Theocracy in America

Should we be more worried about radical Islamists or Christian fundamentalists?


America faces the clear and present danger of a takeover by theocrats who want to impose their religion on everyone else. The only problem is, we don't know which religion.

If you get your news from conservative sources, then it's pretty clear the threat is Islamic. Conservatives point with alarm to indices such as the case of Safoorah Khan—a Berkeley, Ill., math teacher whose request to take three weeks off so she could make a pilgrimage to Mecca was denied. The Obama Justice Department is now suing the school district on her behalf.

Activists on the right also are exercised by a recent ruling from Florida Circuit Judge Richard Nielsen in which he said part of a dispute should be settled by Islamic law. As the St. Petersburg Times reported, "Nielsen said he will decide in a lawsuit against a local mosque, the Islamic Education Center of Tampa, whether the parties in the litigation properly followed the teachings of the Koran in obtaining an arbitration decision from an Islamic scholar."

"Ruling Boosts Support for Sharia Law," reported One News Now, a division of the American Family Association, which notes that the decision has prompted Florida lawmakers to propose legislation preventing the use of Shariah law in state courts. The news story quoted "Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch, [who] says Nielsen's ruling sets a very dangerous precedent."

The Florida lawmakers are jumping on an increasingly crowded bandwagon. Measures forbidding the use of Shariah law also have been introduced in South Carolina, Texas, Wyoming, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Alabama.

To many liberals and progressives, such measures—and the recent congressional hearings by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) on Islamic radicalism—amount to rank bigotry by slack-jawed, knuckle-dragging yahoos. It is absolutely ridiculous, say progressives, to think there is some kind of movement afoot seeking to impose religious fascism in America.

At least by Muslims. When it comes to Christians, progressives don't feel quite so sanguine. Among other things, they view with alarm the recent spate of proposed abortion restrictions. They also take exception to a recent opinion piece by Bryan Fischer, issues analyst for the American Family Association (yes, the very same), in which he declared that "the First Amendment was written by the Founders to protect the free exercise of Christianity. Islam has no fundamental First Amendment claims. . . . Islam is entitled only to the religious liberty we extend to it out of courtesy."

This isn't the first time Fischer has raised hackles. Several months ago he expressed the view that "permits should not be granted to build even one more mosque in the United States of America." That was shortly after he announced that "gay sex is a form of domestic terrorism."

Lots of people write lots of crazy things, and Fischer's views might not be worth calling attention to except for the fact that many people put considerable stock in them. The AFA boasts 200 radio stations and 180,000 subscribers to the AFA Journal. The same day Fischer declared that the First Amendment doesn't apply to Muslims, he devoted part of his radio program to an interview with Tea Party fave Michele Bachmann—who, also the same day, announced the formation of a presidential exploratory committee.

Bachmann doesn't have a snowball's chance. But former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty does—and he too has curried Fischer's favor, appearing on Fischer's program to declare his firm belief in traditional marriage, his firm opposition to abortion, and his strong conviction that gays should not serve in the military. In a recent interview with Christianity Today he says he used to think faith and public law are separate, but "they really aren't."

Fischer and the AFA aren't the only ones to worry liberals, however. Last week progressives gasped over comments by Don Haase, nominated by Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell to the state's judicial council, which oversees appointments to the bench. Asked whether extramarital sex should be a crime, Haase allowed as how it probably should. For every Islamic incursion into the public sphere, it seems, there is an equal and opposite incursion by the Christian right.
Just look at the Chicago area, where Safoorah Khan's case is counterbalanced by that of Beau Schaefer, a science teacher at Libertyville High who provoked controversy by—but drew no sanctions for—teaching creationism. For those keeping score at home, it looks like the public schools in Illinois let a Christian get away with proselytizing his faith in the classroom, but won't let a Muslim even exercise hers.

One doesn't want to overextend this line of argument. It's possible to take parallels and equivalencies too far. Christians haven't carried out any stonings lately, for instance. But conservative Christians and conservative Muslims share enough values on enough social issues that it can be jarring to watch how the debate over faith in America unfolds. For persons of deep religious conviction, it matters deeply whether injunctions against homosexuality, fornication, abortion, and so on are rooted in this sacred text or that one. For everyone else, the doctrinal basis someone cites for a theocratic state matters far less than the fact that he wants to impose one in the first place.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.