RATLIFF, WALTER, 2011, CHRISTIANS AND MUSLIMS AT THE EPICENTER: HOW THE SEPT. 11TH ATTACKS SHOOK AND TRANSFORMED AMERICAN EVANGELICALISM, AGILIS PRESS, 216PP, £6.56, PB
This helpful, well-researched book examines the responses of American evangelical Christians to Islam and Muslims both before and after the traumatic events of 11thSeptember 2001. It discovers that evangelicalism is no more monolithic than the Muslim community to which it is responding. Whilst derogatory statements by conservative leaders in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks grabbed the headlines, many more Evangelicals were seeking to build bridges to Muslim.
By Dr Richard McCallum, Fellow, Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies
Ratliff believes that the 9/11 tragedy marked a definite shift in evangelical responses to Islam: “the events of September 11, 2001 not only shook the overall American sense of security and isolation from terrorism, it also revealed new fault lines in the evangelical religious landscape” (185). Whereas beforehand the major threat to the faith had been seen as secular humanism, that shifted afterwards to include Islam. However, he found that the rift did “not always follow traditional denominational boundaries” (185). Rather it left evangelicals of all backgrounds walking “a line between militant opposition and constructive engagement” (7) with Islam.
Christians and Muslims at the Epicenter is a little limited as it restricts itself to selected case studies in both sections. However, those selections do cover a sensible and broadly representative range across the spectrum of responses. There are some obvious omissions. Veteran evangelical social commentator, Tony Campolo, is not mentioned (see Ch.9 ‘Is Islam really an evil religion?’ in Speaking my Mind, 2004) and neither is Brian McLaren who reached out to Muslims after the 9/11 attacks by visiting his local mosque, although he hadn’t written a book on other faiths at the time of publication (see Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?,2012). Neither does Ratliff mention involvement with A Common Word – or other specific interfaith dialogue – which has been a particularly divisive issue for evangelicals in America, Britain and around the world.
There are also a few inaccuracies, errors and typos in the Kindle version of the book at least. McGrath is credited with David Bebbington’s quadrilateral definition of Evangelicalism. Various citations are missing from the bibliography including what sounds an interesting reference to a sympathetic piece by evangelical heavyweight Don Carson. And the discussion of Islamic eschatology and Mahdism in the fourth chapter is a little incongruous and reads as an excursus, as does the discussion of sociological framing. The book is basically a well-written journalistic piece and would probably benefit from being left that way. And whilst instructive for the British reader who has much to learn from it, this book is limited in its application – although at £1.88 on Kindle you can’t really go wrong!
A 2002 poll showed that American Evangelicals had an overwhelmingly (77%) unfavorable view of Islam and did not believe that Muslims and Christians pray to the same God (79%). At the same time 79% said it was “very important” to protect Muslims’ rights. This suggests something of the conflicted nature of evangelical thinking in response to the catastrophe.
The book starts out with a discussion of the difficulty of defining Evangelicalism and also explains the background and theology of dispensationalism. The first part of book then examines three case studies to illustrate the range of evangelical responses to Islam. The Southern Baptist Convention, which includes many of the well-known leaders who made negative statements about Islam such as Jerry Vines and Pat Robertson, adopted a polemical stance towards Islam. He cites various writers and speakers including the infamous Caner brothers, one of whom, Ergun, he points out has since been exposed as having fraudulently represented his Muslim background. They contributed along with others to a special edition of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (‘The Challenge of Islam. SBJT 8/1, 2004) which focused on the essentially violent nature of Islam and suggested that for Muslims “martyrdom is the only sure way to heaven” (37). The second case study is the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, a particularly conservative part of the Lutheran church, which was embroiled in controversy when a Lutheran pastor, the Rev. David Benke, took part in an interfaith prayer service held after 9/11 hosted by Oprah Winfrey in the Yankee stadium. He was accused of heresy and the argument almost divided the movement. The final case study is of a rather more eirenical response from the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, which received a million-dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to develop a controversial peacemaking program for Christians and Muslims. Despite having been a bastion of evangelical theology and education, the seminary chose to engage and in cooperation with Muslims produced a Code of Ethics for dialogue.
