Ultimate prior claim

(system) #1

By Pastor James Coffin

From the Orlando Sentinel:

May 31, 2007

In her Sunday column "Peering Through a Glass Half-Full, Darkly," Kathleen Parker lists among her "less-happy" statistics about American Muslims that 60 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds consider themselves to be Muslim first and American second. But is that really a problem?

Oh, I recognize that at first blush it might seem scary to have people in our midst who openly admit that national loyalty isn't their ultimate priority -- that they have other, higher considerations.

But wait a minute. Don't we often admire people whose moral/spiritual values leave them to some degree at odds with the rest of U.S. culture? I mean, don't we actually feel a sense of pride knowing that in the United States a Quaker can be a pacifist -- even though pacifism isn't the cultural norm, and even though many Americans think pacifism is a crackpot idea?

The point is, Quakers are pacifists because they place a higher importance on their moral/spiritual values than on America's majority norms. In fact, religion, by its very nature, stakes a prior claim on one's loyalty.

One of the radical aspects of early Christianity was its disregard of the nationalistic, gender and socioeconomic traditions that had long held sway. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus," says the apostle Paul. For those early Christians, a new moral/spiritual value system took prior claim over existing cultural practices.

I would suggest that in an ideal world, 100 percent of the citizenry would place their sense of moral/spiritual obligation ahead of their sense of nationalistic obligation. And I'm not talking just about Christians. I'm talking about Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims.

I'm not even talking solely about religions. I'm talking about any moral ideology that governs our individual lives and by which we as individuals evaluate the morality of our national culture and the actions of our government. So atheistic morality is included in this list of value definers.

Our country was founded on the belief that there are certain "unalienable rights" that don't come and go at majority whim. Certain freedoms and certain values are transcendent.

Our Constitution declares that our nation's citizens have a right to live their lives on the basis of the transcendent values to which they subscribe -- unless the collective national interest is so compelling that conformity must be forced. Our nation's founders seem to assume that forced conformity would be rare, but that it can and should be implemented if a true need arises. So there are safeguards.

The real threat to the United States isn't that 60 percent of a certain religious group acknowledge a prior claim on their loyalty. Rather, it's the danger that the rest of us might forget that such a prior claim should exist for everyone.

James N. Coffin, senior pastor of the Markham Woods Church of Seventh-day Adventists.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4242