Consider this scenario:
You are a school principal in California. A group of Muslim parents come to your office and politely request that you create a small, fifteen-minute segment in the school day to permit fifty to a hundred of your students from Muslim families to take part in daily prayer and in the recitation of verses from the Koran as required by their faith.
What would you do? How would you respond?
One school administrator, the principal of Carver Elementary School in San Diego, California, faced this question when Carver began offering a special Arabic-language program that attracted a large number of immigrant families and a more diverse student population. Many of the Muslim students who attend Carver pray five times a day at appointed times in observance of salat (prayer to Allah), one of the five pillars of Islam. Midday prayer for them falls during the school day, usually between one and two o’clock in the afternoon.
The school responded by adjusting its schedule and adding a fifteen-minute afternoon recess for all students during which Muslim students could go to a designated room to participate in midday prayers. Non-Muslim students typically play or read or work on homework during the break. The school has since been threatened with lawsuits charging that the school is violating “the separation of church and state” by promoting Islam and religious indoctrination. Who’s right and who’s wrong?
Consider a second scenario:
Members of the Muslim community in a large city like Toronto or New York set out to organize their own school to educate their children in accordance with their faith and convictions. Parents form an association and expect in coming years to enroll several hundred students from families who desire an education for their children that is both academically rigorous and consistently Islamic in perspective. They purchase property, hire qualified Muslim teachers, develop their curriculum, admission, and attendance policies (in many respects similar to those of others schools), build in time for midday prayers into the school schedule, and take one further step: They seek government approval and funding to operate the first Muslim public school—open to all.
Should such a school be allowed to exist today? If our laws do make room for Islamic schools like this one, should it receive government funding comparable to other schools? If so, why? If not, why not?
These scenarios pose some difficult questions that many positions of authority in government, schools, and churches have yet to confront fully. However, these scenarios will likely become increasingly common in the future. There are estimated to be 2.35 million Muslims in the United States. Islam is quickly becoming the fastest-growing religion in Canada. Many Muslims practice their faith as seriously as evangelical Christians do—perhaps more seriously, in some cases. Both the American and Canadian legal systems provide certain basic guarantees of freedom of religion for Muslims and people of all faiths.
What posture should Christians adopt towards the growth of Muslim communities in our countries? While some Christians might be initially suspicious of the idea, I believe it would be a sign of hope for a new generation of Christian culture-shapers to take the lead in making room for Muslims out of Christian conviction. It is now time—past time—to regard Muslims as full participants in North American society. Imagine how surprising it would be to onlookers to see young Christian leaders standing up to defend the religious freedom and the full public inclusion of Muslims, Christians, and people of all faiths in society. We have an opportunity before us to model an alternative to the false stereotype held by many secularists (and made popular recently by several books promoting atheism) that all religious believers are politically divisive and that their beliefs are dangerous to society, and best confined to a “private” realm.
To the contrary, the gospel—as the missiologist Lesslie Newbigin reminded us in his writings—is public truth. Christ’s teachings are also good news for people of all faiths when the implications of a biblical perspective are worked out for public life. While good people of serious faith can disagree sometimes about the specifics of politics and policy, there are good biblical grounds for making room in public life for the community institutions of Muslims and those of people of other faiths, provided the same freedoms are extended life to Christians. The reasons, rooted in Christian faith, move beyond the slogans and sound bites of a wishy-washy type of “tolerance” heralded by many as a new civic creed today. There is a long tradition of serious Christian thinking about how our laws can and should create an environment where all people, and not only Christians, can be free to follow their faith’s leading not just in “private life” but in the public square too.
Let’s return to the two scenarios.
Why should Christians support making room for Muslims to carry out their religious duties at schools like Carver Elementary School?
First, this is one practical way we can express love for our Muslim neighbours. Jesus said we would be known as his followers by how we love our neighbour, and not only fellow believers. It is a powerful sign of our love and respect for our Muslim neighbours as fellow citizens, that even though we may disagree on many important matters, we will defend their right to practice their faith, even as we enjoy our right to follow Jesus without coercion.
