Muqtedar Khan and Cheryl Sanders
The Other Religious America in Election 2004
Muqtedar Khan is director of International Studies and chair of of the Political Science Department at Adrian College, and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C..
Cheryl Sanders is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at the Howard University School of Divinity, and Associate Pastor at the Third Street Church of God in Washington D.C..
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: This is Speaking of Faith, conversation about belief, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “The Other Religious America in Election 2004.”
The role of religion and religious voters has escalated in the final stretch of the 2004 campaign for president. In this remarkably tight race, every constituency has come to matter, and both Republicans and Democrats have become increasingly attentive to the power of religious convictions to sway all kinds of voters. This hour, in conversation with an African-American and an American Muslim, we’ll explore the perspectives of two religious communities who defy the broad stereotypes of this election year. We’ll seek to gain a deeper understanding of the way in which they are thinking through the mix of religious ideas that have come to the forefront of this campaign. These religious people seek complex choices between competing religious ideals, and they are making their decisions in ways that challenge the intuition of pollsters and pundits.
In accounting for 5 percent of the population, Muslims have become the third largest religious group in this country, yet relatively little attention has been paid to the political direction their faith gives them. We’ll speak with Muslim-American political scientist Muqtedar Khan. With him we’ll explore why Muslims have become swing voters in this year’s election, despite the fact that they voted by a wide margin for George W. Bush in 2000, in part for religious reasons.
MUQTEDAR KHAN: When Bush was asked, `Who is your role model?’ he had said, `Jesus Christ.’ And many Muslims said that `How can we not vote for a man whose role model is Jesus Christ?’ Because Jesus is considered a major prophet within Islamic tradition.
MS. TIPPETT: First, we’ll explore the African-American experience. One of the most widely reported statistics of this campaign has been that Americans who go to church more once a week are likely to vote Republican. That is true of white evangelical Christians. But it is not true of African-Americans, who are also among the most religiously active citizens, and in recent decades have been a staunch part of the Democratic base. Nevertheless, at present, African-American Christians find themselves pulled in several directions. They’re relatively conservative stance on moral issues — including gay marriage — would seem to align them squarely with Republican policies.
My first guest, Cheryl Sanders, is a minister and a professor of Christian ethics at the Howard University Divinity School. She’s written widely about the intersection of religious belief and political issues in African-American lives. Her church in Washington, DC, is part of the Holiness tradition, which is often confused in the media with evangelical Christianity. In fact, the Holiness tradition has distinct theological origins and movements of social justice. Holiness activists were the original abolitionists and suffragists.
So I began by asking Cheryl Sanders how her particular tradition leads her to think in the largest possible terms about the place of faith in national politics.
CHERYL SANDERS: What John Wesley called social holiness was a very peculiar kind of engagement not dissimilar to what Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount about the need for us to be salt and light in the world. It’s being different, but not in a reclusive kind of a way, but illuminating rather than hiding in the dark. And the salt is not being ashamed of being different and distinctive. And so as far as the political scene is concerned, some of that — as I said, I think Holiness people and Pentecostals and some other rather conservative evangelical — conservative in the sense of how we interpret the Bible, not conservative politically — groups get kind of stigmatized as being escapist. Same thing was said about slave religion. `Well, they sing about heaven all the time, butthey’re not engaging the realities of the world.’ But the thought of heaven includes a very important commitment to justice, and therefore we are obligated — just like the love of God obligates us to love our neighbor, the justice of God obligates us to be concerned about justice and involved in the opposition to injustice as we encounter it.
MS. TIPPETT: So commentators are making lots of generalizations about all kinds of voters in this presidential election year, certainly about African-Americans. Although I think African-Americans feel a little bit perplexing because, like white evangelical Christians, African-Americans often fall into that category of people who go to church once a week, but they vote traditionally Democratic. And then there’s also — there’s also, at the same time, a sense I’ve heard that African-Americans have views on social morality, on — perhaps on gay marriage, issues like that that may be more in sync with Republicans, and they might be turned off by the secularism of the Kerry campaign. I’m just listing some of the kinds of things people are saying about African-Americans as a group. I wonder, as you listen to that kind of analysis, what sounds right to you, what sound accurate, and what are you missing? Or what do you feel commentators are missing?
