The United States of America, founded by religious dissenters, from Puritans and Quakers, to Roman Catholics and Baptists, has as one of its basic principles that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.” Of course, law is made in many ways, only one of which is legislative. There are judicially created laws, like the ones giving Presidents the right to invoke “state secrets” to nullify the Bill of Rights in national security interests. There are signing statements, which Presidents may employ to defy the will of Congress. There are Executive Orders, which Presidents issue to make their own laws, as President Obama did, following the passage of the health care reform, forbidding the use of federal funds for women seeking abortions under the new law. But there are more subtle forms of law, such as when the government tries to use its bully pulpit to sway public opinion on a given issue. That’s happened recently, when leading members of the Administration, from the Attorney General, the Secretary of State and the general prosecuting the war in Afghanistan issued harsh condemnations against a Florida Pentecostal pastor who is planning to burn a pile of Qur’ans on September 11.
That last–the law of polemic–creates a mob, ruled only by the twin demons of demogoguery and propaganda. It is quite effective, since it appeals to the angels of our lesser nature, and it is the enemy of republican ideals.
The fact of the matter is that our nation is in dire straits, broke, rudderless and desperate. The throngs that surrounded Candidate Obama have been replaced by snarling Tea Parties clamoring for their country back. The rise of the Anti-Obama Messiahs, led by the likes of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, and supported by an assortment of blame-the-immigrants-first media outlets, is sign of how bad things are. Light on policy and heavy on emotion, they are made-to-order strongmen (and women) for a country cracking up on the rocks.
And the Administration has played right into their hands. Barack Obama has kept the worst of George Bush’s security state policies in place, from extraordinary rendition to warrantless wiretaps of Americans’ private communications, all in the name of the endless and meaningless “war on terror.” And now, the Administration has unleashed its most capable attack dogs on a religious group engaged in a stupid act of political theater masquerading as prophetic witness.
The right of the Reverend Terry Jones and his silly band of holy warriors at the Dove Outreach Center to burn the Muslim holy book is, however distasteful, protected under the First Amendment. It is un-Christian, uncharitable, disgusting and needlessly provocative. It is not, however, un-American. It is protected speech and protected religion. It is within my right, as a fellow Christian minister, to tell Jones that such actions make him fit only for the Hell he dreams of for Muslims. It is not the right of the United States Government to say that.
This is our fight, the fight of those who understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be the salvation and healing of the world against those who want to twist it into some narrow, vile and hateful cult. Terry Jones has dishonored the Name of Christ and the Cross on which he was murdered.
But in the United States of America, he has the right to be a false Christian, and the United States Government should leave him alone. The Church has a way of discipline for heretics like Terry Jones: they are cast outside the communion of saints until they seek forgiveness of their error from those they have wronged. Which in this case, is the Muslim community here and abroad and the entire Christian Church.
So, I must defend the right of Terry Jones to be a damned heretic, as I defended the right of the Muslim communities in Lower Manhattan to build their new community center. Those brave men and women, living and dead, who fought for those rights must not have died in vain.