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Sen. Bernie Sanders opens up a new front in America's church-state warfare

Sen. Bernie Sanders opens up a new front in America's church-state warfare

Try to imagine the media storm if the following drama ever took place under the hot glare of television lights in a U.S. Senate hearing.

So a Muslim believer who has been nominated for a cabinet-level post is taking questions. A Bible Belt senator asks: "Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?"

Or perhaps a senator from a New England state -- say Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- asks the nominee: "Do you think Christians who believe in the Holy Trinity will be condemned because they reject the oneness of God?"

Ismail Royer knows what would happen if he faced those questions. He would defend one of Islam's core doctrines.

"I believe Jesus was a prophet of God, but not God himself," said Royer, who works at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. "I'd have to say that worshipping Jesus alongside God amounts to polytheism and is a rejection of the one God. There is no way that I could apologize for what I believe as a Muslim."

A purely hypothetical case? Not after a recent confrontation during a U.S. Senate budget committee hearing on the nomination of Russell Vought to serve as deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Sanders questioned a Vought article about a Wheaton College controversy, in which a professor made headlines with her claims that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. As a former Wheaton professor, Vought argued that salvation was found through Jesus -- period.

Thus, Sanders said: "You wrote, 'Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son and they stand condemned.' Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?"

The nominee repeated his defense of this ancient Christian doctrine. Sanders kept asking if Vought believed that Muslims "stand condemned."

Once again, Vought said: "Senator, I'm a Christian …"

Hitchens, Hitchens and God, too

When Peter Hitchens was eight years old, and his older brother Christopher was 11, their father asked the two hotheaded young Brits to sign a peace treaty. "I can still picture this doomed pact in its red frame, briefly hanging on the wall," noted Peter Hitchens, in a recent essay published in The Daily Mail. "To my shame, I was the one who repudiated it, ripped it from its frame and angrily erased my signature, before recommencing hostilities. ... Our rivalry was to last 50 years, and religion was one of its later causes."

Under ordinary circumstances, a column in a London newspaper about a fractured relationship between two brothers would not warrant much attention among readers who care about matters of faith and doubt.

The Hitchens brothers, however, are not your usual brothers.

As an adult, Peter Hitchens regained his Christian faith, after years as an atheist and his new book is entitled, "The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith." The title of this column was more conciliatory: "How I found God and peace with my atheist brother."

Big brother Christopher, meanwhile, has become famous as an evangelist for atheism, a scribe who revels in stabbing sacred cows with his pen -- as in his book, "The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice." Then there is his bestseller, "God is not Great: Religion Poisons Everything."

"There are," he argues, "four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking. ...

"God did not create man in his own image. Evidently, it was the other way about, which is the painless explanation for the profusion of gods and religions, and the fratricide both between and among faiths, that we see all about us and that has so retarded the development of civilization."

Hitchens the younger understands that logic, in large part because he once walked the same road. As a teen, he burned his Bible outside his Cambridge school. To his disappointment, "Thunder did not mutter." He set out to rebel against everything that he had been taught was good and right and holy. This is what smart British boys of his generation were supposed to do.

Eventually, he stopped avoiding churches and great religious art -- leaving him open to unsettling messages from the past. While gazing at one 15th century painting of the Last Judgment, he found himself emotionally and intellectually moved.

"These people did not appear remote or from the ancient past; they were my own generation. Because they were naked, they were not imprisoned in their own age by time-bound fashions," noted Hitchens. "On the contrary, their hair and the set of their faces were entirely in the style of my own time. They were me, and people I knew.

"I had a sudden strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisoned under thick layers of time. My large catalogue of misdeeds replayed themselves rapidly in my head."

Then came the great oaths of his wedding rites, followed by the baptisms of his formerly atheistic wife and their daughter. A fellow journalist heard that Hitchens had returned to church and, with "a look of mingled pity and horror," bluntly asked, "How can you do that?"

The twist in this story is that while Peter Hitchens has returned to faith, and Christopher has grown more and more outspoken in his crusade against faith, the brothers have gradually regained their affection for one another. And while many have urged them to turn their personal debates about God and the nature of moral truth into an intellectual traveling circus, neither of the brothers wants to do that.

"I am 58. He is 60. We do not necessarily have time for another brothers' war. ... I have, however, the more modest hope that he might one day arrive at some sort of acceptance that belief in God is not necessarily a character fault," noted Peter Hitchens.

"I can only add that those who choose to argue in prose, even if it is very good prose, are unlikely to be receptive to a case which is most effectively couched in poetry."