DR. SANDERS: Well, one of my basic perspectives that I think is helpful to keep in mind, but it may be very difficult for people to comprehend or to explain, is that generally speaking — here I go generalizing, along with the others — African-Americans tend to be theologically conservative — African-American Christians, anyway — theologically conservative and socially progressive.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. And when you say theologically conservative, what are you thinking? Flesh that out for me.
DR. SANDERS: It all boils down to readings of the Scripture. And if not taking it literally — you don’t find a lot of fundamentalism among African-Americans, but a very strong commitment to Biblical faith. And that’s what I’m calling theologically conservative. It’s reflected in the worship and certainly in the preaching, the Biblical preaching. But at the same time, because of our experience — and perhaps the defining historical experience, the historical memory for African-American people, of course, is slavery — well, white Christians made slavery happen. The slave trade was conducted by white Christians. So the real sort of mystery in my view in all of American religious history is that any black person ever became a Christian. But what it signifies, though, is that African-Americans discerned in the Christian faith a different train of thought, a different appropriation of God than what was being taught to them by people who were obviously hypocritical and contradicting the tenets of the religion that they claimed.
Well, you fast-forward to the 21st century. Well, it’s the same old story. But it doesn’t mean that you reject their religion. You just acknowledge that even the most religious among us are not necessarily people possessed of good ethics and morality.
MS. TIPPETT: So, as you listen to politicians speak, what are you listening for in terms of religious language and ideas that feel important to you, that are going to mean something to you and to the people around you, say, in your congregation?
DR. SANDERS: The only religious language that means anything — as an African-American observer, as a voter, as a concerned citizen — the only language I really want to hear is the language of common-ground empathy and inclusion, and justice. In my church, every Sunday when I offer a pastoral prayer, I pray for the president, I pray for the people in authority over us, and I pray for justice and equity. Is it explicitly religious language? Well, in my point of view it is, because, as I’ve said, God is a god of justice and equity. God has no respect of persons. But one does not have to be religious to espouse those principles.
MS. TIPPETT: Would you say that as an African-American you’re fairly comfortable with the basic idea of politicians talking about their faith?
DR. SANDERS: Yes, because, I mean, faith is a good thing. Religion is a good thing. It’s just that I don’t expect, as has been the case I think particularly with some of the presidential candidates, I don’t expect the presidential candidate to preach to black people just because they know that we like God and we like the Bible, so when they come to our conventions they preach to us. Because that way, you feel like, as they would say on the street, you feel like you’re being played. On the other hand, if the candidate just absolutely writes you off and doesn’t have anything to say, knowing that no votes would be garnered by showing up at your conventions, then that, of course, doesn’t encourage us to embrace that notion. But what you see is it’s a pattern. And you had mentioned earlier about blacks traditionally voting Democratic. Well, my grandmother was a lifelong Republican, and black people really didn’t start voting for Democrats until the mid — early to middle part of the 20th century.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s good to be reminded of. You know, we forget these things.
DR. SANDERS: I mean, the Republican Party was the party of Lincoln. And so African-Americans, beginning with President Roosevelt — Roosevelt and Truman — I believe, is about the time when the black electorate turned from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. So it hasn’t been that long. I think that the Republican Party, though, maybe beginning with the Goldwater campaign, made it pretty clear that the black electorate was not at their center of concern. I do think, however, at the same time, that Democrats have certainly taken the black vote for granted. But I don’t think that blacks voting for the Democratic candidates for president has been a blind sort of commitment. And I think it would be to the peril of any Democratic candidate for office to take the black vote for granted.
MS. TIPPETT: Minister and Christian ethicist Cheryl Sanders. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith. Today, “The Other Religious America in Election 2004.”
African-Americans make up some 13 percent of the US population. And in the 2000 election, of those who voted, only a small fraction voted for Republican George W. Bush. But the Republican stance on gay marriage has particular resonance with the religious sensibilities of many African-Americans. A recent poll showed African-American Protestants as the lone religious group whose backing for gay rights has dropped since 1992 by 19 points. I asked my guest, Cheryl Sanders, how religion influences her stance on such issues, and how it might change the liberal political leaning of African-American voters.
DR. SANDERS: In my tradition, we’re very clear that religion has everything to do with sexual morality. And I know that that’s not a strongly held view throughout the society. And so in my church, for instance, we take a very conservative position on sexual morality in general, but it’s because of our readings of the Scripture. However, I don’t know that we see that as the defining issue, or the most important issue in the presidential campaign or just in terms of public life in general. I think that there are some other things, like issues having to do with poverty and war and peace, that are a lot more important. This is not to say the sexual issues are not important, but we don’t look to our political leaders to give us guidance on those issues. We do look to our political leaders to not only give guidance but make decisions having to do with life-and-death issues such as war and poverty.
