OCTOBER 19, 2012
The loudest Christians making waves about Islam for much of this year have not been terribly, well, Christian. There have been the protests against plans to build mosques in places like Tennessee and New Jersey, and arson attacks on mosques in Joplin, Missouri and Toledo, Ohio. The anti-Muslim posters placed in New York City and Washington, DC subway stations by Pamela Geller’s organization. And that crude now-infamous video that sparked riots across the Middle East.
These contentious activities have garnered headlines and defined for many the “Christian” take on Islam in the U.S. And that’s been too much for a growing number of Christian organizations who are fed up with Islamophobia. Just in the past month, four separate campaigns have started to push back against extreme Christian voices and to preach a message of tolerance and love.
Sojourners—the community founded and led by evangelical author and speaker Jim Wallis—responded to subway ads calling Muslims “savages” by purchasing space to post its own posters in the same subway stations. The message is simple: “Love Your Muslim Neighbors.” After the mosque attacks in Joplin and Toledo, Sojourners bought billboards in both communities to broadcast the same message. “It’s only an extremist fringe that would ever attack another religion’s place of worship in this country,” explained Sojourners spokesman Tim King to the Christian Post. “But unless we offer up an alternative voice, it will be the message and acts of extremists that most across the country and the world hear.”
Geller’s subway ads also prompted a response from an interfaith coalition called Shoulder-to-Shoulder. The group worked closely with the United Methodist Women to produce a letter signed by 168 Washington-area clergy and religious organizations calling on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to donate any proceeds from Geller’s ads to charity. It also countered with its own Metro advertisement: “Hate speech is not civilized. Support peace in word and deed.”
Two other religious campaigns are focused on educating Americans—and particularly Christian communities—about Muslims and Islam. On October 11, the Interfaith Alliance led by Baptist minister Welton Gaddy, along with the Religious Freedom Education Project of the First Amendment Center, released a guide called “What is the Truth about American Muslims? Questions and Answers.” The online document addresses topics such as the role of mosques in Muslim life, whether U.S. courts can ever substitute religious law for civil law (spoiler alert: no), and the meaning of Muslim words like “jihad” and “Taqiyya.”
The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, which was founded by Rev. Richard Cizik, is also undertaking a massive effort to broaden American perceptions of Islam and challenge stereotypes. The group produced and released an hour-long documentary called “Islam in America: The Christian Truth,” which tells the stories of American Muslims, but also of conservative Christians who have exchanged their fear of Islam for tolerance and understanding. Cizik and his colleagues intended the film to prompt discussion of Islamophobia in Christian communities, and they released it after the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in the hope that churches and other religious communities could discuss honestly their fears and beliefs.
Efforts like these too often go unnoticed or uncovered by journalists because they are earnest and have the goal of bringing people together instead of tearing them apart. That’s a sad commentary on journalism, but also on all of us who react to stories of religious hatred but flip past stories of religious cooperation with a “meh.” Too many of my colleagues also question whether campaigns to promote education or civility are actually representative of American Christians, because these efforts don’t fit the assumptions they have about who American Christians are. At the same time, they rarely ask whether Pamela Geller or Terry Jones of Qur'an-burning infamy represent anyone other than a small pitchfork-wielding band of followers. Until they do, the antics of Geller and Jones will make the front page while the efforts of Christians to push back against them will remain mostly exiled to the religion pages.