'No go' zones in UK -- again

The alleged crime took place at the corner of Alum Rock and Ellesmere roads in Birmingham, England, where an officer spotted two missionaries distributing "God's Bridge to Eternal Life" tracts.

The controversial pamphlets contained comments such as, "Throughout history individuals have tried many ways to gain or earn eternal life, but every attempt has been unsuccessful." There were Bible verses, such as, "Not by works of righteousness, which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us. Titus 3:5a."

What happened next has reopened a painful debate about so-called "no go zones," areas that may as well be off limits to British citizens who do not heed Islamic laws.

According to a statement by the Rev. Arthur Cunningham, the "police community support officer" told him "you're not allowed to preach ... here. This is a Muslim area. He said, 'You know, you guys are committing a hate crime here with what you're doing. I'm going to have to call you in and take you in.' Then he took his radio and he said something like, 'There's a hate crime in progress here. I need assistance.' "

This occurred three months ago, but legal actions by Cunningham and the Rev. Joseph Abraham have created a wave of new coverage. Both men carry American passports, although Abraham was born a Muslim in Egypt and then converted to Christianity.

While declining to discuss details, West Midlands Police officials have released statements saying their investigation found that the officer acted "with the best of intentions" and that "the PCSO has been offered guidance about what constitutes a hate crime and advice on communication style."

Another statement: "We would like to assure all communities that there are not any 'no go' areas in the West Midlands Police area and we will defend the rights of the individual to freedom of expression and religious faiths."

The "no go zone" debate began in earnest when Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester, who was raised in Pakistan in a family with Christian and Muslim roots, expressed fears that England is splintering into segregated communities of citizens living "parallel lives."

"It is critically important to all that the freedom to discuss freely and perhaps to have our views changed, whether in politics, religion or science, be encouraged and not diminished," wrote Nazir-Ali, in a newspaper essay that led to death threats against him.

Christianity and Islam are both evangelistic faiths, which creates sparks when their traditional, growing forms collide. However, Christian evangelism is banned in many Muslim lands and some Christian converts have faced death sentences as apostates.

In the Alum Rock case, the missionaries freely admit they were seeking converts. Abraham and Cunningham insist that they were told they would be physically attacked if they dared to return.

"The actions and words used by the officers were intimidating and were calculated to warn and-or frighten our clients and to have the effect of deterring our clients from lawfully expressing their opinions and manifesting their beliefs and to have a chilling effect on the exercise by them of their right to manifest their beliefs," according to a document prepared for police by activists at the Christian Institute. "Our clients were left with the understanding that they could not express their religious beliefs in Alum Rock Road without committing a hate crime."

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail has reported that the officer involved in this incident is active in the local branch of the National Association of Muslim Police. The West Midlands police force also made recent headlines when it accused a BBC Dispatches program -- entitled "Undercover Mosques" -- of distorting Muslim statements about terrorism.

All of this has led to heightened tensions about how to balance Muslim concerns with British laws.

"Freedom is not, of course, absolute. It is only possible in the context of the Common Good, where the freedom of each has to be exercised with respect for the freedom of all," according to a new essay by Nazir-Ali, in Standpoint magazine.

"Freedom of belief, of expression, and the freedom to change one's belief are, however, vitally important for a free society, and the onus must be on those who wish to restrict these in any way to show why this is necessary. Nor can we say that such freedoms apply in some parts of the country and of the world and not in others."

What Wilberforce would do

It's rare to hear political leaders speak with candor when it comes to religion.

Imagine the angry newspaper headlines if a world-famous legislator dared to say: "I fear for the future of authentic faith in our country. We live in a time when the common man ... is thoroughly influenced by the current climate in which the cultural and educational elite propagates an anti-Christian message. We should take a look at what has happened in France and learn a lesson from it."

How would pundits respond if the same politico then said: "Is it any wonder ... that the spiritual condition of our country is of little concern to those who don't even educate their own children about true Christianity?"

Of course, a modern politician didn't air these blunt words on "Meet the Press." An 18th-century Member of Parliament named William Wilberforce published them in a British bestseller entitled "A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity."

"The first time I read that book, I thought, 'It's hard to work through some of the old language, but what the man is saying could have been written yesterday,' " said the Rev. Bob Beltz, an evangelical Presbyterian who oversees special media projects for billionaire investor Philip Anschutz.

"I kept writing '1797' over and over in the page margins, with exclamation marks. His words are so relevant that it's shocking."

The question is whether modern Americans will admire Wilberforce as much as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and others admired him in the past and, perhaps, go see his life story on a movie screen.