MS. TIPPETT: And are you looking for political leaders to talk more about those things? Are you hearing that discussed in some places? I mean, is that conversation taking place within African-American communities?
DR. SANDERS: I think within the African-American community — both the religious community, community in general — the domestic policy of this nation towards the poor is a very critical issue, even for people who are not themselves poor. It’s an important issue, and I don’t really hear it being addressed in the campaign, not very explicitly anyway. But it is something that is very important. It gets obliquely addressed within the conversation concerning the president’s faith-based initiative because practically speaking, the beneficiaries — the people who are served by the agencies and organizations that receive federal funding — are disproportionately African-American people. Not exclusively that, but it’s generally a program in the urban setting in the so-called inner city, and blacks tend to be the recipients of those kinds of services. So the faith-based initiative is marketed among African-Americans as a very practical thing, even though, of course, with the Democrats, you have a lot of objection to it.
MS. TIPPETT: Is that something that African-Americans find hard to…
DR. SANDERS: It is.
MS. TIPPETT: …reconcile?
DR. SANDERS: It’s very difficult. As religious leaders, many of us are the ones who are most directly concerned about the poor. And if the faith-based initiative enables us to expand what we’re doing, and then the black political leaders, because of their animosity towards anything George Bush does, will say, `Oh, well faith-based initiative is a bad thing,’ then it really puts us in a complex dilemma.
MS. TIPPETT: This whole conversation for me is — I’m getting a picture of how very complex the dilemma is for African-Americans, and especially when it comes to these intersections of moral and religious ideas in the political process. I mean, where are you looking for some clarity to appear, or where do you look for hope in all of this?
DR. SANDERS: The place you look for hope — we always, I suppose, look back for hope. And as you know, the person who stands out in the American history as the spokesperson for the concerns of African-Americans is Martin Luther King. He was a Baptist minister. He was also very highly educated theologian. He was a very well-connected upper-middle-class person in terms of his social location. But he was extremely articulate in making the case — informed by the Bible, but also informed by other philosophical and even historical traditions — to make the case for freedom and justice and equality for African-American people and for Americans as a whole.
Well, that is our hope. As occurs every year with the King celebrations, we ask ourselves, `What would Martin Luther King say if he were living in our time?’ But we sort of hold on to the dream of an America where there is justice and peace and equality. What I just would add to that is that even though Martin Luther King gets remembered for his dream, he was very self-consciously speaking in a context of reality, the reality being racism, the stigmatization of African-American people as somehow different and not deserving of justice and freedom and etc. And so our hope is that those principles, on the strength of them, will be enacted and embraced in the future so that the next generation, my children’s generation, their children’s generation, will be able to experience all of the blessings of freedom and justice in North America and beyond.
MS. TIPPETT: And you know, it is remarkable to me in the conversations I have — I’m just thinking in the last couple of weeks, thinking of a Catholic policymaker I’m talking to who mentioned Martin Luther King, I’m thinking the other day about a Jewish thinker who mentioned Martin Luther King here. And maybe a figure as powerful and as effective as Martin Luther King only comes around, you know, once in a century. But I think a question that I have is who are voices of moral guidance that African-Americans today turn to? Who are African-Americans going to be listening to? And maybe those are not people who are on everybody else’s radar screen.
DR. SANDERS: That’s a tough question. I think that historically the answer to that question has been the clergy, the religious leaders in our communities. And as has been said, Martin Luther King sort of is important if for no other reason because he had a wider audience than the black community and the black churches. But I think that still the religious leaders are the go-to people for perspective and prophetic insight within the African-American community. It’s just that I think increasingly our politicians — that is, elected officials who are representing African-Americans — that there are not as many ministers in the mix as were in years past. In other words, the religious leader in the African-American community historically has been the person who does it all — political, economic, religious, moral — that that person was a leader in a very comprehensive way of thinking.
Some of that has to do with the fact that the African-American view of church is not — and I’ve thought a lot about this in the conversations in the past few years about the separation of church and state. Well, that largely depends on your view of church. And in African-American community, church is not just something you do for one hour a week, and then you just not think about it, and you go once a week and that’s — and then you lock the doors. But church is involved in the community, religious leaders are involved way beyond the particular demands of pastoral leadership and preaching and teaching and counseling.
