One can also see the seams of the Episcopal church coming apart over the issue of homosexuality, which is really just the most visible symptom of a deeper theological division. According to Kevin Eckstrom, the editor of Religion News Service, “The chasm is so deep that neither side trusts the other or is willing to give it the benefit of the doubt on anything. The traditionalists feel their way of life is being taken away from them by the tyranny of the majority, while the progressives think a bigoted minority is holding the Holy Spirit hostage. [And] even those fights aren’t about sex, or even theology, but about power, and who gets to make the decisions that will tie the hands of everyone else.”
Mainline Protestant churches—Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans—are fumbling around in the dark, desperately trying to attract new, and younger, congregants to their barren pews. Evangelical bodies, especially Pentacostals, seem to be the only churches gaining members. But it is also conservative evangelicals (along with traditionalist Catholics) who are most involved in the battle royale with secularists. The culture wars, as they are called, are a blessing for at least one group: journalists. “Heat is good for a story, and religion is consistently good for that,” says Cathleen Falsani, a religion columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times who covered the beat as a reporter for several years. “Religion is polarizing. Maybe that’s not the way it’s intended to be, but it is.”
Falsani, whose book Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace will be published this fall by Zondervan, said complaints about her work escalated when she began writing in her own voice. “The worst ad hominem attacks on me personally have come from my own compatriots in the evangelical community,” she said. “That was angering and hurtful at times.”
Neela Banerjee, who covers religion for The New York Times, said there is a difference in the way those on different sides of the culture wars express their rage. There is, she said, “a great deal of anger between secularists and the Christian right. The former tend to be more upfront about their anger, while the latter cloak their criticism in language of hating the sin but loving the sinner. Each sees the other as a profoundly dangerous influence on society.”
Eckstrom concurs. All parties, he says, feel their worldview is under attack—“on the one side by religious fundamentalists, who hate science and love war, and on the other by godless hedonists, who want to denude the Pledge of Allegiance and turn the country over to radical Islamists. There’s very little middle ground there.”
And where does this leave American Muslims? Since the September 11 attacks, no group of Americans has had a more difficult time balancing the reality of their daily lives with the promised protection of the Bill of Rights. Regardless of whether they, or even their parents, were born in the U.S., American Muslims face fellow citizens who are afraid of the next mass murder, and believe that Islam is intent on destroying America.
Like nearly every religion reporter I know, I’ve written a lot about the Muslim American experience in recent years. It’s difficult to explain to other Americans the fear this community lives with. One Muslim described it to me as a tidal wave they see growing on the not-so-distant horizon. They hope the wave will dissipate, but instead it grows and gets closer to shore, especially during election years.
Just a few weeks ago, in late February, I got an e-mail from the Council on American-Islamic Relations. This was not unusual. Like most beat reporters, I get hundreds of press releases a day. Some I look at, some I don’t. From CAIR alone, I typically receive from one to three e-mails every day, and I had never acted on one before. But this one was different. It involved a mosque I cover in south St. Louis. The CAIR press release said that the FBI had been asked to investigate several comments on two blogs, which threatened a minaret being built outside the mosque.
I had covered the groundbreaking of the minaret—the first to be built in St. Louis. The mayor had been there to praise pluralism and throw a little dirt around for the cameras. In Muslim countries, the minaret is the tower from which the muezzin chants the call to prayer. But as I noted in the original story, this particular 107-foot minaret was symbolic, not functional.