One Mormon’s thoughts on the “Ground Zero Mosque,” Obama’s faith, and burning the Qu’ran

Three events or issues in the news recently have put a magnifying glass over conflicts between American Christian culture and Islamic culture. I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the subjects, colored by my being a Latter-day Saint — a Mormon; therefore, both an insider and an outsider in traditional American Christian culture. I consider myself a Christian, but I know what it’s like to have others disagree.

The “Ground Zero Mosque”

I find it difficult to oppose the establishment of of an Islamic community center or mosque near the site of the World Trade Center, and I don’t think it matters much what I think about such a center — or what my senator or representative things.

According to my political idealogy, there is not a ton of room for the government to control what someone does with their private property. The main concerns are the way a property’s use might affect surrounding properties and public infrastructure. Local zoning procedures address these concerns, and you might even say zoning ordinances go too far: a developer recently told me that some neighborhoods of Richmond have even controlled what color his buildings’ shutters could be.

Latter-day Saint temples face similar issues. Most temples are white, but the Reno, Nevada, temple is almost gray. Why? When I was on a mission in Nevada, I was told it was because surrounding neighborhoods worried that a white temple would reflect so much light that it would disturb the surrounding neighborhood at night. So the church adapted its plans.

One year ago, the church went through some significant zoning challenges for a temple in Phoenix, and the church actually changed its plans, opting for a one-story building with a full basement rather than a two-story temple:
http://www.ldschurchtemples.com/phoenix/

While my church actively cooperates and seeks to alleviate the concerns of neighbors near church construction projects, we appreciate the freedom to build essentially wherever we would like. Although I would hope that those building an Islamic center would also cooperate and address people’s concerns, perhaps even to the point of moving their intended site, they have the freedom to choose their location.

A basic tenet of Mormon doctrin asserts the importance of universal religious freedom, not just freedom of our religion: “We claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege. Let them worship how, where, or what they may” (Articles of Faith 11, http://scriptures.lds.org/en/a_of_f/1).

Many of the concerns people have about the Ground Zero Mosque regard its proximity to the World Trade Center site, but there also are concerns that it is a symbol of conquering America or that it will be used as a terrorist training camp.

Mormon history contains many examples of times when misunderstanding about Latter-day Saints, or the existence of very real political differences (Mormons were anti-slavery and lived in Missouri), fueled persecutions against church members, even driving them from their homes. After they had settled in Utah, the U.S. Army was dispatched to quell an anti-American rebellion in Utah — a rebellion that did not, in fact, exist.

Yes, my ancestors’ rights were trampled on, but I do not believe we need to trample on someone else’s rights today. Unless it can be proven that there are direct connections between the planners or operators of the Islamic community center near Ground Zero, these concerns are not grounds for preventing the facility.

Obama’s Christianity, or lack therof

Amidst the conversation about the Ground Zero Mosque is the speculation about Obama’s religion. About 20 percent of Americans believe Obama is Muslim, and only 34 percent believe he is Christian, according to a poll released in August.

This is very sensitive to me because I know what it is like to have people doubt my Christianity. As a Mormon, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I believe Jesus Christ is the son of God, the savior of the world. I think of him often. I pray in his name. I believe the Bible and I study it. But many Christians believe I am not one of them, for reasons that include my belief in The Book of Mormon and other scripture outside the Bible.

Obama’s sin? Not being overtly Christian, and perhaps saying that America is not a Christian nation (he continued, “or a Jewish nation, or a Muslim nation”). Many American Christians do not like the idea of their president saying that their nation is not Christian. Many Christians (Mormons included) believe that the nation prospers due to the blessing of Jesus Christ, and that if we, as a nation, forsake him, we will lose his blessing.

I wonder who gets to evaluate someone’s standing as a Christian, when Christianity is not a church with a membership roster, but a collection of many churches that identify with each other based on a few shared beliefs (which may or may not be shared by all members of each Christian church). Is the definition of Christianity to be decided by committee and then enforced on all who call themselves Christians? Or are we supposed to take each person’s word for it?

I do not know President Obama. I have never attended church with him. I have never heard the teachings of his former pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church beyond a few sound bites played on talk radio. I personally cannot judge whether or not he is a Christian. I don’t think it’s my place to say. Does it matter? Only because he asserted time and again during his campaign that he is a Christian, so I would hope it is the truth. (I doubt Christ appreciates people taking his name in vain — only to secure a political victory.) Other presidential candidates — most recently, Mitt Romney, have lost elections in large part due to their honesty about their religious affiliations — or their inability to hide their affiliations.