A more wide-ranging discussion about political engagement suggests that, whilst evangelicals and Muslims share much in common over issues of public morality, they are on opposite sides of the political fence when it comes to issues of social justice. Conservative evangelicals are not supportive of state financial support for the disadvantaged – an issue uppermost in the minds of many immigrants including Muslims. Ratliff insightfully compares this with the racial rift within evangelicalism itself produced by a similar disconnect between white and black believers (see Emerson & Smith, Divided by Faith, 2001). Despite continued support for another contentious issue – US foreign policy with respect to Israel – the book does note the beginnings of a change in evangelical political affiliation particularly with Rick Warren’s hosting of democratic politicians – although he fails to mention Warren praying at Obama’s inauguration.
There is then something of a hiatus in the book. Chapter 4 does not fit comfortably with the rest of the book. It looks at the place of Jesus in Islamic eschatology providing quotes from the Qur’an and Hadith which gives it a rather more theological gloss than other parts of the book which do not draw on Biblical material. It strangely says nothing about Evangelicals. Chapter 5 then provides a sensible, non-sensationalist look at Muslims in America. It highlights the problems of discrimination and lack of unity in representation which hinder their voice on US foreign policy. It also reports Muslim claims of targeting and discrimination following 9/11 – both by individuals and the state.
The second part of the book is a review of articles in the Christian press before and after 9/11. Again Ratliff chooses some limited case studies. The major focus is on articles published in Christianity Today, which he judges to be the most influential Evangelical magazine in the US. However, he also offers a cursory overview of writing in the left wing Sojourners magazine and the more conservative Lutheran World Magazine. He categorises the articles as: (a) Muslim-Christian Conflict, (b) Context and Understanding, (c) Mission and Evangelism, (d) Dialogue and gives a careful quantitative account of the publications from 1996 to 2003. Over the total period considered the conflict articles, which include predominantly stories of the persecution of Christians in Muslim countries, outnumber other types 4:1. Ratliff reflects that “evangelicals may often regard indigenous Christians in developing countries as merely nominal or even outside of the faith. However, when it comes to garnering support to form U.S. policy advancing religious freedom, those same Christians are often portrayed as fellow believers suffering at the hands, primarily, of Muslims” (136).
Overall Christianity Today made a measured response to the crisis. “The magazine chose articles and authors that urged evangelicals to build positive, respectful relationships” (180). Sojourners likewise urged conciliation and “the editors of Sojourners concentrated the majority of their attention on advocating nonviolence. They also condemned remarks by evangelical leaders that Muslims found hateful and divisive” (181). World, on the other hand, took a more polemical approach and “the overall envirment (sic) in the pages of the magazine were hostile to Muslim–Christian relations” (182).
Along with quotes and articles from Christian journalists such as Ted Olsen of Christianity Today and more reactionary commentators such as Marvin Olasky of World, Ratliff also cites an interesting array of evangelicals and initiatives including: Miroslav Volf, whom he believes “stands at the forefront of evangelicals looking for theologically orthodox solutions to inter-religious conflict” (6); Brother Andrew; Philip Yancey; and the Reconciliation Walk. In short his conclusion having explored a plethora of articles is that “the (evangelical) movement is wrestling with the diversity within itself to negotiate an approach that assures its own existence and its place in the public square” (183).
The above polarity will be no surprise to those familiar with the British Christian context where evangelicals have likewise been divided between a confrontational and a conciliatory approach towards Muslims. However, there are also clear differences – mainly deriving from the nature of the difference between British and American evangelicalism. In the British case evangelicals are not aligned with any one political party to the extent to which much of American evangelicalism has been. A recent Theos Think Tank report (Is there a ‘Religious Right’ Emerging in Britain?) made it clear that there is no correlation between evangelicals and the Conservative, or any other, party. It is much less likely that evangelicals and Muslims in this country would line up on different sides of the political fence – although Muslims have historically tended to support the Labour party.
Secondly, dispensational theology today has little influence within British churches, being mainly associated with a small number of older conservative congregations. This is reflected in rather more muted support for Israel or even positive preference for the Palestinian cause –although there are of course notable exceptions (see Sizer Zion’s Christian Soldiers? and Pawson Defending Christian Zionism).