Andrew McCarthy has once again performed a public service, this time by providing a brief primer on Islam for aspiring pols. (Those seeking a fuller account should consult his bestselling book The Grand Jihad.) The impetus was the recent debate among some contenders for the GOP nomination. The score between the relevant candidates: Mitt Romney, 0. Newt Gingrich, 1.
“Is Newt Gingrich still a candidate?” you ask. Between us, the answer is No, not really. But when a CNN correspondent asked about Islam in America, Gingrich gave the robust answer, Romney retreated to political thru-text. According to the architect of RomneyCare™, the institution of Islamic law, a.k.a. sharia, is “never going to happen” in the U.S. Why? Because, Virginia, “We have a Constitution, we follow the law.”
That’s sweet, isn’t it? And the former governor of Taxachussetts has more where that came from: “I think we recognize that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, our nation was founded on the notion of religious tolerance, it’s in fact why some of the earlier patriots came to this country. And we treat people with respect regardless of their religious persuasion.”
Isn’t that nice?
The trouble is, Gov, that this pretty story depends on mutual respect if it is going to work. Religious tolerance is a nifty idea. As a Catholic, I’m pleased it exists. But here’s the rub: tolerance only works when practiced by all parties to the social contract. It’s one thing for a Unitarian and a Catholic to tolerate each other. They have some important doctrinal differences. But they do not endeavor to kill or enslave one another on account of those differences.
The friction of difference works differently when you add Islam to the equation. Why? Because Islam does not — in principle as well as in practice — acknowledge a legitimate sphere of operation for the secular as distinct from the sacred realm. There is no “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” in Islam because Islam — that’s mainstream, garden-variety Islam, not just its wacko Wahhabist allotropes — regards everything as subordinate to the will of Allah.
Romney, like many well-meaning liberals, wants to regard Islam as a religious phenomenon. The thought process goes something like this:
1. We’re in favor of religious toleration.
2. Islam is a religion.
3. Ergo, we should tolerate Islam. (Q., isn’t it, e. demonstrandum?)
The problem with this syllogism is what it leaves out of account — namely, as McCarthy puts it, that Islam is a “totalitarian political program masquerading as a purely spiritual doctrine.”
As with all systems of belief in a liberal democratic regime, Islam deserves tolerance to the extent that it extends tolerance. That syllogism really should begin:
1. We’re in favor of religious toleration for those religions that practice toleration.
The same, by the way, goes for political beliefs. We live in a pluralistic democracy. But pluralism is not a suicide pact. Embracing pluralism does not require us to embrace ideologies that would destroy us. Pluralism is “Yes” to the many, not “Yes” to everything, even those things that are inherently inimical to pluralism.
Pluralism in this adult sense requires a little more work than your average CNN reporter or cliché-addicted politician is willing to expend. It cannot be practiced formulaically, simply by bleating “we’re tolerant” whenever confronted by a dissenting ideology. What it requires is not a formula but judgment deployed on the basis of certain principles, above all the principle that a liberal regime, if it is to protect tolerance, must be intolerant of those movements that would destroy tolerance. Islam is one such movement. As McCarthy notes,
The issue for America . . . is that most Muslims in the world accept the Islamist interpretation of sharia propounded by influential Muslim clerics. . . . and reject the smiley-face sharia on offer from Western politicians. When a woman is convicted of adultery in a country where sharia is binding, they don’t throw aspirations at her. They throw stones.
Real stones, not metaphorical ones. Bottom line? “Sharia rejects the foundational principle of American law, that we are free to govern ourselves as we choose, irrespective of any religious code.” Newt Gingrich understands this: “I am in favor of saying to people, ‘If you’re not prepared to be loyal to the United States, you will not serve in my administration. Period.’” Mitt Romney, judging by the evidence of his performance at the debate, does not.
Indeed, I believe there are many things that the putative frontrunner for the GOP nomination does not understand. If it turns out that Mitt Romney is the GOP candidate, I will support him, just as I supported, not without many a sigh, John McCain. But then I would support the terrier who lives across the street from me before I would vote for Barack Obama. In my view, Mitt Romney would be our Bob Dole — the “safe” establishment candidate who knows the ropes, won’t rock the boat, and would dutifully pursue a business-as-usual course if elected.
The trouble is, business-as-usual in Washington is the problem, not the solution. Romeny would not be the grade A disaster that Barack Obama has been. But he lacks the gumption to challenge the status quo and make fundamental changes to the way government has been deployed recently in the United States. “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Ronald Reagan said those were the scariest nine words in the English language. Government has its place; but it must also be put in its place. Mitt Romney is quintessentially the man from the government incapable of understanding that (in Thoreau’s formula) the government that governs best governs least. We need more intelligent government, to be sure, but we also need less government: less regulation, fewer programs, fewer bureaucrats, more local, more individual, initiative. Mitt Romney is a company man at a time when our problem is the company. We can do better. Let’s hope we do.