And so I do think that that is still there, even though it is not as strong as it may have been 100 or even 200 years ago, where the sole leader, the most important leader among African-Americans was the minister. But I think you also see a better educated and more highly visible cadre of religious leaders, and that’s where people look. I don’t know what other places African-Americans look or listen for moral guidance in this society.
MS. TIPPETT: Minister and Christian ethicist Cheryl Sanders. In an essay she contributed to a recent book on religion and American politics, she reflects biblically on the task of reconciling diverse Christian teachings with political decisions. She takes the Genesis story of Sodom as her guide. The Hebrew Bible recounts that God destroyed that ancient city because there were no righteous people in it. From that story, our culture takes the term “sodomy.” But while sexual impropriety is one of the sins of the Sodomites described in Genesis, Cheryl Sanders finds it instructive that later in the Hebrew Bible the prophet Ezekiel defined the underlying sin of the Sodomites much more broadly. “This was the guilt of your sister, Sodom,” the book of Ezekiel declares. “She and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” Again, Cheryl Sanders.
DR. SANDERS: Well, that is the Bible’s own prophetic comment on its own narratives. And so this is why, as African-Americans, we can’t afford to be fundamentalists, because fundamentalists would be pretty dismissive of that, because the Bible never contradicts itself. And not that this a text of contradictions, but it puts into perspective that this materialism, this idolatry, this disregard of the poor — the basic issues of justice and equity — those are the things God is concerned about, more than our sexual behavior. Does that mean that there was no sexual immorality in Sodom? Absolutely not. But in that prophetic text from Ezekiel, God says, `I wiped them out because of their materialism and their idolatry, not because of their particular sexual misconduct.’
And I think that it resonates for me with what Jesus said in Matthew 23. He was arguing, as he seemed to always do, with the scribes and the Pharisees, and he says, `Well, woe to you Pharisees. You are so concerned about these little things, and then you leave the big things undone, the things like justice and equity undone.’ And so if there’s any message that I extract from those two texts, it’s that as Christians we need to be concerned, preoccupied with justice and equity for the poor and not over these fine points of morality. Not that they’re irrelevant, but we cannot afford to allow those things to emerge as — particularly in an election year — as a wedge issue.
I did actually talk to an African-American leader in the Midwest who says that Bush’s position on this issue was enough to win his vote. We’ll see in November how many African-Americans are persuaded over against issues of poverty and justice and war.
MS. TIPPETT: Cheryl Sanders is a professor of Christian ethics at the Howard University Divinity School and senior pastor at the Third Street Church of God in Washington, DC. Her books include Saints in Exile.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith. Today, The Other Religious America in Election 2004.
Here’s a reading from a contemporary Jewish thinker who, in reflecting on the place of religion in politics, like Cheryl Sanders, invokes the model of Martin Luther King and Biblical prophets. Susannah Heschel is the chair of Jewish studies in the Department of Religion at Dartmouth College. She’s the daughter of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose writings, such as “Man is Not Alone,” were seminal works for justice movements of the 20th century, including the civil rights movement. Susannah Heschel’s essay is entitled “Protecting Religion from Politics.”
READER: “It is hard to be a person of faith in secular America. It was the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and my father, Abraham Joshua Heschel, that rescued me from despair. In their words the Bible became the most vivid and powerful way to challenge the status quo. Martin Luther King changed the social and political fabric of America, just as my father changed the religious fabric of American Jewish life. Through the speeches and writings of these two men, Amos and Isaiah became perhaps the most important figures of the past, demanding social justice and purity of intention, and most of all, insisting that there is no room for complacency in a religious life. `A religious person,’ my father said, `can never say, “I am a good person.”‘ And that is the goal of prayer, to be subversive — subversive of our conventional values and of our self-righteousness. The words of Amos unsettle all of us — the pious as well as the cheaters, kings, priests and merchants. My first fear is that if religion can be brought into the public sphere, then the public sphere will more easily infiltrate the realm of religion.”
From Susannah Heschel’s essay “Protecting Religion From Politics,” published in One Electorate Under God: A Dialogue On Religion And American Politics.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Read the rest of Susannah Heschel’s essay at speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett.
After a short break, an American Muslim voice on Islam and politics in election 2004. American Muslims have become swing voters. We’ll turn to Muqtedar Khan to understand what has happened since 2000, when the vast majority of Muslims voted for George Bush for religious reasons.
