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A Dialogue in Bad Faith By: Mark Tooley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, January 10, 2008

Controversy continues to swirl around the predominantly Religious Left and Evangelical Left response to "A Common Word Between Us and You," the statement by 138 Islamic authorities in October.

The Muslim declaration was relatively moderate and invited dialogue with Christians. Mostly left-leaning religious studies faculty from the Ivy League organized "Loving God and Neighbor Together" as a "Christian Response." It offered regrets for the Crusades and the War on Terror, while eagerly accepting the invite to dialogue with Islam. The Muslim statement, of course, offered no apologies for Islamist conquests or terror.

Predictable Evangelical Left activists such as Jim Wallis signed as well as more moderate Evangelicals, including the president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) Leith Anderson and the NAE's increasingly left-leaning Washington spokesman, Richard Cizik. Rev. Anderson hoped that his signature would be "especially helpful to Christians who live and minister in Muslim-majority countries." And he likewise expressed concern that "not signing could be damaging to these Christian brothers and sisters who live among Muslims."

On January 3, a publication of James Dobson's conservative "Focus on the Family" criticized evangelicals who endorsed "Loving God and Neighbor Together." It quoted Southern Baptist theologian Albert Mohler, who slammed the statement's "naiveté," including the Crusades apology. "I just have to wonder how intellectually honest this is," he said. "Are these people suggesting that they wish the military conflict with Islam had ended differently - that Islam had conquered Europe?"

Similarly in the same publication, conservative evangelical Gary Bauer accused endorsing evangelicals of having "left the (card) table without their pants - that is, they've been taken and may not even realize they've been taken." Religious liberty advocate Patrick Sookhdeo was quoted as saying: "I find it difficult to understand how senior evangelical leaders in the West can join hands with other Christians who actually are betraying the Christian faith (and) their Christian brothers and sisters in the Muslim world."

In response to the Focus on the Family critique, "emerging church" guru Brian McLaren vigorously responded with his own op-ed for Jim Wallis' Sojourners. He likened the troubles between Christendom and Islam to an unpleasant domestic dispute between spouses who are in need of good counseling. "When you have a conflict with your wife where both you and she have made mistakes, do you only agree to acknowledge your own faults if she will also acknowledge hers," he wrote in defense of the Christian apology for the Crusades and War on Terror. "If you say, 'Yes, I may have made a small mistake, but you made even bigger ones,' do you expect this to lead to a better relationship?" Oddly, McLaren asked conservative evangelical critics: "If Muslims apologized for their faults, would you then be willing to dialogue with them in a respectful way?" Surely even he knows that such a public admission by Islamic authorities is highly unlikely. Even Muslim clerics and scholars who privately admit to Islamic failings would place themselves in physical danger by declaring so publicly.

McLaren wondered about his fellow Christians: "How can we not apologize for our sins? Should we claim we have no sins? Or should we knowingly refuse to acknowledge them? Isn't the humility to confess sins a Christian virtue?" In an analogy that would surprise persecuted Christian minorities in Islamic countries, he portrayed Muslims as ostracized outsiders in need of Christian inclusion: "I'm sorry when anyone feels alienated by those of us who try to follow Jesus' command to be peacemakers and to treat others as we would be treated, but didn't Jesus, when faced with a choice of reaching out to those considered untouchable outsiders by the Pharisees, side with the excluded?" Defending the urgent need for interfaith dialogue, McLaren warned against leaving "the field to religious extremists and hawkish politicians who have proved themselves highly willing to resort to terrorism and war?"

Was McLaren implying moral equivalence between the U.S. and al Qaeda's radical Islamist allies? If so, he would not be entirely alone among many signers of "Loving God and Neighbor Together," who are desperately anxious to separate themselves from U.S. policies or conservative evangelicals who support them. Many of these signers are pacifist absolutists and genuinely see no ethical distinctions between terrorist strikes and a U.S. military response to them.

The NAE's Leith Anderson admitted "there were lines in the Christian letter that were not quite what I would write" and "sometimes we all sign onto things that are not all that we would like them to be." But he hoped that the Christian response to the Islamic overture would foster "mutual respect between the two largest religions on the globe" and broader religious liberty. "It is not good to live in either ignorance or isolation," he concluded.

But the predominantly Religious Left organizers of "Loving God and Neighbor" do not represent the only salvation from "ignorance" or "isolation." As head of a group professing to represent over 20 million evangelicals, surely Anderson could have organized his own Christian response that did not rely on left-leaning Ivy League faculty or Jim Wallis's Sojourners. Anderson expressed fear that Christians in Muslim lands might suffer if he declined to sign. Endorsing Christian apologies to Islam in order to protect Christians from being persecuted or killed by Islamic authorities or mobs hardly bodes well for constructive Christian-Islamic dialogue.

Religious liberty scholar Paul Marshall has written: "The [extreme Islamist] people engaged in persecution are neither stupid nor uneducated.... We will not understand persecution if we think it is a mere misunderstanding to be resolved through more education and chatty conferences" (Their Blood Cries Out, p. 220). But many on the Religious and Evangelical Left fervently believe in "education and chatty conferences," equating the West's struggles with radical Islam to a family squabble needing a geopolitical therapy session. The Muslim scholars and clerics who organized "A Common Word Between Us and You" merited a better response than what Brian McLaren et al. have offered.

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy. He is the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.

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