Bill Maher backs me up. I’m not Islamophobic; I’m trying to tell the truth and understand what happened last week. A reader chimes in:
Here’s a quote from Tocqueville, in Democracy in America:
Muhammad brought down from heaven and put into the Koran not religious doctrines only, but political maxims, criminal and civil laws, and scientific theories. The Gospels, on the other hand, deal only with the general relations between man and God and between man and man. Beyond that, they teach nothing and do not oblige people to believe anything. That alone, among a thousand reasons, is enough to show that Islam will not be able to hold its power long in ages of enlightenment and democracy, while Christianity is destined to reign in such ages, as in all others.
This is a parallel point to the question of violence, or at least Tocqueville is not directly addressing the issue of violence, but it’s not hard to make the connection. Politics is a realm of coercion; the state has a monopoly on violence, as we’re taught in introductory political science courses. Jesus opts out of that whole system. He never sought political power. He never was a law-giver. He founded no political regime. He claimed no direct authority over any land or people. Indeed, he was sacrificed at the hands of the reigning political power.
Tocqueville’s point is that because Jesus was in this sense apolitical (along with not pronouncing on matters of science), Christianity has no intrinsic reason to be in conflict with modernity.
Because Jesus laid down no precise pattern for political order, it need not fear the coming of democracy. Because Jesus taught love, rather than scientific theories, nothing Jesus said contradicts what we know through the advance of science. Followers of Jesus, for Tocqueville, can adapt, can engage the age in which they live with a certain openness, rather than hunker down with rage and suspicion. He thought that this wasn’t the case for Islam, not because it was intrinsically violent (neither he nor you are arguing for that) but because the circumstances of Islam’s founding set in motion certain problems that were bound to be exacerbated by modernity.
It always is difficult, even foolish, to draw a straight line from the origins of a religious tradition to contemporary events. But it also is a mistake to pretend a religion’s point of departure matters not at all. For Christians, however hypocritically or poorly they follow Jesus, the witness of Jesus in the Gospels really is a rebuke to violence and political striving. It always is there as a corrective, and throughout Church history, however corrupt Christian institutions have become, Jesus’s life has inspired movements of renewal and repentance. That is worth noting, as you have. It’s not entirely clear such an unambiguous witness from Islam’s founder exists to perform the same function.
That’s putting it diplomatically.