On our website at speakingoffaith.org, you’ll find in-depth background and reading recommendations. You can also sign up for our weekly e-mail newsletter which includes program transcripts and my reflections on each week’s program. That’s speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us.
Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Each week we take on a different theme, asking how religious ideas shape American life. Today, The Other Religious America in Election 2004. We’re looking at two religious perspectives, African-American and American Muslim, who’ve often been left out of election year talk about the religious vote. We’re seeking a deeper understanding of the complex and unpredictable ways in which these communities are thinking through the mix of religious ideas that have come to the forefront of this campaign.
We turn now to the American Muslim political experience. With an estimated six million adherents, Islam represents the third largest religion in America. A quarter to a third of American Muslims are African-American. Estimates and surveys vary widely, but it’s clear that Muslims voted resoundingly for George W. Bush in the 2000 election. They are considered to be among this election’s swing voters. As they deliberate the choice between John Kerry and George W. Bush, Muslims, like African-American Christians, hold deep values that straddle this country’s left/right divide. They are generally conservative when it comes to moral issues, but more liberal when it comes to matters of social and economic policy. And devout Muslims do not separate religious and political convictions in the same way as other Americans.
MUQTEDAR KHAN: See, one of the assumptions of modernity is that religion is detrimental to public life. I sometimes jokingly say that in the West religion was reduced to the status of a pajama that you wear when you go home, and then leave it at home when you go out, whether to work or to politic.
MS. TIPPETT: My guest, Muqtedar Khan, is a political scientist and director of international studies at Adrian College in Michigan. He’s a nonresident fellow of the Brookings Institution, and an associate of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and the Association of Muslim Social Scientists. He writes and speaks widely about the Muslim experience of being American.
Muslims voted for George Bush overwhelmingly in the last election, Khan says, in part because they admired how he asserted the primacy of his Christian faith. But the Bush presidency and events in the world since September 11th have caused many American Muslims to reexamine the desirability of religious convictions in politics. Muqtedar Khan insists that Muslims are called to be the moral conscience of any society they inhabit. But they continue to grapple with what that means in the American context.
DR. KHAN: As Muslims, when we live here, we have a moral responsibility to become the moral conscience of the society that we live in. And I think that the notion of stewardship in Christianity also suggests the same thing, that as individuals — it’s like a categorical imperative about religions. `Live your life as if it can become a blueprint for a moral existence.’ And that is what I advocate Muslims, not to get involved into politics, which are motivated by special interest kind of thing–`I want a bigger share of the pie.’ But I suggest that that is not the point. Let the very presence of Muslims in America become a boon to Americans.
I live in a very small town called Adrian, Michigan, of about — we brag that there are 30,000 people here, where actually, I think there are only 24,000 people. There are only 11 Muslims here. And I think five of them are doctors and the rest of us are professors. And I think that Muslims in my tiny city are doing a great service to their tiny city. Just 11 of us, but we save their lives every day as doctors, and then we save their spirit every day as teachers.
MS. TIPPETT: We have ideas, and these ideas are out there, especially in a presidential election year, about how particular groups, religious groups, tend to vote in a partisan way. And I don’t think there is any generalization like that. I mean, let’s say African-Americans are Democrats, Jews are Democrats, right? Evangelical Christians are Republican. I mean, clearly those categories don’t cover everyone, but those are generalizations that are made. And I’m also maybe hearing that you want to resist that, that you want to say that Muslim political engagement would not necessarily be easily classified along partisan lines.
DR. KHAN: The Muslim political engagement is very new; 2000 was the year when Muslims really participated as a community very aggressively and ended up endorsing George Bush. And the claim of Muslim organizations is that up to 72 to 74 percent of American Muslims voted for George Bush, and the rest voted for either Nader or Al Gore. And the first media debate in American Muslim community was whether to actually participate in American politics or not. Many Muslims see American politics as very corrupt and immoral, and that is how some Muslims translate secularism. They say secularism means if you keep religion out of politics — since for Muslims, all ethics and all values come from religion, keeping religion out of politics is to have politics without ethics, and they think American politics is without ethics. They are probably worried to a great extent by the manner in which money plays a significant role. So they thought that if we participated in American politics, the community itself would become morally corrupt. And so some of us argued, `But you’re also secularizing Islam now by not engaging in politics.’
