I have read with interest the exchange between Ned Walsh and Paul Olsen, both of whom I count as my good friends. I am also thankful that, even though they and I occasionally differ from each other in politics and religion, both of them still love me anyway and consider me their friend.
I too am a strong supporter of the concept of separation of church and state, and I firmly believe that this principle, strongly supported in the long history of my own Baptist expression of the Christian faith, has been and continues to be healthy for our nation. It protects believers from all religious traditions from the intrusion of government over their religious consciences and also protects our democratic-republican form of government from intrusion by the domination of any one particular religious point of view into our educational and governmental institutions.
But when religion and the state get into bed with each other, they do not make love. Instead, one partner always ends up trying to assault the other. It never fails to happen. So we must always be on our guard when people mess with that wall of separation.
It is certainly true that in the first two centuries of our history, we have been a nation whose majority faith has been a generic kind of Christianity. But ours is not and never was a Christian nation. Governments do not have religious beliefs – only individual human beings can be religious. But we are a nation made up of many individuals who have many different religious backgrounds. And we get along very well that way until we start trying to tell other people that ours is the only way and that all other ways are wrong.
But in this 21st century, world demographics have been changing. This is not because of deterioration of Christian belief, nor because of attacks on Christianity from outside. It is simply due to the fact that around the world, there have been great population shifts. Western and Eastern culture have become mixed in the natural flow of history. This is a very normal thing and should not be regarded as a threat to any culture.
It simply means that now people residing in both West and East have greater opportunities to get to know the varieties of humanity that the creator of us all brought into our world. We have the opportunity to learn and to relate. This is not something for us to fear. Our Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Jewish neighbors, along with good people from other faith traditions and even those of no faith, have much to teach us. And we who have chosen to be Christians also have much truth to share with them as well.
All cultures and faiths do have to deal with extremism within their ranks. We do not have to go over to the Middle East to observe extremism in action. All we have to do is visit Texas. Or Congress. Extremism exists to about an equal degree in all faiths and cultures. But we don’t notice it except when we encounter one that threatens us personally.
So how do you disarm extremism? Approach your neighbor of a differing faith or culture in an attitude of aggressive good will and trust. Your good will and trust will be amply rewarded by more of the same from the other side. Let’s just learn to be good neighbors and bloom where we have found ourselves planted.
As for the question as to whether Muslims worship the same God as Christians, the answer is, of course they do. The Apostle Paul in Athens once had no qualms about identifying an inscription to “an unknown god” with the God whom he and his Jewish and Christian fellow believers worshiped. Neither should we be shy about identifying the one God whom we worship with the one God whom Muslims or Jews worship.
It is perfectly OK to disagree about particular understandings of what God is like and what God expects of us, but still, there is only the one. And a look at the various religions will quickly reveal that what God expects of all believers is much the same in every faith.
Among my favorite passages in the Quran are these in which God (Allah is simply the Arabic word for God) is portrayed addressing humankind in these words:
“We have assigned a law and a path to each of you. If God had so willed, He would have made you one community, but He wanted to test you through that which He has given you, so race to do good: You will all return to God and He will make clear to you the matters you differed about.
“Goodness does not consist in turning your face towards East or West. The truly good are those who believe in God and the Last Day, in the angels, the Scripture, and the prophets; who give away some of their wealth, however much they cherish it, to their relatives, to orphans, the needy, travelers and beggars, and to liberate those in bondage; those who keep up the prayer and pay the prescribed alms; who keep pledges whenever they make them; who are steadfast in misfortune, adversity, and times of danger. These are the ones who are true, and it is they who are aware of God.”
To me, there is little difference in those words from the admonition in the Hebrew Bible in Micah 6:
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
The Rev. Michael J. Watts, a Smithfield resident, is a graduate of the University of Georgia and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at East Carolina University and Johnston Community College.