September 11, 2006
— Martin E. Marty
"Dumb me!" one says or thinks — at least this one does — when awakened to knowledge of what one's sleepy eyes and consciousness had long overlooked. For a half-century, I, like the colleagues of my generation among American religious historians, could babble for thousands of hours and write thousands of pages and yet show little awareness and make slight mention of Muslim-Protestant relations in this nation. Change for me began in 1988, when we started the "Fundamentalism Project," a great self-educational experience. Still, as we studied Islam more than before, few of us sighted Muslim-Protestant contacts.
Thomas S. Kidd, an expert on evangelical history at Baylor University, gave a Gordon College audience a rare glimpse of this subject (which can be found, condensed and under the title "Islam in American Protestant Thought," in the September/October issue of Books and Culture). His footnotes merit follow-up, since they point to mainly wild and extravagant visions. His own voice is authoritative, judicious, and, in the end, mournful in tone. He gets right to the point about the "uses" Protestants made of Muslims. First, they used Islam to define themselves and acquire bragging rights about Protestant theological and political superiority. Next, they observed Muslims, with the dream of converting many. Third, they fit Muslims into "end of the world" and, later, "left behind" scenarios in which God sends Jesus to clean up the world and devastate the Muslim opposition.
Plaintively, at the end, Kidd asks Christians — he's focusing on evangelicals — to take Muslims seriously, "refusing to traffic in sound bites, stereotypes, and 'gotcha' stories about Islam and the Prophet." The next one is harder, perhaps, for all believers and all non-Muslim citizens: "Be exceedingly careful not to conflate [your] faith with contemporary political agendas, parties, and wars .... There are courteous and understanding ways to witness for the truth of one's faith." Then comes the mournful line after a condensed but sophisticated review of the trends in the project: "The history of American Protestant thought about Islam, sadly, has revealed precious little courtesy or understanding."
Reading Kidd and the people he quotes helps make one thing clear: The American Christians who most nearly replicate the Islamic extremists' call for jihad are those who most vehemently rally the troops against all forms of Islam and start aping their enemy. Most of the noticing of Muslims was done by those whose ideologies, prophecies, tactics, and dreams are most like those of jihadists on the Muslim right in form and tone, not in substance. Like finds like, and like nurtures like. Hold it: I am not speaking of "equivalency" among those who have a problem with this scene, but of just plain "courtesy and understanding" as Kidd describes them. There we look at each other in each other's mirrors, and then engage in self-criticism of our own comments on "the other's" ministry.
Kidd does not call for an end to proselytism, missions, or evangelism, but he shows how, on religious and political grounds, it is wise, fair, and — yes — Christian to be honest about the self and the other: courteous and understanding.
The stereotyping shouters and rousers of rabble would then stand less chance than they do now, in present circumstances. Kidd is not totally pessimistic, but he does find little about which to brag or on which to build — so far.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.