How High the Wall

by Elder M. Lindahl

Some questions I've been pondering these days are: What does it mean for Muslims to take their beliefs seriously in a secular state like ours? What are the conditions for the possibility of looking at one's religious faith objectively and critically? What are the consequences of separating or not separating church and state?

The concept of Dar al-Islam, which is translated "The House of Islam" stands in sharp contrast to the kind of separation of church and state with which Americans are accustomed. The house of Islam binds Islamic doctrines, government, geography, history, the Qur'an, and the Arabic language together. Although one can academically separate out and describe the five basic pillars, their beliefs about God, the body of traditions (sunna), and so forth, Islam is more than a religion in the Western sense. Islam, in Arabic meaning submission (to God), involves a total way of life for the individual in the family, in the order of society, proscriptions of civil and criminal law, ethics, dress, food, and personal hygiene. The House of Islam is both a complex and a complete unity.

In contrast, Article I of the Amendments to the United States Constitution which states in part: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." is foreign to Islam. The common Western distinction between the sacred on the one hand and the profane or secular on the other creates problems for them.

Since there is little concept of a secular state in Islam, critical thinking by Muslin's about their faith is quite uncommon. The Truth which they claim is not open to question. I remember having an Islamic scholar, Dr. Hussein, a friend of mine who taught at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, come to speak in my world religion classes. When asked, for example, about the considerable differences between the patriarchal stories in the Bible and similar stories in the Qur'an he argued that theirs were told absolutely correctly; the Biblical stories were corrupted versions of theirs. Though we had a good working relationship for many years—I'd speak on Christian faith in his class and he would present Islamic faith in mine—he parried any critical remarks made against his faith. He seemed, as did some of my very conservative North Park students, unable to think objectively and critically about his religious beliefs.

Muslims who live outside their House, in countries like the United States, find themselves in a very different national context. There are some real problems, as we found out so tragically, when Muslims take their beliefs seriously, but uncritically, in a secular society. Americans, given their historical separation of religious beliefs and state can put up with almost anyone of a different faith as long as they don't carry out their beliefs in action beyond a certain point. We stop Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, when they refuse to give children proper medical attention. We could not accept it when David Koresh held his religious followers hostage, and so forth.

Some argue that the wall of separation between church and state is too high and impenetrable. A high wall makes any traffic between faith and politics difficult and leads to Biblical ignorance, rootless living, and the worship of the secular, materialistic gods of fame and money. Culture, sealed into separate compartments, impoverishes both the religious and the social, political, and educational areas.

On the other hand, others contend that the wall of separation is too low, too easily penetrated by those religious factions that attempt to bring about a truly Christian nation, school prayer, use of public funds to support religion, etc. The so-called religious right is often cited as an example of a faction that is attempting to infiltrate. And when the wall is too low, as in some Islamic countries, quality education, women rights, and freedom generally suffer.

Between these two views—the wall too high or the wall too low—is the view that keeps a dynamic tension between national interests and the Kingdom of God. A Swedish word for this might be "lagom," that is a barrier which is just right. Granted, a wall of such a height is hard to establish and maintain in the face of theocracies where the right height of the wall is zero. However, when the wall is "just right," secular ways and national programs stand under prophetic criticism, belief statements are open to critical evaluation, and the lively search for knowledge goes on.

We live in an open society in the presence of many different kinds of religious beliefs. For the most part, we admire those who take their religious commitments seriously to a point. All religious persuasions are welcome here as long as they accept our long-standing church and state arrangement. We reserve the right to examine critically any and all religious beliefs from an objective, humane perspective. Bless the Founders of our Nation who in their wisdom saw the importance of a wall separating these significant life domains.

Elder Lindahl (d. 2015) was a well-known North Park University professor and long-time contributor to Pietisten.

See all articles by Elder M. Lindahl