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Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear
by matthew kaemingk
eerdmans, 352 pages, $28

Without quite meaning to, most ­Western countries have acquired large and growing numbers of Muslim minorities. The idea has slowly sunk in not only that Muslims are here to stay, but also that they remain committed to their faith. For many Muslims, this entails hostility to a Western culture still marked by Christianity.

Faced with this situation, Euro­peans have been gripped by a ­curious mixture of fear, wishful thinking, and complacency. Thinking they had left the great ideological struggles of the past behind, they looked forward to life in a post-religious, post-historical, liberal welfare state. Now that religious and cultural differences are once again salient, you can almost hear the exasperated sighs. Although the United States has received far fewer Muslim migrants, it faces some of the same questions. How much diversity can a nation handle? Should we work toward assimilation or accommodation? What are the limits to religious freedom and tolerance?

To find answers, Matthew ­Kaemingk, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, turns to the reformed theology of the great Dutch Calvinist minister and statesman, Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920). ­Kaemingk complains that the integration debate on both sides of the Atlantic is stuck in a false dichotomy between the naive multiculturalism of the left and the aggressive antagonism of the right. Noting that Christians often parrot the secular, uninformed perspectives of both, he seeks to develop a “third way” based on biblical hope and hospitality: a vision of religious pluralism rooted in Christian sources but able to accommodate Islam. 

Like Kaemingk, Kuyper wrote in response to a particular historical ­situation. Nineteenth-century ­liberal elites in the Netherlands sought to bring religious schools under state ­control as part of a broader effort to unite Catholics, Calvinists, and socialists into a single national identity. Kuyper wanted to preserve the integrity of his own separate Calvinist Church, both from obtrusive liberals and from the dominant Dutch Reformed Church. He sought to expose liberalism as one faith among many, a set of ­beliefs and assumptions rather than a neutral ­arbitrator: “However much they [the liberals] rage against dogmas, they are themselves the most stubborn ­dogmatists.” 

At the same time, Kuyper believed, no Christian should assume that God is present only within his own church. The Holy Spirit is active in all communities and faiths, through what he called gemeene gratie—common grace—as distinct from the special, salvific grace that comes from accepting Christ alone. All should come to know Jesus. But the kaleidoscopic beauty of the glory of God is manifested in a diversity of cultures. Kuyper argued against religious establishments. All ideologies are tempted to seek power by “hegemonic demons,” even as they remain vulnerable to sin and error. State churches die a slow death of lethargy and torpor. Therefore, neither liberals nor Christians should dominate the state to impose their beliefs; instead, they should allow all groups the freedom to set up their own schools, newspapers, political parties, and other institutions that sustain their identity. This is the ­Benedict Option avant la lettre.

Kuyper’s thought remains relevant wherever Christians are a minority within a relatively homogenous, secular, post-Christian culture. But its relevance is less apparent in ­societies divided between a nominally Christian majority and a relatively confident Islam. Kaemingk expounds Kuyper’s thought, but without noting that it sought to address a situation very ­unlike what one now sees across Western Europe. He fails to show how it applies to Islam, because he does not consider Islam on its own terms. 

Kaemingk reflects at length on Christ’s identity as a “Naked Slave-King.” He explores what Christ’s roles as “prophet, a servant, a friend, healer, reconciler, liberator, advocate for the weak, teacher, priest, and dinner host” can teach Christians about how to act toward Muslims. But he seems uninterested in Islam itself. This explains the book’s strange disconnect from reality. Most Christians have long come to terms with living in a pluralist society. It is Islam that most lacks a tradition of tolerance, and which needs to develop a theology of pluralism powerful enough to counter fundamentalist claims.

According to Kaemingk, evangelicals must “actively defend Muslim rights, freedom and dignity” by promoting the establishment of Islamic schools and charities. Muslims already enjoy those rights; indeed, they are constitutionally guaranteed. But Kaemingk wants Muslims’ rights not only to be accepted and protected, but also to be “lived from the heart” and celebrated by Christians. He does not discuss whether there are any necessary limits to religious freedom, or to the diversity he thinks the Holy Spirit stirs up in this fallen world. And that is precisely where clarification is most urgent. Kaemingk claims to develop a third way beyond left and right. But because he does not identify any limits to pluralism, it is difficult to distinguish his political position from that of the naive left. In fact, the book presents a neo-Calvinist justification for multiculturalism, not merely as an observed fact, but as an ideal to be pursued. Kaemingk embellishes his case for multiculturalism with warm calls for humility, prayer, and acts of kindness. But he is unwilling or unable to say where accommodation must end.

And, as moderate Muslims and ex-Muslims keep telling us, lines do need to be drawn. This could be made clear by an examination of Islam in Amsterdam, which the book takes as a case study (and where I sit on the city council). When guest workers first arrived in the Netherlands from Turkey and Morocco, they were encouraged to retain their separate religious and cultural identities under the assumption that they would eventually go home. The state generously subsidized ethnic and religious organizations. A gag order discouraged criticism of Islam. Then, as ­Kaemingk observes, 9/11 and other terrorist attacks—including the brutal 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in the streets of Amsterdam by a radical Muslim for insulting the prophet Muhammad—changed the climate of opinion. He describes this as a torrent of “Islamophobia” (to which, he says, Donald Trump is a recent convert). 

