TIME faith

If America Became a Christian Nation

They probably wouldn't like what it looks like


With political season kicking off again, so is the season where folks begin to use the term “Christian nation.” Some claim we were one, some claim we are one, and some say we need to become one. Yet, each time I hear that phrase I have an inner Princess Bride moment where I say to myself, “you keep using that word, but it doesn’t mean what you think it means.”

Because truth be told, if America actually were to become a Christian nation, I don’t think the people who advocated for it would be too happy with the end product. Since Christian is supposed to mean “little Christ” or “Christ follower,” we actually have a way to offer some clear cut examples of what a Christian nation would look like– because all we have to do is look at what Jesus taught, and how Jesus lived, as a model to pattern national behavior.

So, what if we became a Christian nation? Well, a few things would have to change… drastically. Here’s a few quick examples:

We’d Have To Abolish the 2nd Amendment.

The 2nd Amendment is so beloved by American Christians that this alone would likely be the sticking point preventing us from ever becoming a Christian nation. Jesus taught his disciples that they were to never use violence to respond to evil (Matthew 5:39) and that they were to actively love their enemies. He also lived a life of nonviolent enemy love as a model for us to follow– and living our lives patterned after how he lived his is the ultimate proof that we belong to God (1John 2:6). A Christian nation would have no room for the 2nd Amendment.

We’d Have to Replace the Department of Defense with the Department of Enemy Love.

Refraining from killing one’s enemies is just part of the package with Jesus- he also taught that enemy love was to be an active love. He taught his disciples that they were to bless their enemies, serve their enemies, and actively do good things for them. In this regard, disbanding our military would be the first thing a Christian nation would do, but the second thing would be that they would begin actively loving enemies. Converting the Department of Defense into the Department of Enemy Love and using those billions of dollars to bless the world- particularly the Muslim world- would be a good start towards having a nation that looked like Jesus.

We’d Have to End Capital Punishment.

Of course, there would be no capital punishment in a Christian Nation because Christ is the one who disrupted a public execution and told the executioners that only a perfect person was qualified to serve in the role of executioner (John 8:7). This means the role of legitimate executioners has been vacant ever since, and would not exist in a Christian nation.

Eradicating Poverty Would Be One of Our Most Pressing Concerns.

In Matthew 25 Jesus gives us a picture of the final judgement day, and describes the scene as he gathers “all nations” before him. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending which side you end up on) Jesus doesn’t give the nations a theology exam. However, he does judge them based upon whether or not they took care of the poor and vulnerable– and those who did not (professing Christians) are told to “depart.” A Christian nation would remember that feeding hungry people is one of the boxes on Jesus’s judgement day score card.

We’d Freely Care for the Sick.

Healing people of illnesses was one of the central aspects of Jesus’s earthly ministry. Any nation worthy of calling itself a Christian nation would also be a nation who freely and indiscriminately provided healthcare for the sick and lame, just as Jesus. Jesus even freely healed a man who was paralyzed because of his own stupid life choices (John 5:14), so any Christian nation would be extremely generous in the provision of healthcare.

We’d Become The Most Loving Nation Toward Immigrants.

That passage in Matthew 25 where Jesus judges the nations? Welp, one of the other items on the score sheet is “welcoming immigrants” (Matthew 25:35). A Christian nation would be seen as the most pro-immigrant nation on earth.

We’d Do Away with the Pledge of Allegiance.

Kids all across the country begin their days by standing, facing a piece of fabric, and taking a pledge to give their allegiance to it. In a Christian nation however, we would recognize that it is impossible to serve two masters and would be repulsed at the idea of pledging our allegiance to anyone but Jesus himself. Furthermore, we wouldn’t take oaths in a Christian nation (Matthew 5:34), so the entire practice of pledging allegiance to the flag would seem creepy to us.

We’d Pay Our Taxes Without Complaining About It.

It seems many of those who think they want America to be a Christian nation see taxation as a form of thievery, but when Jesus weighed in on the issue (speaking within a culture that had a high taxation rate) he simply noted that we should pay to Caesar whatever belongs to him. Jesus had his big moment to expose the evils of taxation and missed it- essentially telling his followers to pay it and move on. In a Christian nation, we’d all be like Jesus: telling people to pay their taxes.

As over-the-top as some of these seem, they’re all things that Jesus directly taught and modeled for us to emulate. Any Christian nation, by definition, would have to be a nation that lived out the teachings and example of Jesus, and would be a radical anomaly on the world scene.