So the first debate in the Muslim community was to participate or not, and when they eventually did, and the debate was won by those who wanted engagement, we endorsed George Bush. And we have learned a lot of lessons from George Bush. One thing that we have learned is the appreciation of pluralism and secularism in the sense that Muslims have suffered because of the religious affiliations of President Bush and his faith-based initiative. I sometimes jokingly call al-Qaeda the faith-based initiative.
But what is interesting is that now American Muslims are determined to punish Bush, so they are determined to vote for John Kerry. And already the Bush administration is using this to probably orchestrate a major swing in the American Jewish vote, which used to be traditionally 80 percent Democratic. They are hoping that at least 40 percent will this year vote Republican.
But there are some of us, like me, who have aggressively argued that we should allow Muslims to vote as individuals, to vote their conscience, because we should vote for those causes that are dear to us, rather than essentially to increase or decrease the strength of the community. And Muslims do not fit into the American political spectrum as neatly as most Americans do.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, let’s say a little bit more about that. Why is that?
DR. KHAN: Because Muslims are social conservatives but political and economical liberals. So for example, if Muslims are too agitated by social issues, such as sexuality on television or homosexual marriages or things that they think are unreligious or un-Islamic, then they will — they like Republicans for that. One of the arguments that I had heard for Bush in 2000 was, when Bush was asked, `Who is your role model?’ he had said, `Jesus Christ.’ And many Muslims said that `How can we not vote for a man whose role model is Jesus Christ?’ Because Jesus is considered a major prophet within Islamic tradition. We are socially conservative, and when those issues dominate our — are on our mind, we like the Republican Party for its conservatism.
But Muslims are for affirmative action in a significant way. In Michigan, where I live, nearly 80 percent of Muslims are in favor of affirmative action. Muslims are in favor of universal health care. Muslims are in favor of welfare, a lot of welfare. They believe in charity. They believe in helping the poor and the marginalized. So on public policy issues, they lean Democratic. We do not really fit in. We are not fully conservative, and we are not fully liberal in the American sense of the term.
MS. TIPPETT: Political scientist Muqtedar Khan. We’re exploring his perspective as a politically engaged Muslim in this presidential campaign. Why have Muslim Americans moved from being staunch supporters of George W. Bush to one of this election’s flock of swing voters? A visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution, my guest, Muqtedar Khan, has advised the campaign of John Kerry, but he’s critical of both campaigns on issues of importance to Muslims. He is a Muslim-American of Indian heritage and has critical observations about the interplay of religion in the American political process as a whole.
So I think your observation about Muslims being very excited about George Bush talking about Jesus in the first election is fascinating, and it has become so much an issue in this presidential election now — George Bush’s religiosity — and also calls for John Kerry to be more overt about that. And I’m just curious about how you and the people around you, as Muslims, are reacting to the way this subject is being discussed in this presidential election right now.
DR. KHAN: See, there are several things about the American discourse that most ordinary Muslims do not really understand. So they are — they find the discourse very hypocritical because people are not very open in the positions that they take. Americans often do things for religious purposes, but provide secular explanations as to why they do certain things. And sometimes Muslims do things for secular purposes — such as for power and wealth — but provide a religious justification for it. Religion is legitimizing in the Muslim discourse, whereas secularism or rationalism is legitimizing in Western discourse.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s very interesting. Yeah.
DR. KHAN: So Western politicians, they will do things because they are Christian and because their beliefs say so, but they have to provide some kind of a secular justification for it, because among the smart crowd in America — the Northeasterners, the liberals and Washington Post and New York Times — they sort of look down upon overtly religious people in this country. So I’m familiar with religious people who have this hesitation to express their religiosity fully, at least in the Northeast, in many ways. So they disguise their discourse, and Muslims find this very hypocritical.
But what is interesting is that I have no problem with President Bush’s religiosity. The problem is when his religiosity becomes very selective. Like people kept — jokingly said, `OK, if you’re a Christian, so why didn’t you turn the other cheek rather than going on and invading country after country? Would Jesus do that?’ I don’t think that Jesus would be a believer of pre-emptive strike, so the religiosity is very selective. Religion acts as a facilitator as well as a constrainer of choices. So religion should prevent you from making certain choices because they’re unethical and immoral.