Modern Wilberforce disciples are doing what they can, producing new books, educational projects and political activism (www.theamazingchange.com) tied to his legacy. For example, Beltz set out to translate the heart of Wilberforce's book into modern language, a slim volume now called "Real Christianity." Proceeds will go to the Dalit Freedom Network that is active in India.

At the same time, Beltz was involved with Bristol Bay Productions to produce the new movie "Amazing Grace," released on the 200th anniversary of Wilberforce's greatest victory. It was on Feb. 23, 1807, that the slave trade was abolished throughout the British Empire after years of struggle that taxed the abolitionist's faith, will and health.

"Amazing Grace" opened on a modest 791 screens and grossed $4 million its first weekend, a $5,442-per-screen average that matched the top releases. The studio hopes to increase its promotional budget and reach more screens in upcoming weeks.

"We know that this isn't the ordinary kind of movie that makes people rush to the theater," said Beltz. "Then again, Wilberforce wasn't your ordinary kind of man."

Born in a successful merchant family, Wilberforce won a seat in the House of Commons in 1780, shortly after graduating from Cambridge University and celebrating his 21st birthday. Before long he was both a radical social reformer and a radical evangelist who -- after two years of intellectual and spiritual turmoil -- came to see no conflict between his twin callings in the public square.

Thus, Wilberforce on Oct. 28, 1787, wrote in his diary that, "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners." In that era, pledging to reform "manners" meant supporting public efforts to promote moral virtue and oppose vice.

As if these passions were not enough, Wilberforce was also a spectacular orator, writer, singer, publisher, art lover, amateur scientist and social activist who helped build hospitals, fight cruelty to animals, reform prisons, improve schools and promote better factory working conditions.

It's crucial to realize, said Beltz, that for Wilberforce all of these causes were woven into the fabric of his life and faith. He saw no conflict between his head and his heart, between evangelism and social justice. What he opposed most of all was "nominal," culturally compromised faith laced with apathy.

"You have people who believe that if you are born in America and go to church on Sunday then that means that you are a Christian," said Beltz. "That is precisely the attitude that William Wilberforce was fighting in the England of his day. He believed that you couldn't defeat a great evil like slavery with a weak, watered-down faith. You needed the real thing."

Moral climate change in Britain

One of the demonstrators was a small child with a placard that said, "Whoever insults the prophet kill him." Another marcher wore a suicide bomber costume.

Other signs in London said: "Behead those who insult Islam," "Europeans take a lesson from 9/11" and "Prepare for the REAL Holocaust." The organizer of the Feb. 3 event told the BBC that he looked forward to the day when "the black flag of Islam will be flying over Downing Street."

But what stunned British writer Geoffrey Wheatcroft was something else he saw while blitzing through news reports about the waves of fury inspired by those 12 Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammad.

"Not only did the police make no arrests" during the London demonstration, even though it "openly incited murder; they actually sheltered the fanatics," he noted, in a Slate.com essay. "Two men who tried to stage a peaceable counterdemonstration were hustled away for questioning. A working-class Londoner ... was told in violent language by a cop to get back in his van and go away."

This raises a disturbing question: Have British citizens lost the ability to exercise their free speech rights in public defiance of demands by many Muslim clerics and politicians for limitations on the freedom of the press in the West?

It's hard to answer this kind of question right now because a "moral climate change" has destroyed England's certainty that some things are right and some things are wrong, said Bishop N.T. Wright of Durham, in a speech last week in the House of Lords. Thus, civic leaders cannot agree on the meaning of words such as "freedom" and "tolerance" and religious faith is seen as a threat instead of a virtue.

"The 1960s and 1970s swept away the old moral certainties, and anyone who tries to reassert them risks being mocked as an ignoramus or scorned as a hypocrite. But since then we've learned that you can't run the world as a hippy commune," said Wright, a former Oxford don who also has served as Westminster Abbey's canon theologian.

"Getting rid of the old moralities hasn't made us happier or safer. ... This uncertainty, my Lords, has produced our current nightmare, the invention of new quasi-moralities out of bits and pieces of moral rhetoric, the increasingly shrill and polymorphous language of 'rights', the glorification of victimhood which enables anyone with hurt feelings to claim moral high ground and the invention of various 'identities' which demand not only protection but immunity from critique."

Instead of focusing on the cartoon crisis, Wright described other signs of legal and moral confusion in British life. Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, sent painfully mixed signals after last summer's suicide bombings. His government leaned one way when it tried to ban efforts to "glorify" terrorism. Then it leaned the other way with legislation that would ban the promotion of "religious hatred."