So, politicians can use the term “Christian nation” all they want, but I don’t think any of them understand what the term actually means– nor do I think any of them would find a Christian nation appealing.

A Christian nation doesn’t exist, nor will one ever exist. However, the Kingdom of God does exist, right here, right now– and you’re invited to live within it, where all of those above things are lived and practiced already.

Benjamin L. Corey holds a Master of Arts in Theology from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, a Master of Arts in World Missions (Cum Laude), also from Gordon-Conwell, and is a member of the Phi Alpha Chi Honors Society. Ben is currently completing his doctorate at Fuller Seminary in the field of missiology. In addition to writing for Patheos Progressive Christian, Ben is a contributor for: TIME, Sojourners, Red Letter Christians, Evangelicals for Social Action, Mennonite World Review, and The Good Men Project. He has also been featured as a guest on HuffPost Live, the Drew Marshall Show, and Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang. Ben is a syndicated author with MennoNerds, a collective of some of the top Mennonite & Anabaptist voices today.

This article originally appeared on Patheos.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

Don’t Lose Faith in Faith Just Yet

David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.

Houses of worship serve a crucial function of community in a fractured, polarized, and screen-obsessed society

Religion in America is fading. According to a new Pew Research Center report, almost 23% of all U.S. adults in 2014 said they were religiously unaffiliated, up from about 16% in 2007. While most of the unaffiliated describe themselves as “nothing in particular,” a growing share say they are atheist or agnostic.

Why is religion in trouble, and should we be fighting to save it?

Some religious groups are holding fairly steady, including the evangelical and historically black Protestant traditions. But organized religion is struggling, and there is a striking correlation, as we have seen before, with income and education, and non-affiliation.

The first adversary religion faces is self-sufficiency. Educated, affluent Americans feel they are doing well. Part of the drive to religion has been to improve one’s lot in this world through prayer, community, and the solace that religion brings. As people feel that their lives are on course and they are able to take care of their own needs, there is less motivation to accede to the demands of time and attention that religion requires.

The second adversary religion faces is a scientific hegemony over the life of the mind. Institutions of higher learning are for the most part, resolutely secular. There is religious life on campus, but most mainstream academic institutions are hospitable to a scientific, secular mindset. You can see this mentality on display in the bestselling and provocative book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Its author, Yuval Harari, blithely proclaims that all values are human constructs, all religions are mythological motivators, and science has no dogma. This is all taken more or less for granted in the halls of academe.

The third adversary to religion is the decline of genuine community and extended family. Modern social arrangements sap religious vitality. The Bible’s first statement about human nature has also been one of religion’s great appeals: “It is not good for a person to be alone (Gen 2:18).” Faith communities enable powerful bonds of association. Even modern studies confirm unambiguously that nothing is more important to longevity and health than the quality of one’s relationships.

Yet in an age of social media, our relationships are increasingly less likely to be dependent on gatherings like those at houses of worship. People who went to church socials to meet a mate are swiping through profiles on dating sites. Grandparents, whose religious affiliations were so decisive in moving grandchildren to devotion, are often no longer living in the same house with their grandchildren, but are visited occasionally in assisted-living complexes.

Religion itself has a lot to answer for as well—including some worship services that are disconnected and dull, beliefs that run powerfully against the grain of modern discoveries or modern sensibilities, a smug authoritarianism assumed by some religious leaders, and the view that religion is at the fulcrum of much of the world’s violence.

Yet although this finding will be applauded by many, do not celebrate too quickly. Not only is religion responsible for much of the world’s good works, but houses of worship serve a crucial function of community in a fractured, polarized, and screen-obsessed society. In my synagogue each week, people put their arms around each other and sing. Theology aside, that deeply human and moving experience is rarely found elsewhere in the modern world.

Today is not the only day that matters. History, tradition, and collective wisdom are not negated because of the ingenuity of the latest app. Religion is our spiritual time capsule, bringing us what was precious to those before us. Much has changed, but not the human heart. Modern leaders need to learn how to speak anew, not only of God but also of ideals like dedication, self-sacrifice, kindness, and love.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME faith

Fewer Americans Calling Themselves Christians, Survey Finds

USA, Vermont, Sharon, Sharon Congregational Church
Getty Images

Trend is driven by Millennials, around one third of whom claim to be religiously unaffiliated

The share of Americans calling themselves Christians has dropped sharply in recent years, according to a new Pew Research Center survey — while the population of religiously unaffiliated adults has risen.

