August 8, 2013
by Michael Sean Winters
Controversial anti-Muslim speaker and blogger Robert Spencer is slated to participate in a debate at Eastern Michigan University. The debate is being conducted by Al Kresta, the Catholic radio host of “Kresta in the Afternoon” which is distributed on Ave Maria Radio and EWTN. Earlier this year, two bishops, Robert McManus of Worcester and Jaime Soto of Sacramento, canceled appearances by Spencer on Catholic premises because of his anti-Muslim bigotry.
These episodes raise the question, and it is not an easy question, as to who should be barred from being given a platform at a Catholic institution. In defending his decision to host the debate, Mr. Kresta said, “If having a debate like this is considered incendiary, than that’s evidence that we need debates like this. People think you can only live together peacefully if you agree on everything, and that’s not true.” There is something to that sentiment to be sure, especially at a university setting where, presumably, encouraging debate is one of the institution’s primary goals.
There are limits. Holocaust deniers come to mind, and not only in the abstract. You may recall the controversy surrounding Columbia University’s invitation to now-former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak on campus. In what meaningful sense can a debate be considered an intellectual endeavor when it includes a madman?
Mr. Spencer’s vile anti-Muslim pronouncements certainly approach the level of bigotry we associate with Holocaust denial. He has made a career of cherry picking especially violent passages out of the Koran and tarring the rest of Islam as violent on account of those passages. Of course, the same methodology could be used to indict Christians and Jews for whom Psalm 137 is considered the very Word of God: After its poignant opening line – “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion,” the psalm concludes, “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” Slaughtering children by dashing them against rocks does not, in fact, make me happy. This passage – and there are others – brings to mind the sage observation of Origen, the early third century Christian exegete, regarding Biblical literalism.
Looking at Genesis and the account(s) of Creation therein, he asked, “who is so silly as to believe that God, after the manner of a farmer, planted a paradise eastward in Eden, and set in it a visible and palpable tree of life, of such a sort that anyone who tasted its fruit with his bodily teeth would gain life?” Well, it turns out, many fundamentalists believe precisely that all these centuries later. The point is that texts drawn from earlier centuries can almost always be cited to indict a given tradition.
In America today, there are only too many people who are willing to believe the worst about Muslims, which is why Spencer’s writings and speeches are not merely mad, they are, as Kresta admitted, “incendiary.” A madman can be written off, but a madman with consequence must be rebutted, and I am not sure that a debate forum is the proper method of rebuttal. There are people, and I would put Spencer in that group, whose views are so hateful and so tendentious that they should not, in fact, be given a forum at either a Catholic institution on moral grounds or an academic institution on intellectual grounds. Bishop Boyea of Lansing would be well advised to follow the example of his brother bishops and say that the Catholic Church simply cannot be associated with this vile anti-Muslim bigotry.
And, while he is at it, Bishop Boyea might take a hard look at another group supporting Spencer’s talk, the Thomas More Law Center, which has its own history of anti-Muslim bigotry. Last year, Tom Lynch, the Director of Mission Advancement at Thomas More Law Center, tweeted this nasty swipe at both Muslims and the Becket Fund, “Believe Islam a religion, then support the Becket Fund. Believe it will destroy US, then supt thomasmore.org.” Nice. To their great credit, the Becket Fund issued a public rebuke of the Thomas More Law Center.
While looking into the matter, the Catholic bishops as a whole might want to speak out against these anti-sharia laws that have been proposed, and in some instances passed, in several conservative states. Of course, no law could be upheld as constitutional that singled out a particular religion, so the laws the invocation of any law in state courts if that law is established by a foreign power. Funny, this past week a judge in Wisconsin ruled in favor of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s decision to transfer money to a cemetery fund, citing the fact that the canon law of the Church required such funds for the maintenance of cemeteries. The Church’s canon law was most definitely established by Bl. Pope John Paul II, and would meet the criterion set forth in these laws. Yet, when the law was being debated and passed in Kansas, not a word from the bishops of that state. They had rather a lot to say about the threat the HHS contraception mandate posed to religious liberty, but nary a word for the anti-sharia, and anti-canon law, proposal. Nor did the USCCB issue any statement against these laws.