Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear (Matthew Kaemingk) - A Review

CHRISTIAN HOSPITALITYAND MUSLIM IMMIGRATON IN AN AGE OF FEAR. By Matthew Kaemingk. Foreword by James K.A. Smith. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018. Xiv + 338 pages.

                It didn’t take long after Donald Trump became President, that his administration began taking steps to limit travel to the United States from predominantly Muslim countries in the name of homeland security. His presidential campaign had capitalized on Islamophobia, which has taken hold in America over the past two decades. It’s not only in the United States that fear of Muslims has driven political debates. Anti-Muslim sentiment is even stronger in Europe, where far-right populist parties have been pushing the debate. Violence has broken out across the continent as Muslims experience marginalization and persecution, leading to violent responses on their part. That fuels violence in response. Things are not quite to that level yet in the United States, but we can see the possibilities being present, especially with a President who has a penchant for anti-Muslim talk (despite his love for the Saudis). With fear running rampant, and attempts being made to limit Muslim immigration, how should Christians respond?

                There are Christians who want to welcome everyone with open arms, while others fear that too many Muslims will corrupt Western culture. This is a common theme in Europe, where Muslims make up a greater proportion of the population than they do here in the United States, where Latino immigration has been a bigger target. In Europe, polices of tolerance and openness has led to right-wing backlash. For Christians the question is not one of tolerance, but of hospitality. How hospitable should a nation be? And are their limits to hospitality? Further, one needs to ask the question, from a Christian perspective, does hospitality rule out evangelization of Muslims? These are not easy questions to answer, and Christians have taken a variety of positions ranging from full embrace to exclusion.

Since I have been actively involved in interfaith work for nearly two decades and have made good friends with Muslims (even hosting at our church Iftar Dinners during Ramadan), I am always interested in engaging with people and resources that address Christian responses to the religious other. It is for this reason that I asked for a review copy of Matthew Kaemingk’s book on Christian hospitality and Muslim immigration. The title was intriguing. Besides, he is a member of the faculty at Fuller Theological Seminary. I will admit that this was not the book I expected. I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t this book.

Perhaps I should have paid greater attention to the person writing the foreword. That might have been a clue as to the perspective of the author, since I had recently finished reading James K.A. Smith’s book Awaiting the King, which offers a Kuyperian-influenced political theology. Kaemingk also writes from within this Neo-Calvinist/Kuyperian perspective, which I will admit I do not share. Kaemingk addresses the question of hospitality and immigration from a Kuyperian vision of “Christian pluralism.”  The book is his attempt to use Christian engagement with Muslims as a test case for this Kuyperian Christian Pluralism. Much of the book is focused on the roots of this vision in the Netherlands, where Abraham Kuyper was a leading figure in both religious and political circles. He sets the conversation within the Dutch response to Muslim immigration, noting both the liberal and far-right responses, both of which he finds to be faulty. Only in the last seventy pages of the book, does Kaemingk focus on Christian responses to Islam in the United States. That is part of my frustration. I’m not sure that the Dutch experience is transferable to the United States. Yes, the political rhetoric of the Dutch far-right might find its way to the United States but the Muslim experience here is very different (in part because most Muslim immigrants to the United States are well-educated professionals, which is not true in Holland).

There is valuable information here, and Kaemingk is correct to push Christians to better define what hospitality looks like. We would be wise to engage in the conversation with open eyes, as well as open minds. Europe and the United States have been predominantly Christian, even if secularist trends are reducing Christian influence. What would our culture look like if Muslims made up a larger portion of the population? Right now, it’s less than five percent, but what if it was much larger, as is true in Holland? One of the questions that emerges here concerns the role of religious expression in society. In an increasingly secular context, religious voices have been suppressed. This is especially true in Europe where religion is to be kept private (in France there have been efforts to prevent women from wearing the hijab). But can religion be privatized without causing other issues? Kaemingk is of the belief that privatizing religion creates more problems than it solves, and that it is a leading cause of right-wing backlash. I am sympathetic to his views. One of the reasons why we don’t have many of the same problems here as in Europe is that religion has been given more space within the culture than in Europe.

So, we move to the book, which is divided into four parts. Part one is titled “Mecca and Amsterdam: A Case Study." In this section of the book the author explores the failure of multiculturalism (liberalism) in Holland to deal with the impact of a growing Muslim population. The idea that all religions are the same failed to recognize the real differences and the impact of those differences. He also explores attempts on both left and right to marginalize Muslims. There is an "interlude" in which he raises the question of whether Christians should defend Islam." His argument is that "Christianity is capable of fervently defending those with whom it disagrees. It can speak out on behalf of deep difference" (p. 73). It's clear to me that Kaemingk believes these differences are significant. In fact, I don't remember him ever really suggesting areas of commonality between Muslims and Christians. This seemed odd to me.

Parts two and three form a sizable portion of the book focus on providing a history of and defense of this idea of Christian pluralism as understood by Abraham Kuyper. Having recently read a few books that argue for this position, I had already formed a predisposition toward this Neo-Calvinist position. It seems to me that Kaemingk is arguing for the creation of religiously segregated systems, including educational ones. While I agree that communities, especially minority communities need places to gather and form their identities, I'm not sure we need to create religiously separate educational and political systems. I will note that the question of Islam largely disappears from the discussion in these two sections, but it is here that he develops the philosophy of “Christian Pluralism,” which he believes is the answer to the problem of immigration and fear.  My problem is that his vision of pluralism is different from mine.

Finally, in part four, Kaemingk comes to America, with a focus is on American evangelicals and their understanding of Islam. He notes that evangelicals tend to be phobic when it comes to Muslims. He wants to acknowledge their fear, while also arguing for hospitality by standing in solidarity with Muslims. They can do this even when they disagree strongly with Islamic beliefs. They do this in part because of hospitality, but also because it furthers their own cultural critique in the face of what evangelicals believe is a liberal culture that is hostile to faith.  For my own part, I wish he had focused his attention less on developing his version of Christian Pluralism and more on developing Christian responses to Islam that fit our situation in the United States. Then again, that’s what I expected the book to be about.

Perhaps the reason why I found the book less than satisfying is that I was troubled by what appear to me to be over-the-top attacks on liberals. In his portrayal of the situation at hand, Christians live between Mecca (a somewhat scary Islam, which he seems to believe does pose a threat to Western civilization—my reading) and Amsterdam (liberal multiculturalism, which in my reading of the book, he seems to find rather detestable). I was never sure who the liberals were. They either appear to be secularists or Christians who have become cultural Christians. Now, I don't know the cultural landscape of Holland. I know it is rather secular, as is true elsewhere in Europe, but I’m not sure the critique fits the United States, and so I found the critique off-putting. While I’m not a leftist, I live on the liberal side of things. The conservatism I found present in the book seemed at odds with the perspective I encountered during my lengthy Fuller years. It may be that I have changed more than I thought, but I don’t remember a strong Neo-Calvinism present during my Fuller years.

So, what is my final opinion of the book? I believe it has its place in the conversation, but I didn’t find it completely satisfying. That may be due to the fact, that unlike the author I don't claim to be conservative and haven't been since my seminary days. So, I come at this from a different vantage point. On the other hand, for some this might be a move toward hospitality and away from fear. If so, then this will prove helpful, especially if it encourages evangelicals to move toward solidarity with other religious minorities. That might even include solidarity with liberal Christians, since we are now a religious minority ourselves. While I cannot give a full endorsement to the book, I believe we are in agreement that we need more conversation about religious diversity in our country and recognize that attempts to impose a “Christian” nationalism on the country and its diverse population is both dangerous and unwarranted.  


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