So what Muslims have really learned from this experience is the virtues of secularism. And so they’re now beginning to realize and say, `Uh-oh, we would rather have a secular president who is not influenced by the Christian right and his anti-Islamic positions.’ For Muslims that is more important now. So they are beginning to appreciate this neutrality of state towards specific religious groups. They still believe that religious values should inform. For example, when there was this whole case in the South where the Ten Commandments were to be removed from the court, if you remember. Most Muslims were in favor of having the Ten Commandments in the court. In fact, I have gone on public record to say that I would trust courts which applied the law of Moses more than courts which do not. So Muslims have no problem with the presence of religiosity in the public life, but we are now beginning to recognize the problem of individuals who are aligned to one particular religious group to the detriment of other religious groups. And that is something which is very interesting. I actually have written about this as the fact that John Ashcroft is the latest liberal philosopher of Islam.
MS. TIPPETT: How’s that?
DR. KHAN: Because he has taught Muslims the value of secularism in many ways because they are very disturbed by his political positions and the kind of things that he had to say about Islam in his position as the man in charge of justice in this country. Isn’t it ironic that he would make such unjust comments about Islam and Muslims and the Patriot Act and so on and so forth?
MS. TIPPETT: So observing something like that brings American Muslims to begin to value sometimes having leaders who are not speaking religiously.
DR. KHAN: Well, not so much as not speaking religiously, but who are not sectarian in their religious positions.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
DR. KHAN: That is what they’re beginning to understand, which is a very good thing. You see, Muslims maintain this very hypocritical position: When they are in minority, they appreciate secularism, such as when they are in Europe and when they are in UK and Canada or India. But when they are in the majority, they do not like secularism.
MS. TIPPETT: We’ve spoken about the way George Bush has expressed himself religiously and some of the observations that Muslims have made about that. How are you experiencing John Kerry in this context?
DR. KHAN: There are certain things which are very troubling for Muslims in the current administration. We need more compassion in the White House, and we don’t like this conservative compassion. Really, it’s been very brutal to us. It has been proved that 9/11 had nothing to do with American Muslims. They haven’t found a single person. They have indicted people for playing with paintball guns and stuff like that. For us today, the Bill of Rights don’t exist in this country.
But what is interesting is that I am personally very disappointed with the alternative that we have present in John Kerry. For example, in Muslim gatherings I have said that the two or three reasons why we’re really, really very upset with George Bush is, number one, he did not fulfill his promises that he made about Palestine; number two, the Patriot Act; number three, the war in Iraq. And if you look at all three of these things, John Kerry is identical to George Bush on those issues. So on the issues that most Muslims today care about, there is nothing to choose.
Nonetheless, I think that it is important for Muslims to be able to engage in American politics, and if they want to vote for John Kerry, they should vote. But what we are hopeful is that the Democratic Party will now make far more overtures towards getting Muslims involved in the policy process. So far, we are only involved in the politics — what to vote, what not to vote, whom to give money, whom not to give. But we would like to be involved and consulted on policy issues. If you’re going to make policy about Muslims, please consult Muslims. And increasingly, both parties are beginning to do that.
MS. TIPPETT: Political scientist Muqtedar Khan. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith. Today, The Other Religious America in Election 2004. My guest, Muqtedar Khan, writes widely about the Muslim experience in American culture and politics. And he says that for religious and moral reasons, John Kerry does not appear as a clear alternative even to Muslims disillusioned with the Bush presidency.
DR. KHAN: Many people in the Muslim community are very — they don’t have much confidence in John Kerry. Yes, we know that he is opposed to the Patriot Act, and he was opposed to the war in Iraq, but he did not have the moral courage to stand up under adverse circumstances and vote no. He voted yes to save his political career. And that is very, very scary. That is a real test. All religious people will tell you that the real test of your faith is when you take positions that will hurt your own interest. And I think John Kerry has failed the test on several issues.
He did not stand up against the Patriot Act as aggressively as he should have. It was very apparent to everybody that this was destroying America. America’s not any more a free country as it was in the past. We are a country that tortures people. We are a country that violates international norms. We are a country that violates our own Constitution, both at home and overseas, and he let it all happen. And that is something that makes us feel weak, and as a result of that, many Muslims are going to indulge in what is called a protest vote, and they’re going to vote for Ralph Nader.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, some religious people, some Christians, are criticizing or saying that one thing that they hold against John Kerry is that he is not explicit about what is the source of his moral reasoning and what is his religious perspective. And I wonder, as a Muslim, would you like to know more about that? Would that be something that would appeal to Muslims?