Though more Christians call America home than any other country, the percentage of American adults identifying as Christians has fallen from 78.4% in 2007 to about 70.6%. Meanwhile, over one in five (22.8%) say they are unaffiliated with any faith, a 6.7% percentage point jump since 2007.

Pew finds the Millennial generation is leading the decline in religious affiliation, though adults of all ages and across all demographic groups are steering away from Christianity. About 36% of Americans between 18 and 24 claim to be religiously unaffiliated, along with some 34% of Americans between 24 and 33.

Protestants and Catholics experienced the greatest drop in population, according to the survey, with populations declining respectively by 5 and 3 million people. There has, however, been a bump in the number of Evangelical Christians in the U.S.—Pew estimates that population has grown by 2 million since 2007.

The survey is Pew’s second to examine the religious landscape of America. The survey seeks to fill a gap left by the Census, which does not question Americans’ religious affiliation. A little over 35,000 adults were interviewed for the survey, which has a margin of error of 0.6 percentage points.

TIME Religion

Old Age Doesn’t Have to Be a Shipwreck

Elderly Couple
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David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.

We pay homage to the wisdom of age, but our culture does not seem to believe it

Thirty years ago my mother suffered a stroke that left her without the ability to speak. She can say a word, sometimes two or three, but she has been locked in a prison of self for decades. Yet at moments her powerful character shines through.

A few years ago, after my father died, my brothers and I gathered in Philadelphia for her birthday. We took my mother out to dinner at a local restaurant. After the meal, my brothers and I pulled out our wallets. My mother looked at us with scorn, and loudly said, “No!” We were shocked. Surely she didn’t think that we would let her pay for us? But she seemed emphatic, so dutifully, we put our cards away. My mother looked at us again, and crowed triumphantly, “Dessert!”

We laughed, of course. But the contrast of her force and her limitations is painful. The diminishment of a person is a fearsome and often tragic thing to see. I am at an age when my contemporaries are taking care of and often burying their parents. It is not unusual for death to be preceded by a steady and sometimes painful decline. As a rabbi, I visit old-age homes and hospitals and have to remind myself that this is the fate of everyone who lives long enough. Once the people who are slow, burdened with brittle bones and fading faculties, were children, teenagers, adults, bursting with dreams. They, too, could not imagine being in their current state.

The nuclear family is not kind to the aged. Once most people lived with multiple generations all together in the same house. Institutions have taken the place of families, and the old-age home and the college dorm epitomize our social structure—the old live with the old, and the young live with the young. Except for worship services and sporting events, it’s rare to see intermingling of generations in our society. We pay homage to the wisdom of age, but our culture does not seem to believe it. In a time when technology continually changes the landscape, it’s the younger generation who are likeliest to know how to navigate the world. Teenagers will fix your cellphone and connect your AppleTV. Startups are often created by those who are starting out.

Still, it is our great loss that we disregard the generations who preceded us. Although the elderly represent the past, they are in fact our future. They are where we are headed. Not only do they carry the vividness of personal memory about the years before we were born, but they also carry the immediacy of what it means to be further along on the journey than most of us are now. One day, if we are lucky, we will be old. What will life feel like for me in 20 or 30 or 50 years?

Old age, Charles de Gaulle once said, is a shipwreck. The first sense of that remark is the wreckage of one’s body, once so reliable and now so painful in rest and burdensome in motion. Yet if you think of the storm and gales, emotional, physical, even historical, that so many of the elderly have had to endure, the image of a shipwreck makes a new kind of sense as well. Just as we rush to interview the survivors of any difficult experience, for we know there is an insight born of survival itself, we should look to those who are older not only for the wisdom of living, but also for the wisdom of aging.

Everyone is ultimately headed to the same place. Care for the aged is a mandate of compassion to be sure, but it is also a way of understanding the human condition, including our own. The Psalmist pleaded thousands of years ago, “Do not cast me aside when I am old” (71:9). All of us need to reflect on how well we heed the Psalmist’s cry.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

Young Muslims Are Inviting You to Draw Muhammad

The campaign is a creative response to Islamophobia

Did you know that Muhammad is the most common name in the world? The chances are you know a Muhammad or know somebody who knows one.

Muslim American activist Amani al-Khatahtbeh, who runs the popular blog MuslimGirl.net, is fighting Islamaphobia by inviting people to draw a picture of their friends who are called Muhammad.