Wright stressed that it will be dangerous to pass laws that attempt to replace, amend or edit religious doctrines that have shaped the lives of believers for centuries. But politicians seem determined to try.

Thus, Birmingham University forced the Evangelical Christian Union off campus and seized the group's funds because it refused to amend its bylaws to allow non-Christians or atheists to become voting members.

Thus, Wright noted that police have shut down protests in Parliament Square against British policies in Iraq. Comedians -- facing vague laws against hate speech -- are suddenly afraid to joke about religion. And was there any justification for government investigations of the Anglican bishop of Chester and the chairman of the Muslim Council of Great Britain because they made statements critical of homosexuality?

Public officials, said the bishop, are trying to control the beliefs that are in people's hearts and the thoughts that are in their heads. The tolerance police are becoming intolerant, which is a strange way to promote tolerance.

"People in my diocese have told me that they are now afraid to speak their minds in the pub on some major contemporary issues for fear of being reported, investigated, and perhaps charged," said Wright. "I did not think I would see such a thing in this country in my lifetime. ... The word for such a state of affairs is 'tyranny' -- sudden moral climate change, enforced by thought police."

Beyond the Brighton bombing

Twenty years ago the Irish Republican Army bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton in an attempt to kill Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her entire cabinet during a Tory Party conference.

Jo Berry, Harvey Thomas and Patrick Magee will mark the Oct. 12 anniversary with a reflective evening at the historic St. James' Church near Piccadilly Circus in London. Their goal is to talk about the lessons they have learned from one of the most shocking terrorist acts in the bloody history of the Irish and the English.

Berry is the daughter of Sir Anthony Berry, one of five people who died.

Thomas was Thatcher's press secretary and barely survived.

Magee was the IRA terrorist who planted the 100-pound bomb behind a panel in the bathroom of Room 629.

"The fact that the three of us will stand side by side as friends is a story in and of itself. It shows that true reconciliation is possible," said Thomas, during lectures at Palm Beach Atlantic University. "Reconciliation isn't easy. But how do we move forward if we cannot forgive our enemies?"

The 65-year-old Thomas is a broadcaster who is as well known for a 15-year stint with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association as for his years as Thatcher's media specialist. Thus, he works in two different worlds. Thomas is as comfortable dissecting Bible passages with other Christians as he is fine-tuning public-relation campaigns for politicos and executives in Saudi Arabia and other tense locales. His passport has been stamped in 120 nations.

Reconciliation in the post-September 11th world, he said, must involve secular people as well as religious believers. It means convincing hostile armies of true believers to treat each other with respect, if not tolerance. What is the alternative?

"What happens if nothing is done is almost certainly global warfare," said Thomas. "We have to ask ourselves: What are we willing to do to try to head that off?"

Berry has asked the same question. Two days after the bombing she fled to the St. James sanctuary and sent up a non-believer's prayer to find some way to seek peace and deal with her own grief. This pain led her to seek a meeting with Magee when he was released from prison after 14 years, as part of the Good Friday peace agreements in Northern Ireland. They met privately and then agreed to have further talks about forgiveness, this time filmed by BBC cameras.

The public forum with Thomas is the next stage in this bridge-building process. Berry hopes it draws everyone from political activists to therapists, secular diplomats to believers from many different sanctuaries.

"I dream of a world in which we have choices to resolve conflict other than violence," she said, via email. "Talking with Patrick Magee is a way of learning from the past, which may give insight for creating a different future. I am learning about the effects of blame and looking at how we make choices not to blame."

Thomas was made a similar pilgrimage.

For millions of people in Great Britain and around the world, one of the most unforgettable moments after the bombing was watching -- live on television -- as rescue workers pulled the 6-foot-4, 280-pound Thomas out of tons of concrete rubble. His own memories of those moments center on hours of frantic prayers for his family.

Now Thomas has new memories. His dialogue with Magee began with letters while the bomber was in prison. A few years later, Magee ended up sitting in the Thomas family kitchen, sharing baked beans, stories and regrets. They talked about decades of oppression, the bitter choices of civil war and the dehumanizing effects of violence.

One of Thomas' daughters asked Magee: "You do realize that if you had succeeded in killing daddy, I wouldn't be here?"

Magee wept and so did Thomas and his family.

Reconciliation is a process, said Thomas, but it begins with a decision to forgive. This is a personal choice and it's impossible for one person to tell another when or how to take this step. Seeking personal reconciliation is not the same as seeking justice.

"I have no doubt that I needed to forgive Patrick Magee," he said. "It's what God wanted me to do. So I did it."