DR. KHAN: See, it was this issue of Lieberman, when Lieberman was running as vice president. Lieberman’s religiosity has always been in the public sphere, always, and Muslims liked it. They might have disagreed with some of his political positions, vis-a-vis Israel, but they understood his fact. I mean, the question came out, `What happens if you become president? Will you go to war on the Sabbath?’ But you must also understand that all Muslims are not very religious.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. That’s something a lot of Americans don’t understand.
DR. KHAN: The general assumption is that only one-third of American Muslim community is religious. So we’re looking at a community who’s organizations are influenced by that one-third, the religious Muslims. So there’s a lot of Islam talk in Muslim politics. But two-thirds of Muslims are just as liberal, and I think they are probably more American than Americans when it comes to material issues and liberal issues. They are — they really love their cars and their big homes. So for those Muslims, the very rich are going to be Republican for economic purposes, for corporate reasons, and so on and so forth. And if you look at the survey, already many Muslims have become what is called as ’rangers’ and others in the sense that they raised over $100,000 or $200,000 individually for the Bush campaign. So many Muslims are giving a lot of money for Bush because of other reasons besides morality or ethnic or religious politics.
But then there are also Muslims who are very progressive, and they are very pro-Democratic in their orientation. Often when we talk about Muslims in America, we only talk about Muslims who are mosque-associated. For them, yes, religiosity really matters. And even now there are huge debates about how the Muslim community and the Republican Party should be natural allies because we both believe in God. There are these assumptions about Democrats that they’re not very religious, they are atheists, and they are so on and so forth.
I think that if you look at the recent Pew studies, 36 percent Americans have identified themselves as conservatives, and only 16 percent as liberals, and the rest have said they are moderate or independent. And it’s important now that people who advocate liberal values to come out and explicitly state what their values are, what the sources of those values are, and what the arguments really are.
MS. TIPPETT: I would like to ask you as we close, where do you look for hope in all of this, in all of these complex reflections you have about religion and politics and Islam in America right now?
DR. KHAN: See, despair is a very important aspect of religiosity. Despair and anguish deepen the soul, and they also enrich your relationship with God. And eventually despair on social and political realities can translate into, say, mystical understanding of despair as a condition because of the separation of the self from God itself. If you notice, September 11th reawakened religiosity in America, and there for a little while people were really returning to the churches and the mosques aggressively. And I don’t want people to turn towards God because of — in adverse circumstances. It’s important that we face God throughout our lives.
But what is interesting is that if you look at the global terrain itself, God is returning in a very aggressive manner to this world. You see religious revival not only among Muslims, but among Christians, among Jews, among Hindus, Buddhists, just everywhere. So in that sense, what we need to do is to develop a sense of balance in individual life and in social life. And like I tell Muslims, that as good Muslims, we should rather be willing to suffer injustice than commit injustice. And I think at some point, people will realize that they need to exercise self-restraint. And there is an absence of self-restraint at the moment which is leading to extreme politics, both at local and global level today. And my hope is that people will recognize that religiosity is essentially self-restraint.
MS. TIPPETT: Muqtedar Khan is director of international studies and chair of the Political Science Department at Adrian College in Michigan, and a nonresident fellow of the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. His books include American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom, and the forthcoming Beyond Jihad and Crusade: Rethinking US Policy In the Muslim World. Earlier in this hour you heard African-American minister and Christian ethicist Cheryl Sanders.
Their perspectives defy the sweeping generalizations about religious issues and voices that have so permeated this year’s presidential campaign. Cheryl Sanders called African-Americans theologically conservative and socially progressive. Muqtedar Khan describes Muslims-Americans as “social conservatives and political and economic liberals.” Whatever words they use, for these religious people, the issues don’t slice up along the lines of opinion polls. Religious ideas have been prominent in this year’s campaign. But the more important milestone may be this: Religious voices, including those heard in this hour, are becoming bolder in asserting their distinctive issues, ideas and vocabularies in the political process. And those issues, ideas, and vocabularies break the mold of religious stereotypes, as well as the American partisan divide.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on this program. Please send us an e-mail through our website at speakingoffaith.org. While you’re there you’ll find in-depth background information about the ideas in this program and essays by Cheryl Sanders and Muqtedar Khan from the new book, One Electorate Under God, published by the Brookings Institution Press. You’ll also find other book recommendations and relevant links, and you can sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get my weekly reflections, transcripts and a preview of next week’s show. That’s speakingoffaith.org.
I’m Krista Tippett. Please join us again next week.