By Todd Daly
Ever since the plan to build the mosque and Islamic cultural center just two blocks from ‘ground zero,’ impassioned arguments have been filling the airwaves, both for and against. Would the proposed Cordoba center be a ‘monument to tolerance,’ or a symbol of Islamic supremacist ideology? Would it promote healing and reconciliation, or is it, as Thomas Sowell says, “a 15-story middle finger to America”?
Many Christians have joined in the opposition of the proposed mosque and cultural center, echoing some of the concerns noted above. Some claim that it is simply too close to hallowed ground, while at the same time showing either an inability or unwillingness to specify a boundary where the hallowed becomes the ordinary, the sacred becomes common. Indeed, the separation of church and state seems a much simpler boundary to maintain in the abstract than in real life.
This contemporary debate however would appear to underscore just how difficult it is to maintain this separation. While from a constitutional perspective, it is clear that Muslims have the right to pursue a mosque and cultural center at this location, it is interesting to note that those supporting the mosque appear more comfortable appealing to religion than do many Christians. Many evangelicals have publically avoided such appeals in favor of either impugning nefarious motives to those who support the mosque, or decrying that it would be offensive to those who’ve lost loved ones.
For instance, mayor Bloomberg recently quoted the embattled Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf who said, “If to be a Jew means to say with all one’s heart, mind, and soul: Shma’ Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ehad . . . not only today am I a Jew, I have always been one. If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind and soul, and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one.” The validity of this theological statement aside, Bloomberg had no trouble appealing to God in support of what is already considered constitutional. On the other hand, the outspoken evangelical Christian radio personality Janet Parshall has argued against the mosque because Muslims around the world will see it as a monument of victory over the infidels, while simultaneously compromising the effectiveness of our national defense systems.
This curious situation reflects the skittishness of many evangelicals to invoke religious perspectives in the public square, and underscores John Milbank’s thesis that the very modern notion of the separability of the sacred from the secular is impossible. Indeed, he reminds us that once there was no secular—and even more controversially—that the creation of the secular can largely be blamed on bad theology. It would be worth taking a step back at this point to ask what this proposed mosque and cultural center would mean theologically, which inevitably entails reflecting on the relationship between reign of God and the reign of earthly kingdoms. Historically, this has been an enormously complex discussion.
It seems to me that if we do indeed recognize first that God’s kingdom transcends any earthly government, and that there is no secular, that Christians might be, somewhat paradoxically, more willing to speak of God in the public square without the burden of trying to make history turn out right. Here I’m reminded of John Howard Yoder, who argued that Christ has already conquered earthly kingdoms, leading them captive in his train (Col. 2:13-15). Given that God’s kingdom transcends any earthly government, that all earthly governments are in some way ‘ordained’ by God to serve his purposes (Rom. 13), that these earthly powers have already been defeated by Christ on the cross (through submission to evil and death), and that throughout history God has repeatedly called for the care of the poor, the outcast, and the marginalized, we ought to rethink whether we should be marshalling all of our efforts to prevent the building of an Islamic cultural center, which, though one day may be constructed on ‘hallowed ground,’ will be neither outside the authority of God, nor resistant to God’s ability to use it to serve his larger purposes.