* Coalitions are almost always a dicey business. They are task-specific, as it is said, meaning that you work together with individuals and organizations that are joined by that specific task but disagree on much else. I am on the advisory board of Alliance for Marriage (AFM), a prime mover in defending marriage from same-sex agitations. Some of you have written in response to Internet attacks on AFM because its coalition includes--in addition to a wide array of Jewish, Christian, and ethnic organizations--the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Reckless charges have been made that ISNA is a terrorist organization or supporter of terrorist organizations. To the best of my knowledge, that is not true. The U.S. government and experts on Islamic organizations in the U.S. say it is not true. (For details, see the website of AFM: www.allianceformarriage.org.) Long, time readers know that this journal has no illusions about Islam being "a religion of peace," or about the ease with which Muslims can be assimilated in this and other Western societies. Indeed, we have been the object of vicious attacks by one prominent Muslim organization that accuses us of "anti-Muslim bigotry." It is probably true that ISNA is only a few degrees of separation from other Muslims who support terrorism. That is almost inevitable. We should work, here and abroad, to cultivate connections with Muslims who evidence an interest in supporting the peaceful and democratic directions that are in our mutual interest. Again, AFM is a task-specific coalition and ISNA is supportive of that task. I know I have deep disagreements with ISNA religiously and also, I expect, politically, especially with respect to the politics of the Middle East. But those are for another day and another forum. The task at hand is the defense of marriage. Toward that end, and until somebody comes up with compelling reasons that persuade me to the contrary, I welcome the help of the Islamic Society of North America.
* Strange bedfellows, I thought at first, but perhaps not. The French interior minister visited Cairo and received a blessing, so to speak, from the grand sheik of Al Azhar, the prestigious center of Sunni Islamic learning, Muhammad Sayed Tantawi. He said he had no problem with the decision of the Chirac government to ban the wearing of the head scarf, or hijab. The prohibition is required, Chirac explains, by the French devotion to secularism, which they call la laicite. The grand sheik appreciates such devotion. "If a Muslim woman observes the laws of a non-Muslim state," he explained, "then from the point of view of Islamic law, she has the status of acting under coercion." The French minister thanked the grand sheik for his understanding, and told his Egyptian audience that the law did not single out Muslims, since it also banned the public wearing of yarmulkes by Jews and "large" crosses by Christians. Oh well, that's all right then. "There are no rights without duties," he said, "and if the Muslims of France have the same rights as other believers, they have the same duties." In fact, it would seem, rights and duties are synonymous: everyone has the right not to wear religious symbols and everyone has the duty not to wear religious symbols. The grand sheik is in warm agreement with the French understanding of religious freedom: "Just as I do not allow non-Muslims to interfere in my affairs as a Muslim, at the same time I do not permit myself to interfere in the affairs of non-Muslims." If non-Muslim states want to forbid Muslims to wear the hijab, that is their business, so long as they recognize that it is none of their business when Muslim states forbid non-Muslims to engage in public worship or share their faith with Muslims, the punishment for a Muslim who converts to another faith being death. Admittedly, the French prohibitions and attendant penalties are somewhat less severe, but the principle is the same: Freedom of religion means the freedom of the government to control religion.
* Recall Snoopy of Peanuts fame sitting atop his doghouse typing out, "It was a dark and stormy night...." San Jose State University in California has an annual "Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest," in which entrants (from all over the world) are challenged to compose the worst opening sentence of an imaginary novel. The first sentence of Baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1830 novel Paul Clifford was this: "It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness." Michel Faber of Fearn Station House, Ross-shire, England, doesn't claim it's great but he protests that it is far from the worst opening sentence of a novel. "In truth," he writes, "if the opening sentence of the prelude to Middlemarch ("Who that cares much to know the history of man," etc.) had been subjected to the same sustained ridicule, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest might have been the George Eliot Fiction Contest instead." He has more than a point, and I can easily picture Snoopy typing, "Who that cares much to know the history of man...." Imagine what fun Lucy would have had with that.