Christians would object strenuously if government-run schools required all students to either go to class on Sundays or be penalized; or if a new policy prohibited praying at school during lunch periods or recess; or if pastors or students were prohibited from expressing their views, controversial to some, that pre-marital or homosexual sex is a sin.
In many ways, we take for granted the considerable space that has already been made for us to practice our faith without interference. We have inherited generations of laws and customs that establish basic protections for our way of life. However, with the passing of time and changes in the culture, we should not assume that these protections will always remain, or that everything is perfect just as things are. Christians may need to take political action to defend important religious freedoms for us and for others.
While we may disagree theologically on many issues with our Muslim (and for that matter, Jewish) neighbours, friends and relatives, we also share much common ground. Religion, in each of these traditions, is understood as a communally shared way of life, not only a way of worship or simply a matter of doctrine or deities. Our faith is to be lived and expressed in all of life—at school, work, and play; in private and in public; in the halls of business and even in the halls of government. Our religious ways of life are not confined to church or mosque or synagogue, but express themselves throughout all of society as we participate in social, educational, economic and political institutions.
Furthermore, public opinion polls of Muslims in the U.S. suggest that many Christians and Muslims can agree that government should be limited in its authority over the lives of citizens. We can agree that we all bear multiple identities and responsibilities as we live in God’s good creation. Students at Carver Elementary are not only pupils, but also members of families and of religious communities. By creating space for Muslim (or Christian) students to pray at school, education authorities are recognizing that students also have obligations to family and faith that schools do not have the right to hinder students from performing. The principal at Carver Elementary School made a wise decision by using her authority in a manner to address a practical matter of governance in her school, while at the same time respecting the separate and independent authority of parents and children to live in accord with the legitimate expectations of their faith.
Under what terms might a Christian support the existence of an Islamic school funded by taxpayer dollars?
In the American context, this may be a very controversial question for a number of reasons. First, unlike countries such as Canada or the Netherlands, the United States has typically offered no public, financial support for Christian or other schools with a clear religious identity. These schools have been denied the tax support given to other schools on the grounds that they are “sectarian” or ” religious” and not “secular” enough to be regarded as truly “public.” This way of dividing up society has long and deep roots in American history (and is a similarity between America and France) but it has recently begun to be challenged as fundamentally discriminatory against people of all faiths—the imposition of secularism on all citizens.
In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it would not be unconstitutional for Christian and other schools to receive public funding if parents chose among a range of options and directed public money via a voucher system to a school (religious or secular) they chose for their children. There are good reasons for Christians to support educational reforms such as this that end government discrimination against community institutions built and sustained by people of many faiths as an expression of their religious ways of life.
If Christian, Jewish, and Muslim schools effectively educate and prepare students for civic life, why should our laws or public finance systems penalize them just because they are religious?
Christians, above all, should champion the idea that government, as an institution under God’s authority, should treat all citizens fairly and with equal justice. We can favour equitable treatment and making room for Muslims in public life, because we believe God calls the state to uphold laws that promote even-handedness and fairness for people of all faiths—instead of giving special benefits to some and not others based on their faith.
Christians are not endorsing Islam when they call on the government to defend the rights of all citizens, including Muslims, to live their faith in public and private. As Jim Skillen writes in Confessing Christ and Doing Politics (1982), “The state is not a community of Christian faith; it is a community of public legal care for all people which must not favour or persecute any particular group or society.”
When Christians call on the government to defend the rights of all citizens, including Muslims, they are modelling the patience and grace of God in the public square.
Consider Jesus’ words in this parable from the Gospel of Matthew:
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’
God is patient and long-suffering, desiring all to repent and come to a knowledge of the truth in Jesus. There is, indeed, a final judgment. But God does not give us, who are only His servants—and not the Judge—the right to implement it prematurely.</.p>
Just as God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust alike (Matthew 5), Christians and non-Christians should enjoy the same blessings, rights and freedoms in the countries where we are called to live as salt and light and leavening influences in a world desperate for God’s grace in all its fullness.
If Christians in the future become known for our passion and determination to defend religious freedom, not just for ourselves, but for everyone, we would be fulfilling at least part of our calling to be a light to the nations.