The campaign is in response to the inflammatory Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest organized by Pamela Geller of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) in Garland, Texas, on Sunday night. Participants there were invited to draw images of the Prophet Muhammad, which Muslims consider offensive.

The event resulted in violence after two Islamist gunmen, identified as Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, opened fire outside the building, injuring a security officer. The suspects were both shot and killed by police.

Geller is known for her anti-Muslim stance and the AFDI is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Al-Khatahtbeh vigorously condemned the gunmen’s actions as “inexcusable.” But in response to Geller’s event, she came up with her own campaign, ‘Let’s help Pam draw Muhammad.’

People are asked to draw their friend Muhammad as a celebration of the human connections people have to “Muhammad,” it being such a common name.

“Chances are that all know a Muhammad. So, let’s draw Muhammad. Let’s honor his diversity. Let’s celebrate his many different faces. Let’s elevate his humanity,” she writes on MuslimGirl.net.

And using the hashtag #DM2015, people are taking to Twitter to draw a Muhammad in their lives.

TIME Media

Art Spiegelman: Je Suis Charlie—But I’m Not Pamela Geller

Cartoonist Art Spiegelman attends the French Institute Alliance Francaise's "After Charlie: What's Next for Art, Satire and Censorship" at Florence Gould Hall on Feb. 19, 2015 in New York City.
Mark Sagliocco—Getty Images Cartoonist Art Spiegelman attends the French Institute Alliance Francaise's "After Charlie: What's Next for Art, Satire and Censorship" at Florence Gould Hall on Feb. 19, 2015 in New York City.

Art Spiegelman is a cartoonist, editor, and the author of Maus.

On Tuesday night, Art Spiegelman hosted a table at the PEN gala, after other authors dropped out in protest of an award being given to French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Here, he speaks to TIME about the award and why cartoons are so misunderstood by many Americans.

TIME: After six writers withdrew from hosting last night’s PEN gala honoring Charlie Hebdo, why did you decide to step up and co-host the event?

Spiegelman: It seemed necessary as a corrective to what I saw as boneheaded reasons for the pullout. I decided to accept an invitation to host a table that I’d passed on before, because black tie galas aren’t my thing, and I had something else I was supposed to do that night. But after those six authors, who I’ve come to think of as a kind of super hero team called the Sanctimonious Six, pulled out, I just felt that it was necessary to be a corrective and invite other sympathetic people to be there to shout, “Cartoonist lives matter.”

Why was it important to honor Charlie Hebdo with the James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award?

One point that was made over and over again was that this is an award for courage. And it’s hard to be more courageous than going back to work after your office has been bombed and your comrades have been slaughtered. On those grounds alone, one would think, “It’s a no brainer. They get the award.”

Beyond that, the magazine was getting a really bum rap. It’s actually anything but a racist magazine. One of the most touching things for me during the award ceremony last night was having the head of SOS Racisme, a French organization that combats racist activity, very movingly talk about Charlie Hebdo being a great force against racism in France.

They received the award for using their particular vocabulary and medium to stir debate on issues, not to create mischief, and they did it estimably, even when people didn’t agree with them. As one of the editors pointed out yesterday, the Charlie Hebdo editors don’t even agree with each other. The point of these cartoons is to start conversations about these issues. And these issues are not trivial.

This week, we also saw a shooting in Texas outside of a “Draw Muhammad” contest sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative. What’s the difference between Charlie Hebdo and Pamela Geller’s organization?

I think that’s when my brain short-circuited. Because superficially, it seems like, well, the same thing is happening in Texas. But it’s not. It’s the anti-matter, Bizarro World, flipside, mirror-logic version of what Charlie Hebdo is about.

The American Freedom Defense Initiative is racist organization. It’s exactly the nightmare version that the writers who were protesting the PEN award thought Charlie was. But Charlie is an anti-racist, political magazine that does not have an agenda that consists of wanting to bait or trouble Muslims.

Pam Geller’s organization is intentionally trying to start war of culture with Islam by saying that all Muslims are terrorists under the surface, and we’re going to prove it. Do the group members deserve free speech protection? Of course. But they’re hiding behind that banner with things that have very little to do with free speech and a lot to do with race hate.

