The Maranatha Chapel Full Gospel caused a stir in Harlan this week with a question on the message board outside the church: Do you want a Muslim for your president? WANE TV did a story and sort of hinted at what the controversy might be -- you know, something to do with the McCain-Obama presidential race. The Journal Gazette was more explicit about what the fuss might be about:
The sign refers to the persistent fallacy that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, a Christian, is secretly Muslim, a sentiment even dismissed by Obama's Republican opponent, John McCain.
Neither story tackles the assumption behind the question, which is that identifying someone as a Muslim is an acceptable insult. The intolerance is not in falsely claiming Obama is a Muslim but in the fact that such a claim is believed to have only one possible defense: Of course I'm not a Muslim. This puts a whole religion on the level of such pejoratives as liar, racist and homophobe.
It might be interesting to have a Muslim as a presidential candidate, because it might lead to an important national conversation. It is widely believed that Islam cannot keep its hands off government in the separation-of-church-and-state tradition of the West, because the purpose of government under Islam is to enforce God's law. Actually, there's quite a debate going on about that in the Muslim community, not unlike the debates we had in the beginning of this country, when a religious people had to be convinced that keeping church and state separate would not harm their religious institutions. (Fascinating background article from the Hoover Institution here, if you want to read more.)
If a Muslim even wanted to be president, I presume he would be from the secular-government side of that debate. The candidate could start with a JFK-type speech, then engage us all -- Christian, Muslim and otherwise -- in a lively look at that murky territory between religion and government.
And I'm not a Muslim, either, by the way -- not there's anything wrong with that.