Beyond Cooties and Crushes: The Potential for Evangelical Leadership In Christian Engagement with Islam

My son, Carter, just became engaged to Claire after a long courtship. They are very different from one another, but I am certain they will have a great marriage because even though they are very different people, they have learned to accept and celebrate that difference. They have achieved the mature third phase of adult relationships. For those who are concerned about Islamophobia and wish to combat it within the context of religious liberty in America, I want to offer this developmental progression as an analogy for how evangelical Christians can become leaders in interfaith engagement with Islam.

The first phase involves “cooties.” People who were children in the 1960s know that word. It is what little boys and girls on the playground thought the other ones had, collectively. Similarly, social historians tell us that when a dominant group has to account for an emerging minority community, it often refers to the other as “dirty.” Growing up in Southern California, I heard people describe Mexican-Americans as “dirty.” “Dirty Irish” once referred to Roman Catholics. And now, “dirty Jew” seems to have been largely replaced by “dirty Arab,” aimed at any Muslims. “Dirty” implies infectiousness. Indeed, that is the point. To some, Muslims are now the loathed carriers of religious cooties and are to be feared and quarantined.

Many self-professed “evangelicals” today speak of Islam this way, especially public figures. But it should also be noted this is the way some other people speak of evangelicals. This is often true of my people, the mainline Protestants. The consensus in this group seems to be that evangelicals are now the “other,” and are part of the problem. But toward Muslims, our clique has passed into the adolescent second phase of interfaith relationships.

They become so smitten they are more than willing to abandon their distinctiveness.

Somewhere in junior high school, cooties give way to crushes. Teen-aged boys and girls will often do anything to be like as well as be liked by the other. They become so smitten they are more than willing to abandon their distinctiveness. They wear anything, say anything, and do anything to be accepted by them. More to the point, they project their own views and values on the other and they idealize the reflection of that projection. Many of us seem to be in this adolescent state of interfaith engagement. We are eager to reach out and quick to dismiss differences. We emphasize our common descent from Abraham as a way of saying we are, really, all the same.

What is worth noting is that this fundamental homogeneity is thought to be, necessarily, a good thing. In fact sometimes, liberal Christianity’s approach to people of other faiths can be perceived as arrogant, dismissive and insensitive. Of course, this is unintended, but one subliminal message in our attempt at hospitality is that we are the broad-minded ones, generous enough to be the host. And our oft-used theological assertions that, “We all worship the same God,” or “All roads lead to the same place,” must be infuriating to the many who do not believe so. They must find these kinds of comments to be condescending and patronizing, especially when they are made by the dominant, power group.

To be sure, this phase can also be a wonderful experience, as hatred and fear seem to disappear. That is a big improvement and a necessary developmental step. But like teen-love, it also bears the prospect of misunderstanding, disappointment, and disaffection if the parties cannot move beyond infatuation. And ultimately, it is only a stage toward true acceptance of the inherently exotic beauty and value of the other.

At my institution, Wesley Theological Seminary, we have a rich diversity—albeit within the Christian family—of gender, age, race and ethnicity. Our students range in theological families from Unitarians to Pentecostals. However, just as an international airport terminal has diversity, we long for, and work toward what we call a “communion in our diversity,” But we do not imagine that everyone leaves the communion table a Methodist. Diversity is as essential for community as it is in the natural ecosystem. And even though many evangelicals today may be in that first phase of engagement with Muslims, my hope is they can lead us toward a richer and more interesting life together.

Let me be more precise in my labeling. Sometimes, “evangelical” refers to a grouping of denominations. It also can carry certain cultural and even regional connotations. It is sometimes modified as “conservative evangelical.” But I want to speak of “Evangelicals” (switching to a proper noun) as a people who hold and try to live by certain theological principles. Evangelicals believe in the authority of the Old and New Testament as God’s revelation. For them, the essence of the gospel consists in the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ’s atonement. They believe in the necessity of individual conversion and therefore have a strong commitment to proselytizing. That is a version of the classic definition.

Let me say the same thing differently. Evangelicals are those who believe in the authority of scripture as the unique and universal truth for all. They believe there is one God who is to be exalted and that this God desires a society of justice and peace. They believe individual life has a purpose and moves toward a final judgment and the potential of an eternal reward. And so, they believe in the importance of conversion and obedience.

We need a conversation between centered people—people of faith who operate from an independent religious and moral center of gravity who can then truly encounter other people.

I think what I have just portrayed is also a fair description of what a devout Muslim believes. Before describing what I mean by this let me first characterize the difference between Evangelicals and us other Christians. We differ somewhat in our doctrinal emphases, but more fundamentally, I think the difference is one of degree. All of us give the evangelical propositions lip service, literally—in our hymns and prayers—because historically, we were all evangelical once. But self-identified Evangelicals believe these things, and sing, and pray, with greater fervor and certainty and strength of commitment. This distinctiveness matches the secular meaning of “evangelical,” and is not that zeal the critical difference in this discussion?

