Can no leading politician be right about America's relation to Islam? After President Obama's speech to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, and the foolish reactions by top Republican candidates, you'd be excused to imagine the answer is no.
But our next president better not fall down on this important job, because it sure looks like nobody else is going to be able to do it. And it's getting late in the game.
Let's review the tapes. First, simply by setting foot in a mosque — becoming the first president to do so — Obama incurred the innuendo-laden mockery of Donald Trump. "Maybe he feels comfortable there," he told Fox News. And while Trump, in typical style, admitted "that's fine," the subtext was clear: Obama doesn't just tolerate or even respect Islam. He actually likes it. Presumably because, well, take it away, Mr. President: "Thomas Jefferson's opponents tried to stir things up by suggesting he was a Muslim. So I was not the first. No, it's true, it's true. Look it up. I'm in good company."
Sift through Obama's remarks, however, and what emerges isn't some closeted kind of crypto-Islam. It's just cheesy pseudo-intellectualism.
That's not to say he uttered a stream of garbage, as some critics seem tempted to suggest. Much of the speech is quite judicious and generous in the best of the American political tradition — an easy mark to hit. Islam in America is, as the president said, a venerable if marginal presence, with a long and peaceful history of modest flourishing.
And American Muslims' steady disinclination to demand much more — however unfashionable in our bitter age of identity politics — speaks well of them not just as "minorities" but as Americans. Our traditional religious interest has been grounded, since well the before the passage of the First Amendment, in a simple longing to practice our faiths freely, openly, and in fellowship.
Oddly (from the standpoint of today's culture wars), that crisp distinction between submission to God in the religious realm and human independence in the political one arose from the way our Puritan forbears understood our mortal condition. Because religious matters anchored us, we could handle the chaotic and confusing environment of political liberty, where so much was contested, uncertain, and unstable.
Yet, there was a twist: Christianity — as Alexis de Tocqueville suggested in Democracy in America — offered Americans unique access to robust, pluralistic, and free political lives. That's because it laid down only very general precepts: Love God and love your neighbor. Almost everything else was negotiable — and, sure enough, Americans promptly divided off into a great number of sects and denominations (some which, for the rather disenchanted Tocqueville, utterly beggared belief).
Now, here's where Obama runs into trouble. Tocqueville surmised that, although Islam was by no means incompatible with robust, pluralistic, and free political life, it did face high hurdles in reconciling its creed, and its more particularistic vision of permissible behavior, with the unfolding realities of the democratic age — what we'd call "modernization," "globalization," and so on. Making matters even more difficult, Islam developed with deep roots in the aristocratic age. Those roots nourished a religion extraordinarily hard to disentangle from the cultural logic of tribe, family, kin, honor, and inherited identity.
In America, of course, Islam had much the same opportunity as other religions to emphasize its simplest articles of faith, permit free choice in political, scientific, and economic life, and escape the wrenching experience of "democratization" destined to result so often, around the world, in cycles of slaughter and stagnation. Outside America, however, Tocqueville foresaw that Islam was much more likely to collide with the democratic age than conform to it.
The insight here is simple, but distressing, which suggests why Obama was unwilling to countenance it in his remarks. So along with perfectly legitimate and obvious points about American Muslims' common decency and shared values, we get the sloppy and all-too-American idea that the meaning of the word "read," the first word revealed in the Koran, is not only "to seek knowledge" but "to question assumptions." Along with the wise and sober counsel that Muslims here and abroad should "consistently speak out" about Islam's capacity for peace and respect, we get the understandably naive but dramatically misleading admonition that you should "not believe" people who say "you have to choose between your identities."
President Obama is perfectly right that Muslim Americans "are better positioned than anybody to show that it is possible to be faithful to Islam and to be part of a pluralistic society, and to be on the cutting edge of science, and to believe in democracy." But there are a few problems.
The first is that so many Muslims around the world are poorly positioned because of the deep challenge their creed and culture face in processing the destructive, disenchanting force of democratization.
The second is that President Obama either can't or won't help Americans understand problem one, the master key to making sense of our disordered world and our role within it.
And the third and last problem is that Obama's would-be replacements in the White House are failing so badly to do better. Marco Rubio, the field's very model of a modern respectable Republican, complained that, while American Muslims might deserve a pep talk, "the bigger issue is radical Islam." In fact, as Tocqueville helps us see, the two cannot be treated in isolation. They are two sides of a single coin of destiny.
And right now, America's future relationship with Islam is being treated like the flip of a coin.