Burning the ties that bind

It's the question that I have heard many times over the past week or so. But, first, let's state the question a different way.

Did the American Nazis have a constitutional right to march in Skokie, Ill., a Chicago suburb that was home to numerous Holocaust survivors? Was this a news story?

Was it protected "symbolic expression" when demonstrators, back in the Reagan White House era, burned the American flag? Should the media have covered this event and the resulting U.S. Supreme Court decision?

Was it acceptable for Muslims to burn copies of "The Satanic Verses," by Salman Rushdie? Was it acceptable for the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran to issue a fatwa calling for the novelist's death? Was that a news story?

Does the Rev. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist crew have a constitutional right to do that thing that they do? Should journalists cover these media-friendly shock-a-thons as he waltzes from sea to shining sea (a frequent subject for debates here at GetReligion)?

And, yes, all of these questions are in some way related to the debates about the rights of Muslims who want to build the proposed Cordoba mosque near Ground Zero.

We face the question yet again: Would the Rev. Terry Jones simply vanish if all of the journalists in America and around the world simply clicked their heels together three times and chanted, "Can't we all get along?"

Does Jones have a right -- in the name of symbolic expression and free speech -- to create a small stack of Korans, carefully keeping his mini-bonfire materials within the limits of local laws, and then strike a match?

Yes, it's stupid. It's wrong. It's reckless. It shows disrespect and worse.

Yes, it's dangerous. It's dangerous for U.S. soldiers, for missionaries, for diplomats, for journalists, for Christians and other members of religious minorities in predominantly Muslim lands. It's just plain dangerous.

Yes, almost every Christian on the face of the planet -- left and right -- would agree that this act is truly sinful, for a wide range of reasons. Ditto for the faithful in other flocks.

But, yes, Jones has a right to light that match.

It's tragic, but that's the truth. Otherwise, America has decided to enforce what amounts to a blasphemy law. Do journalists really want to see the First Amendment edited in that way?

Yes, other nations are taking steps in that direction. But as my friend Paul Marshall, and his colleague Nina Shea, have written in a commentary for National Review Online:

... (The) United States is an exception, with its strong protections of free speech under the First Amendment. In the United States, neither blasphemy nor hate speech are violations of the law. ... At stake are the freedoms of religion and expression that lie at the heart of our liberal democracy. ...

If Islam, and Islam alone, were to be protected by the state from critique, an illiberal interpretation of Islam would attain a de facto privileged status in the United States. Conversely, should Christianity, Judaism, and other religions also benefit from such state protection, fundamental individual freedoms would be essentially negated.

Pastor Terry Jones's Koran-burning spectacle potentially holds the danger of hurting the war effort, General Petraeus has warned. Jones should be criticized, denounced, and urged -- but not coerced -- to give up his insensitive publicity stunt.

There is one other angle to this story that -- for a very specific group of mainstream religious leaders -- is as urgent as the last moments before a train wreck.

By far, my favorite quote in mainstream coverage of this story thus far is found in a Washington Post report (look inside the paper, not out front) about evangelical protests of "International Burn a Koran Day."

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said he decided not to approach Jones because he believes that the pastor would disapprove of Land's advocacy for the rights of religious minorities and his general engagement with pluralism.

"If I know my boy, he thinks we're apostate liberals anyway," Land said. "My guess is my call would be counterproductive. My calling him would just encourage him to do it."

He's right, of course. Phelps thinks the Southern Baptists are doctrinal wimps, too. You know that, right?

Yes, once again we are dealing with a sad reality of this post-denominational age, the age in which more and more local congregations have absolutely zero ties that bind them to anything other than whatever stuff is located between the ears of the pastor who calls the shots (and maybe a few donors). As the old saying goes, for many people these days "church history" is defined as whatever has happened since their pastor preached his or her first sermon.

Who has any valid authority over Jones, other than a local police official who manages to find some legal loophole that the preacher has failed to plug while planning his firestorm? No one.

This is truly a subject worthy of a cover story in The Atlantic (please let the great Peter J. Boyer write it). It's a subject that would require months of research to even dent -- the impact of completely independent evangelical, charismatic, Pentecostal and, yes, fundamentalist churches on the shape of the Christian faith in American and around the world. But the subject is so, so huge. I am not even sure that the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life could assemble a research team to get a handle on it.

Meanwhile, columnist Mike Thomas of the Orlando Sentinel is asking the question that millions of Americans are asking: "What if media had ignored Terry Jones?" Here's the end of his piece:

I ask you: If a sad little man burns some Qurans in the woods, and the media aren't there to film it, is it news?

Of course not.

We created the Rev. Terry Jones from dust. And in two weeks, to dust he shall return. Then we'll move on to the guys who plan to run over the Quran at their monster-truck pull. Whatever it takes to keep your attention. ... We could help head off such future nonsense if we folded up the circus tent and left Jones alone with his blowtorch and 30 followers.

Maybe if Gen. Petraeus told the media that it isn't Rev. Jones who is endangering troops. That it is our coverage of Rev. Jones. That without us, this book burning would be little more than a grainy video on YouTube.

Put the onus on a responsible party and hope it acts responsibly.

Fat chance.

Sadly, Thomas is wrong. But with his column in mind, return to the top of this post and start over. Read through that list again.

Yes, this topic may burn us up. But it's news.

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