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Published by David French -- Harvard Law grad, former lecturer at Cornell Law School, author of books no one reads, master of the three point shot, constant critic of Duke Basketball, Playstation2 addict, owner of a cool new Sony DCRTRV25 MiniDV Digital Handycam, father of two and husband of one extremely hot wife


The Culture Curve
Wednesday, August 07, 2002  
THE WRONG LAWSUIT. The University of North Carolina is requiring all incoming freshmen to read a book about Islam and the Qur'an. The book, "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations," apparently paints a relatively flattering picture of Islamic theology and belief. The author, Michael Sells, denies any attempt to proselytize through the book:

"The great irony of the UNC controversy, Sells said, is that when he wrote the book several years ago, his goal was to avoid "the whole argument about the violent or nonviolent nature" of Islam.

"The point of this book is to say, let's put that vital question aside for a moment and ask, 'What is it in the religion that makes 1.2 billion people see it as meaningful?' And present that just as you would present what it is in the Christian story of the death and resurrection of Jesus that is meaningful to Christians," he said."

The Christian and conservative response to UNC's reading requirement has been loud and litigious. At least one evangelical Christian activist group has filed a lawsuit against UNC, arguing that their requirement violates the Establishment Clause by advancing a single religious viewpoint.

This lawsuit is a terrible idea. It is clear that UNC's goal is not to "establish" Islam or to convert students to Islam. It's goal is to teach kids about Islam during a time when Islamic issues are front and center in American life. The fact that they've chosen a book that paints Islam in an (allegedly) flattering light is, I believe, only marginally important. When teaching about religion, it is virtually impossible to use materials that don't advance a particular point of view regarding that religion. I don't think there is such a thing as truly "dispassionate" religious analysis. Even if an individual believes their analysis is dispassionate, believers (or disbelievers) will find something to dispute -- something to become passionate about.

This university policy does not in any way silence the Christian point of view. For a fraction of the cost of this litigation, the same evangelical group that has filed suit could provide every student on the UNC campus with a Bible and a book that paints a more accurate picture of Islam. The true answer to this exercise of UNC's academic freedom is not litigation but speech and education.

For a long time, Christians have been arguing that the Establishment Clause was not intended to erect a "wall of separation" between church and state. We've fought long and hard to preserve the idea that the government can and should acknowledge (without endorsing) the religious beliefs of its citizens. Now that one small arm of the government has chosen to acknowledge and educate its citizens about a particular (and particularly relevant) religious tradition that we disagree with, all our previous rhetoric goes out the window, and we pitch our tent with the strict separationists.

The ACLU would be proud. We, however, should be ashamed.

THE RIGHT LAWSUIT. Christians must learn to think strategically about the culture wars. Instead, we tend to take each issue on a case-by-case basis and apply the most stunningly simplistic analysis. Islam bad, so lawsuit against Islamic instruction good. School prayer good, so litigation supporting school prayer good. Nativity scenes good, litigation good. However, we don't realize that by suing UNC for its book requirement we can establish precedents that harm our interests in other areas. With one hand, we file complaints asking the government to tear down false walls of separation between religion and state, and with the other we file complaints asking that the wall be rebuilt.

Is it any wonder that our critics see us as having a single-minded focus: using the law in any way we can to promote one single (Christian) point of view? Instead, our focus should be clear and consistent. The Establishment clause was designed to prevent the establishment of religion, not any public acknowledgement of religion, or even education about religion. The Establishment clause was also designed (together with the Free Exercise Clause) to prevent government action against religion. In other words, the government cannot (and should not) favor non-religious speech over religious speech.

Given these simple principles, this column provides a perfect example of a battle worth fighting. Last week, a Florida judge struck down Florida's experimental voucher program by holding that the program violated provisions of Florida law that prohibited any state aid to religious institutions. In other words, under the Florida constitution, the state can provide financial aid to any group except religious organizations.

Without question, this state constitutional provision -- a version of the anti-Catholic "Blaine Amendment" discussed in posts below -- discriminates against religious speakers and religious viewpoints. In other words, the state has stepped out of neutrality and has embraced active hostility to religious expression. Christians can and should fight for an equal playing field -- for equal access to state support.

There is nothing about the UNC case that silences Christians or even truly oppresses them (students with objections to the reading requirement can write a paper explaining their objections in lieu of reading the book). Far from silencing evangelicals, the UNC requirement gives Christians a tremendous opportunity to start a real dialogue about Islam. The Florida decision, on the other hand, does discriminate directly against Christians and other religious individuals. By -- in essence -- saying that religious speech is the only kind of speech that Florida believes not worth supporting or subsidizing, Florida has specifically singled out people of faith for disparate treatment.

One lawsuit makes Christians appear afraid of competing ideas. The other lawsuit simply asks for Christians to have an equal place in the public square. One lawsuit harms our legal interests and makes us appear petty and hypocritical in the eyes of the public. The other lawsuit (if successful) directly advances both educational reform and the ability of Christians to share their faith. The strategic and moral choice could not be more clear. Embrace equality, neutrality and the consistent application of principal (even when that means sometimes reading books we don't like). Reject fear.

8:57 AM

Monday, August 05, 2002  
SPINNING SEPTEMBER 11. The Clinton spin machine is still impressive. Check out this week's cover story from Time Magazine. Relying primarily on former Clinton aides, Time reports that, shortly before Clinton left office, Clinton's national security team handed the incoming Bush Administration a plan for fighting Al Qaeda -- a plan that, if executed, could have prevented the September 11 attacks. According to Time, a lengthy internal review by Bush officials delayed final approval of the Bush terror-fighting program (based, in part, on the Clinton plan) until the week before the attacks. By then, approval came too late.

Let's track the Clinton administration's record on fighting terror: First World Trade Center bombing -- sloppy investigation and no retaliation; Khobar Towers bombing -- no retaliation; African embassy bombings -- weak retaliation (including a stirring strike on a Sudanese aspirin factory); U.S.S. Cole bombing -- no retaliation. Let me get this straight. After an eight year string of failures and a record of inaction that made us a laughingstock to Islamo-fascists like bin Laden, Clinton administration "security" officials are asking us to believe that September 11 could have been prevented if we'd only followed the plan they recommended?

Andrew Sullivan's response seems exactly right:

"The only relevant issue seems to me to be whether the new administration miscalculated the urgency of such a task [developing and implementing a plan to attack Al Qaeda]. I don't think there's any doubt they did. On the other hand, the Clintonites had had eight years to get al Qaeda and had only made the problem worse. So who deserves the most blame - an administration that took eight years to do an insufficient amount or an administration that failed to act urgently enough in its first eight months? I'd say both deserve criticism but the Clintonites deserve the largest part, since they were primarily responsible for letting the problem get so dangerous in the first place. It says something about the brilliance of [former National Security Adviser] Sandy Berger's spin operation that he was able to get this piece presented the way it has been."

8:07 AM

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