Je suis Charlie, mais je ne suis pas Pam Geller. She and her dim-witted, ugly organization deserve the protection of the free speech mantle that they wrap themselves in. But would I ever give them a courage award? Hardly. Would I ever want to be in the same room with them? No. Do I wish they would stop? Yes.

The PEN writers who protested the event were projecting similar motives and attitudes onto Charlie Hebdo. Dismissing it as French arrogance is quite arrogant. Dismissing it as crude and vulgar is something that makes me suspicious of how cartoons are viewed by the writers who didn’t have enough respect for these images to understand them on their own.

What is the role of images and cartoons in this debate?

It’s interesting to me that cartoons have been so central to it. Cartoons are so much more immediate than prose. They have a visceral power that doesn’t require you to slow down, but it does require you to slow down if you want to understand them.

They have a deceptive directness that writers can only envy. They deploy the same tools that writers often use: symbolism, irony, metaphor. Cartoons enter your eye in a blink, and can’t be unseen after they’re seen. But to understand some of these cartoons requires a lot of culture immersion and symbol reading and a lot of analysis.

There was a New Yorker cover back in the beginning of my time at the magazine that helped change the magazine’s DNA enough to embrace controversial images. It was in the wake of the Crown Heights race riots in which the West Indian black community and the Hasidic Jew community came to bloody blows. As I was doodling I wondered, “What would the guy with the monocle look like if he were Hasidic?” And then I had a black woman kiss him.

When the cover came out, it created a riot of its own—as much indignation on both sides as possible in the world before the Internet. Among the letters that came in to the magazine was a letter from a young woman saying that she thought it was really sweet that on Abe Lincoln’s birthday there was a picture of Lincoln kissing a slave. What’s so amazing about that is that it gets right to the heart of the problem that some of the protesting PEN writers have: learning to read images. They’re very easy to misread without enough information, and some of my writing brethren are great mis-readers.

What would you like to see moving forward?

We should be teaching visual literacy in all schools. We’re bombarded with images more and more, and we have less and less time to understand them. What’s amazing about these simple drawings is that they stand still long enough for you to circle them and get around them in ways you often can’t with videos.

It’s not easy for Americans, because for one thing there are hardly any political cartoonists in America at this point. Political cartoonists are a dying breed. Here there are fewer newspapers, fewer newspapers with a cartoonist on staff, and political cartoons have been reduced to being a variant of a gag cartoon because the last thing a newspaper would want to do is lose a single reader.

I’m stuck having to agree with my bête noir friend Pam Geller that it would be better going forward for newspapers and magazines to take on the responsibility for showing these images. When the Danish Muhammad cartoons appeared in 2006, and when the Mohammad cartoons from Charlie Hebdo appeared, newspapers should have shown these images and talked about them. Many dismissed them as banal and treated them as, “Nothing to see here, move along.”

If it were taken as a matter of course for newspapers and magazines to show these images, they could be normalized, so the many Muslims not offended to the point of grabbing a machine gun could understand that this is how our culture functions with images and issues. It would create a better-informed population dealing with whatever comes next. It would also be useful to have other voices on newspaper and magazine staffs.

What’s the mistake in not publishing images that could be deemed offensive?

There’s no stopping it. What would it be based on? Would it be based on when someone takes up arms against the image? Would it be based on when someone thinks it’s offensive? God knows where the line would be drawn. It can’t be drawn that way. There is an incredible efficiency cartoons have, once you learn to read them, in clarifying the issues at hand, making them memorable.

There’s something basic about cartoons. They work they way the brain works. We think in small, iconic images. An infant can recognize a smiley face before it can recognize its mother’s smile. We think in little bursts of language. This is how cartoons are structured. They’re structured to talk to something deep inside our brains. A cartoon becomes a new kind of word that didn’t exist before.

It’s interesting how little respect they get. “Oh, anyone could draw that crude, vulgar scrawl,” said a number of critics of Charlie Hedbo. That’s not quite true. They’re not totally dismissible. If a writer had made some of the points that Charlie Hebdo had made, I don’t think the writers protesting PEN would have been so condescending and dismissive.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

Republicans Aren’t the Only Ones Who Believe in God

Jennifer Moses is a writer and painter.

There, I said it. I believe in God. I mean, I really really believe in God.

Here it comes again, as regular as the flu season, and almost as frequent: the march of the presidential contenders, and the mad scramble, especially among Republicans, to enlist God as campaign manager numero uno.