Now it is true that a sizeable part of the populace changed its stance on Islam from blithe condescension to visceral, even hysterical dislike. But when Kaemingk writes that all Dutch political parties have come to “demonize” Islam and demand assimilation, that is blatantly untrue. Mainstream parties have not changed that much. It is telling that the author so liberally uses the word “Islamophobia” to describe the Christian right, a word employed to silence any critics of Islam. Kaemingk is overly reliant on the liberal Dutch writers he cites. His assumption that the past decade has seen a range of oppressive government policies that target Muslims is hogwash. The tone of public debate has become more abrasive, but Muslims continue to build mosques, cultural centers, and schools, without interference by the state and often with its active encouragement. Unctuous establishment figures continue to defend the burqa as the beacon of feminist freedom, hand out copies of the Qur’an to the police to promote acceptance, and the like. 

It may be true that the vilification of Islam in some media contributes to Muslim alienation, and many young Muslims resent their relative poverty and social marginalization, which is perhaps particularly grating for those of a triumphalist faith that promises worldly victory over the infidels. All men of goodwill should seek to prevent ill will and find ways to break the cycle of anger and distrust. But the unfounded claim that Muslims are the victims of persistent discrimination and oppression only risks fueling and justifying resentment. Shouting “Islamophobia” whenever a worried public raises concerns or criticisms is not the way forward. Christians are naturally reluctant to openly criticize or disrespect other faiths. Mocking Muhammad, as Theo van Gogh did, is rude, and politeness has its value. But when rudeness is punished by violence, it becomes impossible to distinguish noble courtesy from base fear. 

To have moral weight, a defense of pluralism must not only extoll a shining, abstract ideal, but also wrestle with the chafing, gritty particulars. It must be willing to set the necessary boundaries within which a shared identity may be found. There are serious political and theological problems with Islam, particularly in its Salafist interpretations. What is necessary is a frank and informed discussion of these problems. Rather than waxing lyrically about diversity, Christians, precisely because they do speak the language of faith, should engage in a respectful, theological critique of bad Islamic ideas and practices. Certain Islamic dogmas are not only at odds with the progressive liberalism ­Kaemingk rightly rejects, but also with the classical and Christian foundations of Western civilization. 

A successful pluralism will make certain distinctions. For example, Kaemingk argues that Christians are called to “politically defend ­Muslim clothing, literature, families, and schools.” But there are headscarves, and then there’s the burqa. There are traditional families, and then there’s polygamy and Sharia courts that keep women captive in abusive marriages. There are schools, and then there are Qur’anic schools where believers are taught to despise their neighbors. Muslims who convert to Christianity in Amsterdam are subjected to abuse, violence, and threats. Recent research found that half the ­Moroccan mosques in Amsterdam are at risk of being taken over by Salafism. And Salafism is often a breeding ground for jihadism. These phenomena are not so marginal that they can be safely ignored. 

Kaemingk writes that any demand on Muslims to “alter their cultural practices, institutional affiliations, or intellectual beliefs to fit the national consensus will be seen by our Christian pluralists as guilty of usurping Christ’s claim to exclusive sovereignty over them.” Any demand? It would indeed be wrong for the West to demand that Muslims adopt progressive values or give up their religion. We should not oblige Muslims to install gender-neutral toilets in their mosques. However, to integrate into Western society, Muslims will have to accept that they live in what Pierre Manent has called societies of “a Christian mark.” This involves a central place for Christianity, a respect for the dignity of women, and the preservation of a secular sphere. As newcomers, immigrant Muslims can and should be encouraged to integrate into what is best in Western society. If they don’t want to, they should be encouraged to settle in a place more in keeping with their hopes. Every polity requires a first-person plural, a shared loyalty based on a common love. Without it, political decisions lose their perceived legitimacy. An absolute multiculturalism is incapable of sustaining common loves, and so is inimical to any sustainable form of politics.

Kaemingk thinks the liberal hope for assimilation is the problem, and the Christian embrace of pluralism the solution. He does not want Muslims to become more like modern liberals; he wants modern liberals to become more like Muslims. Thus, he considers Muslims to be “cobelligerents” who can join Christians in creating a pluralist society. But the orthodox Islamic understanding of many moral, social, and political issues is still significantly different in content and character from that of traditional Christianity.

The book concludes with a number of exhortations. Kaemingk urges American evangelicals to “detach themselves from their unhealthy alliance to the Republican party,” which has become “­Islamophobic and nativist.” Regarding Muslim immigration, he says they must “train their hearts to desire hospitality over hostility” since “hospitality, not justice,” should be “the primary frame through which they understand their public and political obligations toward Islam.” Also, they must “deconstruct Christian Nationalism” and stop “­trying to control American history.” For, following Kuyper, they should understand that “Christ alone holds the keys to history.” It is true that Christ holds the keys to history, but he works through his creation, not in ­opposition to it. He does not require us to be ­passive in order to show forth his mighty arm.

Christians cannot discard justice in the name of hospitality. Political decisions are collective; they are applied to society as a whole and thereby forced onto those who don’t like or agree to them. You cannot claim the virtue of charity if others pay the price or bear much of the cost. Hospitality is extended to guests. For those you share the house with, other rules apply. 

Abraham Kuyper formulated a compelling vision of Christians living in the world and engaging with those of different beliefs. There is much in his work that inspires. But our times are different, as are our challenges. One reason why his vision of pluralism cannot easily be compared with our circumstances is that, with all their differences, the Calvinists, Catholics, socialists, and liberals of nineteenth-century Holland also had much in common: language, historical memory, love of their ancestral homeland, a social and political heritage profoundly shaped by Christian faith. The very idea of a nation-state as a secular space inhabited by a single people, who nevertheless follow different creeds, is in itself profoundly marked by Christianity. Rather than promoting an unqualified pluralism, we need to admit the fact that our civilization is based on something more than neutrality and disinterested freedom, and therefore must ask more of newcomers.

Diederik Boomsma is a member of the Amsterdam City Council.

Image by Guilhem Vellut via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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