Candidly, maybe what tempers the rest of us is a degree of doubt. We are no less sure. But we would rather call it “reasonableness” or “tolerance.” And that makes us more congenial partners in interfaith dialogue at least at first, at the beginning of the conversation. That is especially true if we can find conversation partners who also hold their faiths lightly. I know that last statement is an unfair exaggeration as well as a provocation and in an entirely different paper I would defend intellectual doubt as providential. But here, it is only meant to highlight my key assertion: the people most prepared to understand the experience of being Muslim in America are Evangelicals. And, the real hope is that fervently orthodox Christians and Muslims may live in a peaceable community. We need Evangelicals to take the lead.

Evangelicals are the ones in the Christian community who know what it is to be a religious minority outside the mainstream of American life, to be that foreign body which does not dissolve easily in the melting pot. They know what it is for their beliefs to be “foolishness to the Greeks,”1but to profess them anyway. Indeed, they identify with the early church, which had to coexist as a sect in a religiously diverse society. To be an embattled religious minority was an essential feature of the evangelical witness prior to Constantine. That was the age in church history which is the touchstone time, the “Camelot moment,” for modern Evangelicals and nearly all other revival movements within Christianity. Indeed, Evangelicals were in this same position within modern American Christianity until the late 1970s. And, by the way, the vast majority of both African-American and Asian-American Christians, communities which are also familiar with the experience of being minorities in America, are also Evangelical.

So, I see our task differently than some do. We should not try to counter religious “extremism” or promote “moderation”, as many have called for. Were not Dietrich Bonheoffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. both “extremists?” At some level, did not the non-confessing church in 1930s Germany and the pastors who received the “Letter from A Birmingham Jail” believe they were avoiding violence and being “moderate” and “reasonable?” We should also avoid phrases like “true Christianity” or “true Islam” because both our scriptures and our histories are too complex for that kind of reductionism.

Instead of trying to rid Evangelicals of Islamophobia, let us see Evangelicals as the community who can lead us toward richer dialogue and a stable and religiously diverse society. What is needed is the difference between trying to be in the middle and being centered. To seek the middle means splitting the difference between two extremes. We need a conversation between centered people—people of faith who operate from an independent religious and moral center of gravity who can then truly encounter other people. In that spirit, we at Wesley have developed an online course entitled: “Passionately Christian; Compassionately Interfaith.”

An Evangelical would naturally ask for the scriptural warrant for such a stance. Some have suggested that Jesus’ instruction to love the enemy as a basis,2 or the Golden Rule3 or the Great Commandment4 or a number of other ethical injunctions. These are all useful starting points. But I want to suggest another approach found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:1-13). This passage has a useful juxtaposition. It contains a popular rallying cry for proselytizing in verses 9-11 (emphasis mine): “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”. But the passage also contains one of many examples of an essential Christ-like virtue: humility. In recommending this stance toward others, Paul, the author of the letter, does not skirt the Cross, he goes right to it in versus 5-8: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men. And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”

…what can temper as well as prepare Evangelicals to lead us in interfaith engagement with Islam is confessional humility, after the example of St. Paul and in the image of Christ.

Some might say that Paul was speaking in this passage only about how Christians should treat each other. But the thrust of all of Paul’s writings and his ministry as well as the book of Acts, are clear on this point. And they form the foundation for classic evangelical missionary theory and practice in which understanding the other and adapting to local custom is simply good strategy, but the essential virtue or the proper evangelical stance, is confessional humility.

Earlier, in order to make my argument, I suggested what tempers mainline Protestants, what prepares us for interfaith engagement, is our doubt. Here I say, what can temper as well as prepare Evangelicals to lead us in interfaith engagement with Islam is confessional humility, after the example of St. Paul and in the image of Christ.

What would that look like? Of course, we have known stable and vibrant communities of Christians and Muslims in places like Bosnia and Lebanon, and mourn how they were destroyed by larger geopolitical forces. Maybe similar enclaves will arise in America. But here, the two groups do not live in historically-constituted adjacent boroughs. Instead, I imagine something different, something a modern-day Tocqueville might witness as characteristic of how Americans balance particularity and community. In some ways it may be a melting pot, but it may also be more like a marketplace of ideas. Christians will think of Mars Hill in the book of Acts where Paul stands among statues to many gods giving a discourse on his God in front of one statue that bears no name.5 I think it is already happening among employees of places like Wal-Mart and 7-11s, Rotaries and Chambers of Commerce. I predict that Evangelicals and devote Muslims will find each other in political alliance on a range of conservative social issues. And I hope a few prominent preachers and imams will begin to engage in the public square.

There is an understandable desire for harmony and unity in the present phase of engagement, but perhaps moving to the next phase, beyond cooties and crushes, will sound like the development of jazz in America with its dynamic balance arising from dissonance and syncopation, creating surprising moments of harmony and resolve in a vibrant interfaith village.


1In St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he reminds them that Christians take a confessional stance with respect to the surrounding culture: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” 1 Corinthians 1:22-25 [RSV].
2Matthew 5:43-44.
3Matthew 7:12.
4Matthew 22:36-40.
5Acts 17:22-31.