On the far right we’ve got Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who, in a 2013 interview said: At the end of the day, faith is “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.” Florida Senator Marco Rubio upholds the teachings of the Catholic Church on gay marriage and abortion. The supposed front-runner, Jeb Bush, also Catholic, has openly declared that public leaders need to be guided by faith, and recently met with Russell Moore, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, presumably in an effort to beef up his Christian cred. Bush will also be speaking at the commencement of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. So God-centric has our political culture become that Hillary herself—yes, the she-devil who sends chills of fear up every Bible-thumper in America—recently declared, “the Bible was and remains the biggest influence on my thinking.”

Gaily fluttering flags hanging from countless front porches all over the deep South, including many in my own former neighborhood in Baton Rouge ask: “WWJD?” To which I, a somewhat left-of-center Jew, would always think: “He’d hang out with prostitutes, feed the poor, try to get medicine to people dying of AIDS, and finally go to shul to daven mincha.”

My former neighbor in Baton Rouge, Randy Nichols, and I used to sit under the shade of the live oak trees and talk about such things — about the gap between talking about God and doing God’s work, about how easy it is to forget that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew steeped in the teachings of the biblical prophets, about people who preach mercy but show none. It was weird, too, because Randy is an ordained Methodist minister, polite to his core, who still speaks with the East Texas drawl of his youth, whereas I’m the opposite, right down to my East Coast education and penchant for sprinkling my conversation with a combination of Yiddish and words that can’t be printed here.

Even so, we had a lot in common: We shared a profound belief in God. What was it, we’d ask ourselves, in our shared holy books, our shared if fraught history, our shared stake in the experiment that is American democracy that would so skew one set of God-infused beliefs from another? And why would God desire a world where we locked people up, sometimes indefinitely, in brutal surroundings? For that matter, what is He thinking when He observes His idiot children poisoning the world He brought into being?

I don’t actually think that God thinks about all the plastic bottles that we throw into the ocean. At least not in any way that I can parse out. The word God is itself a metaphor, the best I (and billions of others) personally can do to get at something that all my words can’t elucidate but my heart knows to be true.

There, I said it. I believe in God. I mean, I really really believe in God. I believe in God so much that my relationship to Him infuses and has infused pretty much my entire waking life, and has from as early as I can remember. (I use the male pronoun because the English language doesn’t have a gender neutral term.) Like my gruff, Republican grandfather, who attended synagogue without fail, presided over a kosher home, took in distant relatives from Germany as Adolf Hitler came to power, and once told my father that a world without God simply didn’t make sense, I cleave, in my own imperfect way, to faith. As do countless others who share my left-leaning world view.

And yet the pollsters tell us that God belongs primarily to the Republican Party, citing, for example, the horrifying trend among Republican candidates to say that America is a Christian nation and a recent poll that found that 57% of Republicans support establishing Christianity as the national religion.

I now live in northern New Jersey, where, unlike in Baton Rouge, people generally don’t wear their faith on their sleeves. And yet my overwhelmingly liberal-leaning town of about 40,000, a town so stuffed with members of the chattering classes that it’s come to be known as “the Upper West Side of New Jersey,” is home to two synagogues (three if you count the one that straddles the border) and some 45 churches. That’s an awful lot of praying from folks who, the popular discourse tells us, don’t have much use for religion.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

Violence Is Worse Than Blasphemy

Two Gunmen Killed Outside Mohammed Cartoon Contest Event In Texas
Ben Torres—Getty Images FBI investigators work a crime scene outside of the Curtis Culwell Center on May 04, 2015 in Garland, TX.

David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.

"The measure of a truly tolerant society is only seen in its most egregious provocations."

Most religions have rules against blasphemy, but it’s understood that insulting God is less egregious than attacking human beings. The God of monotheistic religions cannot be harmed by coarse words and images. Theological mockery, which has a long history in religious debates, is the price of a free society.

When I have debated with notable atheists—Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and others—they have often said offensive things about God in Judaism. Against each of them I debated, protested, parried, and occasionally resented the argument. Afterwards, we shook hands.

Yet for some in Islam, an attack on Muhammad is felt as an attack on Muslims, not only a theological insult but also a communal insult. The “Draw Muhammad” contest sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, where police killed two armed gunmen, was deliberately offensive. As many of its critics have alleged, it was intended to provoke a response and to anger Muslims. Such antics make it harder for Muslims who preach against radicalism to gain a sympathetic hearing. Humans just don’t warm to a culture that disparages what they hold dear.

