A preview of The Public Square, forthcoming in the March issue of First Things.
The confirmation hearings for attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions probed his attitudes toward black Americans. Donald Trump’s dismissive tweets about civil rights leader and longtime congressman John Lewis provoked concerns that his administration will worsen race relations. Given our history, these are legitimate concerns. But it’s the ideologies of identity politics that are being challenged, and rightly so, not the substantive ideal of racial equality. In the current climate, however rhetorically fraught and unhappy it may be, black Americans face little risk of rollbacks of the gains of the last two generations.
Muslims in America, by contrast, are vulnerable. I’ve heard a number of people express hostility and the conviction that Muslims cannot be loyal American citizens. Anti-Shari’a laws prohibiting judges from consulting Islamic laws have been passed in several states—in spite of the fact that at present there isn’t the slightest danger of Shari’a usurping our secular legal code. Trumpian hyperbole during the campaign stoked those suspicions. Which is all the more reason to return to an important argument by Sherman Jackson, a black American Muslim who serves as King Faisal Chair of Islamic Thought and Culture at the University of Southern California.
In his 2005 book, Islam and the Blackamerican, Jackson makes a case for Muslim endorsement of the American political system and its “liberal-pluralist vision.” At first glance, this vision contradicts Islam’s view of moral truth, for it “protects the rights of gays, atheists, and witches to be gays, atheists, and witches.” Doesn’t our loyalty to God’s law mean we must resist a modern regime that isn’t just tolerant of disobedience of divine law, but affirms a positive right to sin? This is a question many of us must face as well.
Jackson makes an important distinction between liberal pluralism as a cultural ideal and as a set of political arrangements. In the present moment, the former makes diversity, inclusion, and non-judgmentalism obligatory, and thus rejects all traditional modes of life, especially religious ones, as authoritarian and intolerant. Needless to say, Islam is opposed to liberal pluralism as obligatory cultural ideal—as are orthodox Christianity and Judaism. But liberal pluralism can refer to something more modest, a political system and civic tradition that recognize the limits of law and accord room for dissent and deviance. Islam can affirm this kind of liberal pluralism, argues Jackson, and he provides evidence from Islamic sources to show that, even in circumstances where Muslims had surpassing political power, there was support for practical acceptance of pluralism and civic accommodation of “non-Muslim beliefs and behaviors that violated Islam.”
This tradition of pragmatic accommodation of non-Islamic beliefs and practices guides Jackson’s assessment of America’s constitutional regime. The Constitution was obviously written by non-Muslims. Traditional Islamic jurisprudence is aware of such circumstances and exhorts Muslims “to honor treaties and agreements brokered by non-Muslims.” Jackson applies this principle to our political compact. When a faithful Muslim participates in American society, he accepts the terms of citizenship. This acceptance is not religious, and therefore does not offend against Islam’s requirement of spiritual loyalty.
Moreover, Jackson argues that Muslims should offer enthusiastic support for our political arrangements. “According to the Constitution, the U.S. government cannot force a Muslim to renounce his or her faith; it cannot deny him or her the right to pray, fast, or perform the pilgrimage; it cannot force him or her to eat pork, shave his beard, or remove her scarf.” In fact, “The U.S. government cannot even force a Muslim (qua Muslim) to pledge allegiance to the United States!” Under the circumstances, fixing on “dogmatic minutiae, activist rhetoric, and uncritical readings of Islamic law and history” to argue that a faithful Muslim cannot affirm the American constitutional regime is worse than foolhardy.
Jackson goes on to clarify the theological legitimacy of the First Amendment’s prohibition of religious establishment. A proponent of liberal-pluralist culture makes the separation of church and state into a foundational principle that bans religion from public life. For obvious reasons, a Muslim must reject this as an antireligious dogmatism (as must any sensible Christian or Jew). But as a practical solution to the problems posed by the sociological reality of religious pluralism, a Muslim can endorse the separation of church and state as wise policy.
Taking a page out of the First Things playbook, Jackson urges Muslim Americans to “articulate the practical benefits of the rules of Islamic law in terms that gain them recognition by society at large,” something that can be done by drawing on the Islamic tradition of practical reasoning that has family resemblances to the Catholic use of natural law and Protestant analysis of “common grace.” Christians rightly enter into public life, seeking to leaven our laws with the wisdom of Scripture and church tradition, not asserting claims on the basis of church authority, but arguing for them in the give-and-take of civic discourse. Muslims should do the same, seeking to bring forward policy proposals “that are grounded in the vision and values of Islam.”
Sherman Jackson is an influential voice in the Muslim American community, and his endorsement of liberal-pluralist constitutionalism resists Islamic extremism that poses as religious integrity and helps Muslims in the United States to affirm our way of life, which their natural sympathies incline them to do. Which is why I do not regard Islam as a “problem” in the United States. The real threats come from post-Christians. It was not faithful Muslims who decided Roe v. Wade. They weren’t the ones working to suppress religious freedom in recent years. The people who formulated the HHS contraceptive mandate were not influenced by Shari’a law. On the contrary, as G. K. Chesterton observed, the vices of the modern era are Christian virtues gone mad. The greatest threat to the future of the West is the post-Christian West.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.