September 8, 2010

Religious tolerance -- eroding everywhere?

by Larry Miller

In the past several days, we’ve received a few forwarded e-mail messages with dire warnings about Muslims. The mail comes from friends and relatives alike.

Much of it is based on seemingly scholarly work attributed to one Dr. Peter Hammond.

A bit of research reveals that Dr. Hammond is founder of the “Frontline Fellowship” in Cape Town, South Africa. Its purpose is to “glorify God” and expose the “strategies and ideologies of evil.” Listed priorities include “working for Reformation and praying for Revival.”

As something of a conservative curmudgeon, my interest was piqued by their trove of literature about the Great Reformation – from the bloody Crusades and John Calvin to Oliver Cromwell and Martin Luther. Frontline Fellowship’s library is replete with books, CDs and DVDs focusing on the Reformation. And the clear message on its web site is that there needs to be a religious reformation with zeal and commitment – some would say radicalism – and it must be mobilized today if the forces of evil are to be defeated.

Interestingly, if you want to join the Frontline Fellowship, you’re asked to fill out a 20-page application and tell them about your military service. They also want a copy of your discharge papers.

Dr. Hammond seems something other than an objective biblical scholar.

And the data he offers is designed to scare the socks off you. And apparently it’s working, as more and more people seem to be expressing great fear of Muslims, whether moderate or extremist. Hammond correlates increasing Muslim populations with terrorism and lawlessness everywhere from France and India to Israel and Guyana. But he probably wasn’t counting when one-time-Christian-turned-extremist Jim Jones engineered mass suicides in Guyana a generation ago.

Hammond writes that he’d like Hollywood to come to his aid and produce films consistent with his view of the world, but overall, he’s not very thrilled with westerners. He charges that “the West is quick to intervene to help Muslims – but not Christians. They’ll help Muslims in Bosnia, Muslims in Kuwait, Muslims in Somalia – but not Christians in Rwanda or Sudan.”

Religious extremists everywhere are seeking followers for their causes. And most peddle misinformation and fear. They seem to be everywhere, from Afghanistan to the United States – and, yes, South Africa.

I am reminded of the hysteria perpetuated by the media a half century ago when John Kennedy was a candidate for President. It warned that if Kennedy were elected, the Pope would be de facto president of the United States. In retrospect, that anti-Catholic diatribe now seems ludicrous.

Fear of the unknown can be a real and very powerful force. Much of what many Americans think we know about Islam arrives in our homes via e-mail, predicting dire consequences for the United States. There are lots of “facts” in these e-mails, but little rational thought concerning the context or honest implications of those “facts.” Recipients of this stuff would do better to explore more credible research done by the likes of the Pew Research Center, which has found that most Muslims in the United States consider themselves U.S. citizens first, and Muslims second. And most of them – according to Pew – “are very concerned about Islamic extremism in the world.”

I am a Christian. While I’ve never been accused of being a devout Christian, I am an inquiring Christian, trying to learn and understand more about my faith – and the faiths of others who value the freedom of religion that our country has embraced since its inception.

As a journalist, I am also a skeptic. Radicals of all stripes get my attention, wherever they reside – in the news, in schools, in Congress, or in the pulpit. When they begin hatemongering, I refuse to sit idly by and blithely accept their versions of the truth.

The latest irrational salvo to hit my mailbox is a “fox guarding the henhouse” claim spewed out against Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Arif Alikhan. Not because Alikhan is alleged to be incompetent or crooked; but simply because he happens to be a Muslim – like nearly three million other Americans!

If the good folks who forward these ill-conceived e-mails would dig beneath the surface a bit, they’ll discover that Mr. Alikhan has pretty good credentials: he’s a former federal prosecutor, who also had “operational oversight of Los Angeles Police, Fire and Emergency Management Departments.” I would expect that he also has sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States, something I suspect many authors of these anti-Muslim missives have never done.

With a bit of inquiry, and a closer examination of the Constitution, we might all learn more about the letter and the spirit of “freedom of religion,” something that our forefathers took seriously.

And so should we.

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