight. The Baptists stayed over until the next Sunday, and Dr. Clarke preached to a small crowd who gathered at the house.

While Dr. Clarke was preaching, two constables entered the house and arrested the three Baptists. On their way back to Boston, the constables forced them to attend a worship service in a Puritan church. When the constables brought the Baptists in, the Baptists refused to remove their hats. They were charged with conducting a private religious service, wearing hats in a Puritan church service, denying the legitimacy of the Puritan church, and attempting to convert people from Puritan theology to Baptist theology.

They were all found guilty. Dr. Clarke’s sentence was a fine of 20 pounds, or to be publicly whipped and kept in prison until the fine was paid. Rev. Holmes was fined 30 pounds or lashes. The deacon was only fined five pounds. An anonymous donor paid Dr. Clarke’s fine and he was released on August 11th. Someone also offered to pay the fine for Rev. Holmes as well, but he refused and chose to be whipped instead.

Rev. Holmes was marched to Boston Common and received 90 stripes. Two bystanders named approached him and shook his. They were arrested and fined for giving comfort to a lawbreaker. One of them died shortly afterward.

Think about that for a minute. The Puritan government of Boston was so oppressive that it whipped a Baptist preacher for not taking off his hat in a Puritan worship service, and then jailed two bystanders for even shaking his hand.

For you trivia buffs, Henry Dunster privately owned the first printing press in America. He was also the first president of Harvard College, and in Boston Common the day that Obadiah Holmes was flogged for being a Baptist in Massachusetts.

Harvard had been formed in 1636, by the same Puritan court that demanded Puritan church membership in the colony. In fact, Harvard was originally a seminary for Puritan ministers. After watching the flogging of Rev. Holmes, Dunster eventually publicly identified himself as a Baptist. He refused to allow his child to be baptized and was forced to resign his position at Harvard in 1654. He went on to found the First Baptist Church of Boston.

Here’s the deal: If you were Jewish, atheist, Baptist or Muslim in Boston in the 1600s, you were out of luck. That’s why it was such a big deal that our founding fathers codified freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights in the 1700s. Before that, it was not a given that America would be a religiously tolerant place.

America was not founded to be a Christian nation; it was founded to be a free nation, whose citizens have historically been Christian.

European Christians were often jerks who viciously oppressed dissenters and heretics. William Tyndale was the first to translate the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew into English. In 1536, the theocracy of England convicted him of heresy and strangled him before burning him at the stake. His crime? Translating the word of God into everyday language that regular people could read.

What does any of this have to do with present or future Islam in America? If you were a religious dissenter in England in the early 17th century, you would have longed for religious liberty. You can’t get much more un-Christian than strangling and burning somebody for translating the Bible into everyday language.

When those dissenters fled to America, they were initially just as intolerant as the theocracy they had fled in England. But over the next century, American Christians figured out how to craft something uniquely American: religious liberty. By the dawn of the 19th century, religious liberty was part of the American way of life.

Theocracies are bad. Christian theocracies were bad in 16th century England and in 17th century New England. They’re bad now in Sunni Islamic Saudi Arabia and Shia Islamic Iran. Our founding fathers had their issues, but they understood the dangers of established church-state religions, and they wanted no part of state religion here.

I routinely hear Christians today expressing concern about the growth of Islam in America. Their fear plays into the hands of politicians who exploit those fears for their own personal aggrandizement. But I want to propose something that may lessen those fears.

Looking back on English (and even American) Christianity of the past several hundred years is ugly. Jesus surely looked down in horror at the things that “Christians” did in His name. Jesus said that His followers would suffer, not that they would inflict suffering. Instead, the Christian church prostituted itself with state, and their illegitimate child was a spoiled, intolerant brat.

Love for Christ and love for one another as human beings made in the image of God was overshadowed by deeply corrupt avarice, both political and financial. In more recent history, Southern “Christians” perpetuated a system of slavery (and later segregation) that was antithetical to the heart of the gospel. They oppressed because they could, and they did it under the guise of religion.

Religious liberty eventually won out. The Christianity that ultimately took shape in America was fundamentally different from what England and greater Europe had known. After centuries of oppression and corruption, American Christianity was different; it was free. Once divorced from political power, a purer form of Christianity has thrived for generations in America.

For the most part, majority-Muslim countries today are not religiously diverse or tolerant of dissenting theologies. But what if there is a chance in America for a distinctly American Islam to flourish? If American Christianity could turn the tide of centuries of perverse Colonial American and European quasi-Christianity, then why can’t American Islam do the same?

I have fundamental theological differences with Islam. As a Christian, I affirm that Jesus was the Son of God in the flesh, that He died for my sins, was buried in a tomb, and was resurrected on the third day, and that He lives and is returning someday. I do not believe Islamic theology concerning Jesus or how all things will eventually come to an end. But I believe that Muslims have a right to immigrate to America and to practice their religion in America. They do not have a right to establish Sharia law to supplant American law.

Just as American Christians founded a uniquely free place, I hope and pray that American Muslims continue to reject the perverse theocratic oppression of their brothers around the world, and that they embrace the American ideal of freedom of conscience.