One Standard, Not Two, for Christianity and Islam – The American Interest

Obama’s refusal to call ISIS (or ISIL) a radical Islamic organization has sparked a debate over the relationship between religion and violence. The controversy escalated after he reminded Americans of Christianity’s violent past at the recent national prayer breakfast. Much of the outrage over his comments was motivated by the belief that Obama had fabricated the claims and insulted Christianity. At the same time many in this camp also believe that Islam is responsible for the violent behavior of ISIS. To them Christianity is the good religion and Islam is the bad one. This opinion is grounded in bias rather than evidence and we can safely dismiss it. That leaves us with the two contradictory views presented by Obama: 1) religion has no relationship to ISIS, or 2) religion, at least in part, is responsible for the violent behavior of Christians in medieval and early modern Europe as well as ISIS in the Middle East today. In the above cited essay, the historian Jeffrey Herf argues that both are culpable in the same way. Different traditions and selective use of sacred texts result in different behaviors and versions of the same religion. As Herf points out,

“Western governments have tied themselves in knots to the point of foolishness because they refuse to state what is obvious to many millions of people about the importance not of the religion of Islam per se but of interpretations of Islam in this era of terror. Just as it makes no historical sense to discuss slavery or the Holocaust without examining Christianity’s contributions, so it is ridiculous to assert that the Islamic State, the Hamas Covenant, the fanaticism of the Iranian mullahs, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood have nothing to do with Islam. It amounts to saying that its adherents either do not mean what they say or that they don’t know what they are doing. Both assumptions are condescending. To be sure, these varieties of Islamism differ from one another, but they all engage in the labors of selective tradition. They did not invent the texts that they quote but they have selected and emphasized some rather than other components of the tradition. They can all point to passages in the Koran and in the commentaries about it that in their view justify attacks on the Jews, on Muslims of whom they disapprove, on Christians and on other assorted ‘infidels.’”(“One Standard, Not Two, for Christianity and Islam”)

the crusades

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Book Review (Part I): Thomas Jefferson: Roots of Religious Freedom by John Harding Peach Was Jefferson a Christian?

In Thomas Jefferson: Roots of Religious Freedom, John Harding Peach claims that Thomas Jefferson was a Protestant Christian whose vision of religious liberty was grounded in his passionate desire to protect religion. Peach can perhaps defend this misleading portrayal of Jefferson under the guise that it is “a biographical novel,” but given that he also insists that “all historical events and places were provided as they factually occurred” (xii) this excuse is not credible. He may wish Jefferson was the person that he presents in his “novel” but he cannot honestly claim that Jefferson was that person. Unfortunately, his followers, who, no doubt, also want to believe that Jefferson was the Christian in Peach’s narrative, will uncritically accept his version of events. These distortions of history are not innocent ventures; they are part of a larger movement intent on re-writing history to support their claim that the United States is a Christian nation.

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The wannabe historian David Barton has been at the forefront of this movement. His book (The Jefferson Lies) is the latest in a series of books dedicated to the goal of making this a Christian nation. But Jefferson’s well-known “infidelism” doesn’t fit this narrative, so rather than ignore the writer of the Declaration of Independence Barton and others have decided to remake Jefferson into a devout Christian. This is not an easy task and the only way to achieve it is through deception, dishonesty, and willful ignorance. In fact, Barton’s book is so egregiously dishonest that it was discontinued by his publisher after a group of conservative historians exposed it as misleading and “unsupportable.”1 Unlike Barton, Peach may not have gone as far as Barton, but it is still a dishonest and misleading portrayal of Jefferson. In his desire to see Jefferson as an upstanding Christian, Peach has cherry-picked, distorted, and misinterpreted the evidence.

Peach’s “novel” begins with Jefferson’s education with his childhood teacher the Rev. James Maury, who Peach claims “lit his fire,” (1) and ends with Jefferson’s death in 1826. The book highlights events in Jefferson’s life, large and small, which serve to present Jefferson as “practice[ing] his core conviction of basic Protestantism.” (xiii) This book review will challenge Peach’s portrayal of Jefferson. This post will be dedicated to Jefferson’s religious beliefs in general before turning to the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson’s views on religious liberty in future posts.

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