I am, frankly, taken aback by some of the reactions to Ross Douthat’s latest column, which makes the commonsensical observation that wavering Anglicans may find the Pope’s combative approach to Islam more attractive than their own church’s more conciliatory policy. Adam Serwer, for example, uses the column as a jumping off point for blaming Christians for the Iraq War:
Douthat is considered a “reasonable conservative” in liberal circles, but this column is downright nutty. It’s frightening enough that someone who attended school in a city as international as Boston could endorse the idea of viewing Muslims worldwide as a “foe” of Christianity. But consider the fact that there are probably a number of people in charge of making foreign policy decisions in the last administration, who saw Christianity and Islam as “foes” and acted or advised accordingly. In fact, the march to war in Iraq despite the lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction, the false linkage of Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, and even the argument that the use of torture is justified against Muslims are easily explained by the worldview of a person who sees Christianity and Islam as being “foes,” particularly if one sees America as a “Christian Nation.”*
I mean, what? Other than his willful misinterpretation of the word “foe,” I challenge Serwer to identify anything at all in Douthat’s column that endorses religious conflict between Muslims and Christians.
It’s true that Catholicism and Islam compete for spiritual converts. But this isn’t Lepanto or the Siege of Jerusalem. It’s a straightforward case of religious pluralism, with both faiths striving to attract adherents through persuasion and institutional expansion. Are secularists like Serwer threatened by a robust public competition between Islam and Christianity? And if so, why?
The assumption that seems to undergird this line of thinking is that religious leaders should always avoid public agreement. This strikes me as both hopelessly naive and antithetical to the very idea of religious faith. Islam and Catholicism are spiritual cousins, but both faiths also have serious doctrinal differences. Denying these distinctions empties religion of any meaning other than some vague, Unitarian-lite belief in a higher power, which does serious violence to two venerable theological traditions.
*I also think Bush deserves some credit for distancing his (admittedly disastrous) foreign policy from any religious conflict.