Back in the 1960s, Americans were deeply divided on matters of war and race – and Christians in America were on both sides of the divide.
While Martin Luther King Jr and religious leaders associated with his Southern Christian Leadership Conference led protests and committed acts of civil disobedience demanding civil rights, they were countered by white Christian preachers in the south who warned of the dangers of violating God's will by ignoring the punishment God had meted out to the "sons of Ham". And while New York's Catholic cardinal Francis Spellman travelled to Vietnam to bless US troops as they battled "godless communism", a Jesuit priest named Daniel Berrigan led fellow clergymen and women in protests against the war, often resulting in their arrest and imprisonment (in one case, for burning the Selective Service files of young men who were to be drafted to serve in the military).
During this entire period, Christianity wasn’t described as a warlike or racist faith. Nor were King and Berrigan referred to as "Christian protesters". There weren’t any drawn-out theological debates in an effort to determine which interpretation of Christianity was correct. Rather these individuals were defined by what they did. There were either "segregationists" or "civil rights leaders", not “Christian segregationists” or “Christian civil rights leaders". They were "supporters of the war" or "peace activists, not “Christian supporters of the war” or “Christian peace activists".
What may have been understood, at least implicitly, was that just because a person or institution uses religious language to validate certain behaviours, that does not make their behaviour "religious". Nor does this behaviour define, by itself, the religion to which the person or institution adheres. This is something that many of us in the West still understand, at least when it comes to Christianity. Despite former president George W Bush indicating that America was carrying out God’s will in the Iraq war, we knew not to refer to that conflict as a “Christian” war. This understanding, however, has not carried over to our discussion of Islam.
For reasons beyond the scope of this piece, when dealing with Islam, political leaders, media commentators and ordinary folk here in the West appear intent on using religious language to describe every aspect of life and all forms of behaviour, both good and bad, as “Muslim". In doing so, we create confusion for ourselves and others, leading at times, to incoherence and some very strange policies.
For example, faced with the threat of individuals and groups using the religious language of Islam to validate their acts of terror, we refer to them as "Muslim terrorists". But then because we recognise that they represent only a tiny fraction of Muslims, we maintain that they "don't speak for Islam". This then leads us down the tortuous path of attempting to define what is "good" Islam versus "bad" Islam – creating a kind of "state-sanctioned" interpretation of a faith – something we understood not to do when it involves Christianity.
Another example: a colleague, for whom I have the greatest respect, wrote a book in which he first correctly debunks the notion of "Muslim terrorists", but then goes on to write a chapter about "Muslim oil" – by which he means oil coming from the Middle East and Central Asian and some African countries. If “Muslim oil” can be defined in this way, does that make US and Canadian oil "Christian" or "secular democratic" oil? Should we consider Venezuelan oil "Bolivarian" oil?
You may recall when the Obama White House sponsored a summit for “Muslim entrepreneurs” – which they described as focusing on entrepreneurs from "Muslim-majority countries and Muslim communities around the world". Aside from troubling questions about what message this sends to businesspeople from the Arab world or Indonesia or elsewhere who may not be Muslim, or what local sectarian tensions such an effort may exacerbate, what exactly is a "Muslim entrepreneur"? Or, for that matter, what is a "Christian entrepreneur" or “Hindu entrepreneur”?
We continue to hold the line on treating Christianity and the acts of its nominal adherents in a similar fashion. When former president Donald Trump had troops disperse Black Lives Matter demonstrators in front of the White House so he that could march through Lafayette Square and pose in front of St John’s Church holding up a Bible, was that a Christian action? When Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, proclaims himself to be a “Christian nationalist", do we accept that at face value?
At the end of the day, there are xenophobic nationalists, there are terrorists, there is oil, and there are people who start up and run businesses. They are better defined by what they do and not by their faith. For government or the rest of us to insist on defining them by faith, or even how they describe themselves or how they define their actions, is at best careless. It also runs the risk of western governments treading into the murky waters of defining "good" or acceptable religion, or of applying a religious litmus test on groups which, in itself, makes a political statement that is most certainly none of our business, and can be dangerous.