24 October, 2010

The Religious Conversation Juan Williams Almost Started (And Journalists Have Obscured)

By devoting so much ink and airtime to the least interesting, least important part of the story about how NPR fired Juan Williams for remarks he made on Fox’s The OReilly Factor, journalists and pundits have robbed us of the exegesis and the important national discussion Williams might have started had NPR not fired him and had commentators not obsessed about how Williams feels when he sees Muslims. Below is the text of the paragraph all the nervous, overpaid journalists and could-I-be-next-commentators are wringing their hands about with the important words – the religious conversation Williams almost started - italicized and colored red:

“'Look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.'”

Notice that what makes Williams “worried” and “nervous” is not that people are Muslims but that “they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims”.

In other words, Williams has noticed the unavoidable and inevitable tension that will always exist in a society where church and state are distinct and where people are free to pledge their allegiance first and foremost to their religion, not to their nation.

Though members of the majority religion may not realize it, Williams’ nervousness and worry would have been no less valid and the potential for conflict between religion and nation no less real had he said “When I see people who are identifying themselves first and foremost as conservative, Calvinistic, Presbyterians, I get worried. I get nervous.”

I know. In my callow youth I was bitten by the conservative, Calvinistic theological bug and, for a time, fell in with a small, conservative sect of Presbyterians who followed the theonomist, RJ Rushdoony, and who wanted to impose Old Testament law on modern day Americans. And by “Old Testament Law” I don’t just mean the parts we all like such as “Thou shalt not murder” but the parts most people don’t even know are in the Bible like this one: “If a man lies with a woman during her sickness and uncovers her nakedness, he has exposed her flow, and she has uncovered the flow of her blood. Both of them shall be cut off from their people.” (Leviticus 20:18)

Don’t laugh. The Bible is full of laws you’ll never hear mentioned in a sermon down at the First Baptist Church or the Maranatha Fellowship and, for a time, I “sat under the ministry”, as we put it, of a man who, publicly, gingerly tested the extent of his flock’s tolerance for such verses but privately, behind the scenes, had an inner circle of Young Theonomists who swapped audiotapes and books by their favorite theonomists.

One of my denomination’s most infamous preachers carried his obedience to Old Testament law to its logical conclusion and made national news when he murdered an abortion doctor. If the more moderate members of my Presbyterian church waited for my pastor’s unequivocal denunciation of that act, they were disappointed as I knew they would be because, in theonomy world, what this minister did was perfectly logical and biblical.

Their reasoning – some would say casuistry – went like this: (1) The taking of an innocent human life is murder and it is always morally right to defend the defenseless innocents from being murdered. (2) An unborn fetus in its mother’s womb is an innocent and defenseless human life. (3) Therefore, protecting the unborn fetus - by lethal force if necessary – is biblical, moral and the duty of the obedient Christian.

Theonomists also preached that parents of stubborn and disobedient children should hand over such children to the elders who were to then stone them to death making an example of them so other stubborn and disobedient children would get the message that we won’t be reading any James Dobson books, we’ll be nipping the problem in the bud. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

And, no, churches that preach such things are not meeting secretly in store fronts in the warehouse district of town or in David Koresh-style compounds; many of their churches meet in steepled, churchy-looking buildings. Some of them are even borderline megachurches.

And if Juan Williams sat on an airplane next to a guy who was reading R J Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law he would have had just as much reason to feel “nervous” and “worried” as he would feel next to a guy in “Muslim garb” because within religion itself are always the seeds of conflict with earthly governments, societies and cultures.

Let me be clear: it is only because most people do not take their religions seriously enough to consistently live by them and to obey even the goofy and evil parts of their holy books that we are able to enjoy any peace in this free nation of ours.

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