Burning the Qu’ran

Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I saw a prominent preacher being interviewed on television and speaking about the Qu’ran. He indicated that Islam is a violent religion and the Qu’ran is a very violent, bloody book. “Have you read the Qu’ran?” the reporter asked. “I’ve read parts of it,” the preacher responded.

Most Americans who comment on the Qu’ran, or want to burn it, have never read it. You could say the same about The Book of Mormon. As an LDS missionary in Nevada and California, I had many people confront me about the contents of The Book of Mormon without being familiar with it.

The world has a long history of book burning, a.k.a. bibliocide, according to the ever-trusty Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_burning
In today’s world, where a text is available online as well as in print, book burning does not have as much of the supression value, but it probably retains it’s symbolic value.

Is it appropriate to burn the Qu’ran? I believe that most of the people who want to burn the Muslim holy book want to do so not out of racism, but out of desire for the symbolism of burning the book professed by the hijackers who killed thousands of people on 9/11. However, the Qu’ran also is sacred to many peaceful Muslims in and outside America — such as the Muslim woman who works at a crafts store near my home.

Is burning the Qu’ran a Christian act? You could argue that it is, in the sense that it destroys a copy of a book that does not profess that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God; After all, Christian converts in Ephesus burned their books of sorcery (Acts 19). But you could argue that it is not a Christian act in the sense that Christ himself said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you.”

Personally, I think burning a book is a waste of time and flame. But if someone decides to do it, they have a right to do so (as long as they abide by local fire rules). Here is the official position my church took on the matter: “A key tenet of our faith is to accord everyone the freedom to worship as they choose. It is regrettable that anyone would regard the burning of any scriptural text as a legitimate form of protest or disagreement.”

What I think of the recent Qu’ran burning plans that have been in the news was summed up by one author:
“Pastor Terry Jones` hideous plan should have been neglected and never granted this wide media exposure which turned this sick idea into a phenomenal display of extremism.” (http://www.veteranstoday.com/2010/09/09/why-muslims-dare-not-burn-the-bible-in-return/ )

When two people were killed and others were injured during a protest against Jones’ planned Qu’ran burning (mentioned here: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-afghan-protest-20100913,0,4630198.story ), was it because Jones planned a Qu’ran burning, or because he planned a Qu’ran burning and then a news media hungry to deliver sensationalism decided to tell the entire world about it?

Summing up

These three issues highlight strenuous relations between American Christian culture and Islamic culture. But those relationships are strenuous in part because it is easy to fear the unknown.

Most American Christians have never met a Muslim, or have never become acquainted with one. So the closest most Americans have come to having a true interaction with a Muslim came on 9/11/2001, when a few terrorists who were Muslims flew airplanes into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania (with perhaps a different target in mind). They wrecked an already-faltering economy. They took peace, security, comfort and joy from America. They killed thousands of people, and affected the lives of everyone whom they did not kill.

Since that is the closest most American Christians come to having an experience with Muslims, is it any wonder that some people would angrily oppose the building of an Islamic center near Ground Zero, distrust a president who has Muslim ties and at least seems sympathetic toward Muslims, and would get some satisfaction out of burning the Muslim holy book?

That’s pretty sad that a few Muslim men, and many other terrorists who share their religion and political views, define for so many Americans what to think of our Muslim neighbors and their canon.

Early on my two-year mission for my church, which began just a few months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I met a Muslim man in Las Vegas and had a short discussion on the sidewalk in front of his house. I don’t remember much about the discussion; only that he asked me what I thought of Muslims since the attacks. He was asking about Muslims in general, but he probably also meant, “What do you think about me? Are you going to judge me, condemn me, because of what they did?”

America is a land of freedom, especially of religious freedom. Mormons found their liberty — and safety — limited amongst populated parts of the country, and had to form their own society in a desert that no one else wanted. Over the decades, Mormons’ place in society has improved as misunderstandings and misconceptions have eroded and as more and more people have come to know individual Mormons. Perhaps if we knew more and more Muslims, we could foster understanding on both sides. Perhaps we could then focus on the true enemy: not the existence of Muslims, but the existence of hatred in the Muslims who have hijacked their religion for a jihad against America.