If I were inclined to worry that the United States was veering in a dangerously theocratic direction, here’s a short list of things I wouldn’t fret about: a reality television program depicting the lives of ordinary Americans; a clause in a contract between parties to a business transaction agreeing that any disputes that arise between them be resolved in compliance with shared religious principles; halal soup; halal turkeys on the Thanksgiving table.
But these are the worries of right-wing extremists, some of them Christian, some of them Jewish, and yes, some of them Muslim, such as Arizona physician Zuhdi Jasser, the star witness in New York Rep. Peter King’s show trial and a central figure in Newt Gingrich’s propaganda film America At Risk: The War With No Name. Gingrich, who has called “radical” Islam “a comprehensive political, economic, and religious movement that seeks to impose sharia – Islamic law – upon all aspects of global society,” used Jasser as the prototype “moderate” Muslim. In the film, Jasser is depicted as desperately trying to warn his fellow Muslims to eschew radicalism, but is attacked by co-religionists over his calls for “separation of mosque and state.”
Gingrich has long admired the book The Myth of Separation, which advances the view deeply held in religious right circles, that the separation of church and state is a myth promoted by liberals and “activist judges.”
What’s most remarkable about the conservative activists who promote a small, hysterical group of conspiracy theorists claiming a Muslim theocracy is the greatest threat facing America today is that they are also promoters of the mythology that America was founded and should be governed as a Christian nation – or, when they’re feeling magnanimously ecumenical, a “Judeo-Christian” nation.
Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy uses scare phrases such as “creeping shari’a” and “stealth jihad” and claims that the U.S. government has been infiltrated by a fifth column of radical Muslim Brotherhood operatives. Pamela Geller, founder of the group Stop Islamization of America, warns on her website that the “U.S. Constitution is under attack from Fundamentalist Islam and shari’a. Islamic Religious Law Fundamentalist Islam wants shari’a to replace the U.S. Constitution and fundamentally transform America.”
Replace the Constitution? Is the republic so frail that pre-Islamic practices such as honor killings, thought by Gaffney and his acolytes to be representative of “radical Islam” – a creature he portrays as indistinguishable from, well, Islam – will be written into legal codes? Will jury trials become obsolete, replaced by Islamic courts, as we are warned by Gaffney’s associate David Yerushalmi, lawyer and adviser to those who think legal bans on shari’a are essential to protect the Constitution?
These claims are laughable because they are so disconnected from reality. Yet while they border on the comic, they insidiously make their way into the national conversation, through Republican presidential campaigns, conservative talking heads on television, and even conservative groups that pressured advertisers to abandon the reality program All American Muslim. TLC, the cable network that airs All American Muslim, also airs 19 Kids and Counting, a reality show about fundamentalist Christians who believe that God has called upon them to not use birth control and that wives should be submissive to their husbands. But we haven’t seen any calls on large corporations to pull their advertising from 19 Kids on the grounds that it promotes religiously based subjugation of women, a claim the anti-Islamic fear mongers frequently make about Islam.
Indeed Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, the stars of 19 Kids and Counting, are celebrities to the Christian nation loyalists. Receiving an award at the Values Voter Summit, a bastion of Christian nation mythology, they were lauded for using their program to demonstrate how the Bible is “the owner’s manual for life.”
That’s their constitutionally protected prerogative – just like Muslims look to their own sacred texts for guidance on how to live a moral life. When the Duggars put that on television, though, they are heroes. If Muslims do, they are, by definition, hiding their true, villainous nature, which in the mind of Islamophobes, is to subvert the Christian nation.
Tim Tebow brings his faith to the NFL. If the league boasted a Muslim quarterback – and if he praised Allah in the end zone – imagine how Fox News, whose viewers are more likely than other demographics to fear “shari’a law,” would depict it as a threat to our very constitutional core.
The Christian nation is at once mighty, the greatest nation ever conceived, and so fragile minor legal disputes between private parties make headlines on Fox News. When a judge relied on a contractual provision on “ecclesiastical Islamic law” to decide whether arbitration in a monetary dispute between a Florida mosque and its former trustees followed Quranic teachings, anti-Muslim activists seized on the case as evidence of the impending downfall of Western civilization. Yet private contracts that call for alternative dispute resolution based on Christian or Jewish law go unnoticed, our court system still firmly in place.
Christian nation mythologists pump themselves up with narratives of American exceptionalism and Christian domination. But sooner or later even their most devoted followers should begin to see that also depicting it as vulnerable to non-existent threats undermines the myth itself.
Sarah Posner is senior editor at the online magazine Religion Dispatches and author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters (PoliPoint 2008).