And yet the measure of a truly tolerant society is only seen in its most egregious provocations. “The Book of Mormon” is an undisguised attempt to be as insulting as humanly possible to the Mormon faith. It is witty, vulgar, caustic, and extravagantly offensive to anyone who is a believing Mormon. Yet, to the enduring credit of the Mormon church and community, there was no demand that it be silenced. Mormons did not take to the streets. The play continues to be seen, and the church continues to thrive.

When Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” was displayed, some tried to shut it down. Immersing an image of Jesus in urine was calculatedly repulsive. Yet here, too, free speech advocates made the persuasive case that it was only in provoking that you test tolerance. A similar instance was when Nazis marched on Skokie, Illinois, in the mid 70’s, when it was home to a large population of people who survived the concentration camps. Our limits are stretched by hard cases.

If I were Muslim, I would be hurt and offended by the “contest,” as I would be as a Mormon watching the musical, or as I was as a Jew witnessing the Nazis march. It is painful to see your most cherished beliefs deliberately and coarsely mocked. Yet I would be even more offended by the two men who came to Garland, Texas, to kill. The decision of two evil people is not the reaction of an entire community.

No group in America is exempt from the kind of crude lampooning that characterized the contest. Each group has an unfortunate tendency to say “we are the only ones who ever get mocked that way.” Not so. The truth is that if you are fat, or short, or black, or Jewish, or Mexican or Muslim, or Asian, or awkward, or any number of other things, you will hear nasty things said about you and those like you.

We can encourage sensitivity in speakers, but even more urgent is to encourage stoicism in listeners. The creed of a free society is simply this: God may deal with blasphemy however God wishes, but as people we wince, argue back, and then leave other alone. You do not have to be serene in the face of slanders but neither can you be violent. It is no victory for the Divine to kill one of Her children.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

Pamela Geller: A Response to My Critics—This Is a War

Pamela Geller
Jason Andrew—Getty Images Pamela Geller, author of the book The Post-American Presidency answers emails inside her home on August 3, 2010 in New York City.

Pamela Geller is the President of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) and publisher of PamelaGeller.com.

Some are saying I provoked this attack. But to kowtow to violent intimidation will only encourage more of it.

Sunday in Garland, Texas, a police officer was wounded in a battle that is part of a longstanding war: the war against the freedom of speech. Some people are blaming me for the Garland shooting — so I want to address that here.

The shooting happened at my American Freedom Defense Initiative Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest, when two Islamic jihadists armed with rifles and explosives drove up to the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland and attempted to gain entry to our event, which was just ending. We were aware of the risk and spent thousands of dollars on security — and it paid off. The jihadis at our free speech event were not able to achieve their objective of replicating the massacre at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine last January — and to go it one better in carnage. They were not able to kill anyone. We provided enormous security, in concert with the superb Garland police department. The men who took the aspiring killers down may have saved hundreds of lives.

And make no mistake: If it weren’t for the free-speech conference, these jihadis would have struck somewhere else — a place where there was less security, like the Lindt cafe in Australia or the Hyper Cacher Kosher supermarket in Paris.

So, why are some people blaming me? They’re saying: “Well, she provoked them! She got what she deserved!” They don’t remember, or care to remember, that as the jihadis were killing the Muhammad cartoonists in Paris, their friend and accomplice was murdering Jews in a nearby kosher supermarket. Were the Jews asking for it? Did they “bait” the jihadis? Were they “provoking” them?

Are the Jews responsible for the Nazis? Are the Christians in the Middle East responsible for being persecuted by Muslims?

Drawing Muhammad offends Islamic jihadists? So does being Jewish. How much accommodation of any kind should we give to murderous savagery? To kowtow to violent intimidation will only encourage more of it.

This is a war.

Now, after the Charlie Hebdo attack, and after the Garland attack, what are we going to do? Are we going to surrender to these monsters?

The attack in Garland showed that everything my colleagues and I have been warning about regarding the threat of jihad, and the ways in which it threatens our liberties, is true. Islamic law, Sharia, with its death penalty for blasphemy, today constitutes a unique threat to the freedom of speech and liberty in general.

Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.

Putting up with being offended is essential in a pluralistic society in which people differ on basic truths. If a group will not stand for being offended without resorting to violence, that group will rule unopposed, while everyone else lives in fear.

