cross_crescent.jpgIn the July 8 issue of the Boston Globe, a fascinating piece on “What it means to be a Christian after George W. Bush” dominated the “most e-mailed” category of the paper’s website for a number of weeks. In like fashion, but seemingly flying much lower under the radar, the July 30 issue of Newsweek featured a special report on “Islam in America” that seeks to at least raise the question of how Muslims citizens of the United States can be true to both their faith and to their country to public consciousness. Despite different approaches and examples (the Globe focuses on Christian responses to the Gulf war, while Newsweek turns on Muslim experience in the US since 9/11), both articles address the same critical issue, which is how can observant and committed Christians and Muslims be faithful to their religious and spiritual heritage and be responsible citizens of the US?

The implicit argument of both articles is that the experience of living through the Bush II administration somehow changes what it means to be a Christian or a Muslim in the United States. It is true that the elections of 2000 and 2004, which brought conservative and evangelical Christians out of the woodwork and into the voting box to elect the candidate ordained by national evangelical leaders, and the support of an unreal 87% of evangelicals who supported Bush’s Iraq War in 2003 have absolutely affected public perception of the role Christians play (or ought to play, or should not play) in the governance of the country (as well as in the election of its leaders) and in our involvement overseas. Neither can there any doubt that the trauma of 9/11 has thrust the nearly 2.35 million Muslims into the national limelight in an unprecedented degree, and the continued announcements of alleged terrorist plots being thwarted does nothing to dissuade millions of others from erroneous and potentially deadly misconceptions about our brothers and sisters of our sibling faith.

At the same time, though, the question itself, that of how to be a good and responsible citizen of our country and yet be true to our faith tradition, is hardly new. It is, in fact, at least as old as the biblical prophets in the Hebrew tradition, and it is upon this tradition that Jesus and Muhammad both drew for their own particular responses and to whom Christians and Muslims today look to for their respective archetypal ethical examples. Likewise it was St. Paul and, still later, St. Augustine who formulated this problem for Christians in the Roman Empire in theoretical and theo-political terms. While the specific examples of being Muslim or being Christian in the age of George W. Bush might be new, the problem is not.

Positively, the whole Administration has called attention to the religious elephant that has always been in the political room. While we certainly may wish that the circumstances were different, there can be no question today that religion, and in particular Christianity and Islam in the United States, is political, and politics is fundamentally religious. It is ironic, therefore, that as the neocon Republican Bush administration prepares its exeunt, the Rebublican candidates have spoken little of the impact of faith in politics (which has left evangelical leaders scrambling for a suitable candidate, and even a dismayed Jim Dobson himself threatening to not vote in 2008!), the traditionally “secular” Democratic Party has itself “gotten religion,” demonstrated first by the election of Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) as the nation’s first Muslim Congressman and then by the recent and powerful declarations of the importance and significance of the role of faith and religion in national politics by candidates Obama, Clinton, and Edwards. What is becoming clear is that we don’t have to “be” Christian or “be” Muslims necessarily any different than we are, but we do need to change perceptions of “being” of the faith really means vis-a-vis responsible citizenship.

In both traditions, Jesus and Muhammad call on their respective followers to be prophetic witnesses to peace and justice in the world. Nowhere in either the Qur’an or the Christian Bible are the people of God commanded to internalize their faith to such a degree that it is solely and completely private and detached from affairs of this world, which include our politics, civic engagements and responsibilities, and so forth. The prophetic call is a call to engage issues of injustice where we are, and to exercise compassion and mercy in so doing. Our militant versions of our faiths (Islamic extremism in the case of my Muslim friends, and Christian fundamentalism in my own tradition) may very well believe they are acting on behalf of divine justice, but they fail to act on their own mandates of mercy and compassion in their scriptural traditions.

Thus to respond to the challenge raised by Newsweek and the Globe, we, as brothers and sisters in the service of God, can indeed engage our civic and political issues for the betterment of our country without resorting to quasi-pseudo theocracy on the one hand or extremism on the other. Inshallah.