* In the October 2003 issue I commented on a number of pundits who complain about an alleged cabal of Jewish neoconservatives who have an excessive influence on U.S. foreign policy. Among those mentioned was William Pfaff of the International Herald Tribune. That was a mistake. Mr. Pfaff points out that, while he has been strenuously critical of neoconservative influence, he has not made an issue of the fact that many neoconservatives are Jewish, nor does he think it should be an issue. I am grateful for the correction.
* "It hurts me when people say the Tablet is not really orthodox because it has always seemed to me that orthodoxy is the most daring and exciting thing there is." So said Tablet editor John Wilkins upon receiving a papal knighthood at a convivial London ceremony attended by Archbishop Pablo Puente, the papal nuncio, and Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor. "The Tablet," Wilkins continued, "under both my editorship and that of my predecessor, Tom Burns, has been engaged in the search for true orthodoxy. It is so encouraging to have this recognition from the Holy See." There is little likelihood that a papal knighthood is in the works for, say, Father Joseph Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press. That would be very controversial. Fr. Fessio is not engaged in the search for true orthodoxy. He thinks he has pretty much found it in the teaching of the Church. The Tablet has over the years been unflagging in its support for contraception, the ordination of women, and the moral acceptance of homosexuality, among other deviations from Catholic teaching. No matter. The papal nuncio described the Tablet as "a living laboratory of the marvelous reality that is the prophetic mission of the laity in the Church." He went on to say, "Dear Mr. Wilkins, thank you for your work. Thank you for your search for ideas and new paths. Thank you for presenting us with new aspects of old themes. Thank you for encouraging us to deepen our thinking," and so forth. Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor smilingly asked, "What shall I say about John Wilkins?" My question exactly. But he then went on to praise Mr. Wilkins' "critical loyalty," and so forth. Mr. Wilkins was made a Knight of the Equestrian Order of Pope Saint Sylvester I, an honor created by Pope Gregory XVI in 1841 and conferred in recognition of particular service to the Church. It does not come with a horse. According to venerable legend, Pope Sylvester (314335) baptized the Emperor Constantine. My own view is that what is called Constantinianism was not entirely a bad thing. But those who think the word refers to the Church's fatal accommodation to the establishment culture may see a certain fitness in the Pope Sylvester honor being given to Mr. Wilkins and the Tablet. Truth to tell, I know John Wilkins and he is a generally pleasant fellow, albeit a very confused Catholic. And judging by the papal nuncio's remarks, one can well understand how he might have the impression that Mr. Wilkins and the Tablet have deepened his thinking.
* Michael Lindsay writes that he is amused when he drives along Forty-Sixth Street in Minneapolis and sees the sign pointing to Faith Free Lutheran Church. I checked out the church's website and it seems they're firmly committed to the "solas" of Scripture and grace. So that's two out of three. Lutherans are not perfectionists, after all.
* Progress is a jealous god. Upon being the first Episcopal bishop to ordain a lesbian, the late Paul Moore declared that, whenever he was faced with a difficult moral decision, he chose change, the way of the future. Albert R. Hunt begins his Wall Street Journal column with, "I am a convert to accepting gay marriages." He says he was uncomfortable with the idea at first. "But times are changing. When I asked my seventeen-year-old son if he supported gay marriage, he shrugged and replied, 'Sure. What's the big deal?'" After having done his homework on the subject, Hunt goes on to echo Andrew Sullivan's usual talking points, but the clinching argument is that "younger Americans are not encumbered with many of the hang-ups and prejudices of their elders; the tide is with change." And if you are not convinced by that, there is the fact that gay marriage has about it "a sense of ultimate inevitability." Well, there you are. Hunt acknowledges that the great majority of Americans are against gay marriage and a majority appears to favor a constitutional amendment to preclude it, but that only means he is among the elect of those who are ahead of their time. "The times are changing." "The tide is with change." Some things never...