Islamic law as it’s interpreted by extremists forbids criticism of Islam, the Quran, and Muhammad. If they cannot be criticized in the United States, we are in effect accepting Islamic law as overriding the freedom of speech. This would establish Muslims as a protected class and prevent honest discussion of how Islamic jihadists use the texts and teachings of Islam to justify violence.

Some say that “hate speech” should be censored. But what constitutes “hate speech” is a subjective judgment that is unavoidably influenced by the political perspective of the one doing the judging.

Allowing this sort of censorship would mean nothing less civilizational suicide. Many in the media and academic elite assign no blame to an ideology that calls for death to blasphemers — i.e., those who criticize or offend Islam. Instead, they target and blame those who expose this fanaticism. If the cultural elites directed their barbs and attacks at the extremist doctrine of jihad, the world would be a vastly safer place.

You can try to avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality. The shootings in Garland, Paris, and Copenhagen targeting defenders of free speech, and the raging jihad across the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, are the disastrous consequences of avoiding reality.

I encourage all Americans to watch the videos of the Garland event and see what Islamic supremacists wish to silence: basic, elemental free speech arguments.

But we are unbowed. Even when the venue was in lockdown and hundreds of attendees were ushered down into the auditorium, the crowd was singing the Star Spangled Banner and G-d Bless America. In the face of fear, they were staunchly and uniquely American.

To learn who rules over you, simply find out whom you cannot criticize. If the international media had run the Danish cartoons back in 2005, none of this could have happened. The jihadis wouldn’t have been able to kill everyone. But by self-censoring, the media gave the jihadis the power they have today.

We must take back our freedom.

Pamela Geller is the President of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), publisher of PamelaGeller.com and author of The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America and Stop the Islamization of America: A Practical Guide to the Resistance.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

What Pamela Geller Advocates Is Not Free Speech

Pamela Geller, author of the book The Post-American Presidency and an opponent of the proposed World Trade Center Islamic Center poses for a portrait inside her home on August 3, 2010 in New York City.
Jason Andrew—Getty Images Pamela Geller, author of the book The Post-American Presidency and an opponent of the proposed World Trade Center Islamic Center poses for a portrait inside her home on August 3, 2010 in New York City.

Qasim Rashid is an attorney, author of EXTREMIST, and national spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA.

Repeated demonization can inspire violence

There’s an important history behind America’s free speech laws to which the anti-Islam hate group behind the “Draw Muhammad Contest,” is wholly ignorant. While the Islamophobe leading this hate group believes she’s a free speech champion, remarkably comparing herself to Rosa Parks, in reality America’s current free speech model developed as an attempt to protect — not demonize — religious and racial minorities. “U.S. law only began to protect hateful speech during the 1960s,” writes Garrett Epps. “Southern state governments were trying to criminalize the civil-rights movement for its advocacy of change. White Southerners claimed that the teachings of figures like Martin Luther King or Malcolm X were ‘hate speech’ and would produce ‘race war.’”

Courts sided with American icons like Dr. King, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks, not because they advocated unpopular ideas of hatred or destruction — but because they faced ongoing hatred and destruction at the hands of racist white southerners. As the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, and leading Jewish American Rabbis note, Geller represents the antithesis of the moral courage that was Rosa Parks.

Repeated demonization can inspire violence. This is a fact. “During the Holocaust, the Nazis went beyond making us social outcasts; they systematically slaughtered our people with unspeakable cruelty. Because we know so well what it is like to be outcasts, we must never, through our deeds or words, make others into modern-day lepers,” says Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the largest Jewish denomination in North America. “[W]hat [Geller] does, what she represents, has no place in a Jewish community that is built on tolerance and understanding.”

We, as society, must do better. Rather than fall for the fallacy that what Geller advocates is free speech, recognize that as human beings our strength rests not in sticking to the bare minimum the law permits, but in elevating our civility to the highest levels possible.

We cannot defeat terrorist groups like ISIS by following ideology that serves only to demonize the other. Rather, we counter such extremism with better, more compassionate, and more pluralistic concepts that are universal to all people — respect, integrity, and justice.

At an international peace conference in the United Kingdom His Holiness the Khalifa of Islam Mirza Masoor Ahmad wisely remarked, “Let it not be that in the name of freedom of speech the peace of the entire world be destroyed.” This simple lesson in personal accountability is the key to establishing peace. No law, no matter how specific, can legislate morality — and speech is essentially a moral issue. If we truly want peace, society must rise above the intolerance that Geller and ISIS alike espouse.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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