Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama last weekend was notable for a number of reasons. Most notable for me was the addressing of the issue that no one had yet addressed up to this point. Here’s the relevant section from the endorsement:
I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian.
But the really right answer is, “What if he is?” Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, “He’s a Muslim and he might be associated [with] terrorists.” This is not the way we should be doing it in America.
I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards—Purple Heart, Bronze Star—showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American.
He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life. Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourselves in this way. And John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know. But I’m troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions.
As General Powell pointed out, the underlying association that the McCain campaign was banking on was that people would associate Muslims with terrorists, a ploy which undermines any attempts at living in peace together because it grossly misrepresents the majority of Muslims and what they stand for. There are actually great similarities between Islam and Christianity: both the church and the Umma (the Muslim community) stand for ideals of justice, righteousness and peace. Both the Bible and the Qur’an agree that God is one, and generally-speaking, Christians and Muslims believe they are talking about the same God, though their witness concerning God may be different. Both Christians and Muslims believe that this God that they both worship is the Creator, and that he is separate from his creation. Both Christians and Muslims believe that God reveals himself to humanity, whether through the person of Jesus Christ or the words of the Qur’an. Both faiths stress peace and humility in relating to people of other faiths. Though Islam is a missionary faith like Christianity, it says in the Qur’an, “There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error” (2:256). Likewise, though Christians are called to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:20), they are also called to reflect the character and attitude of Jesus (Phil. 2:5ff), and to exhibit the fruit of the Spirit—“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22ff). This is especially noteworthy when one considers the complex relationships between Christians and Muslims in the world today.
For many, especially for those of one faith who have not considered the other, it is all too easy to assume, perhaps because of the polarization between the two faiths that we see in American culture and the media, e.g. Islamic extremists and Christian fundamentalists, that our differences are too great. Of course, there are differences between the two faiths—substantive differences about humanity’s nature being fallen or not, or about the final revelation of God coming through the Bible and Jesus or Muhammad and the Qur’an—and these differences should be acknowledged, but I think that more people need to understand that we are not as far apart as those hardline factions in both our faiths would portray us.
Barack Obama is not a Muslim. But even if he were, so what?