The Religious Substitution Test

© Josh Sager – November 2012


While Americans often like to think of ourselves as multicultural and free of any religious biases, this is not always the case—oftentimes, religions are treated differently in discussions of public policy based upon the biases of those speaking. In our culture, some religions are treated with more respect than others, and are able to get away with far more in the way of controlling public policy.

The majority of the United States population identifies as some variety of Christian and there is an entrenched bias in favor of things that align themselves with Christianity. It is intensely unpopular in mainstream politics to be seen as attacking Christians or the Christian faith as a belief system; we see examples of this taboo in the extreme reticence that politicians have shown in attacking the tax exemptions of churches that have become obviously involved in politics. In addition to the protection afforded Christian institutions by this bias, there is a tolerance for proposals of Christian religious laws that is not present for other belief systems. Christian religious zealots regularly attempt to legislate sexual morality, abortion policy, and even the civil rights policy of the United States, but are rarely called upon their efforts.

In contrast to the bias in favor of the Christian faith, the Islamic faith has a severe negative bias attached to it within American politics. Ever since 9/11, when the “war on terror” started, many Americans have become extremely polarized against the Islamic faith and have tolerated anti-Muslim policies and activists. During the last several years, there have been many anti-Muslim hate crimes and several attempts to attack Muslim religious freedom within the United States (ex. the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy). Such anti-Muslim policies and acts are unacceptable, but the American public has been largely silent on the subject in a way that would not happen if it were another religion being attacked.

Judaism, while not extremely relevant to policy in the United States (there are rarely attempts to insert Judaism into law or to limit Jewish religious expression), is a religion which has had a significant level of exposure in modern politics. In modern American politics, mainstream politicians are very sensitive to anti-Semitism and any perceived attacks on Jews are seen as intensely unacceptable. In many ways, this sensitivity is due to the vociferous support of Israel that is common in mainstream politics and the conflation of Israel with Judaism. No politician wants to be seen as “anti-Israel”, thus any criticism of Judaism is immediately condemned—far more so than most other religions (ex. Buddhism).

In order to illustrate the religious biases within the United States and help overcome it, I would like to ask every American to perform an internal “Religious Substitution Test” before debating about religion. To do this test, you simply need to look at the debate objectively and substitute the religions involved based upon the situation: in cases where Christians are attempting to impose their beliefs on society, substitute in Islam and imagine that it is a Muslim who is attempting to impose his religions on you. In cases where a Muslim is being discriminated against or legislatively having their religious freedoms attacked, you should substitute Judaism in the place of Islam and look at whether the attack remains acceptable.


Religious Laws: Substitute Christianity for Islam

In recent years, many right wing Christian politicians have attempted to pass laws which codify Christian religious rules into the laws of the United States. These attempts to insert Christianity into politics are common enough that Americans have become desensitized to this phenomenon in a way which they are not for other religions. Put plainly, Americans tolerate attempts to impose Christianity into public policy much more readily than attempts to impose other religions’ (ex. Islamic Sharia) teachings into our laws.

In the fights over the social issues of abortion policy, gay rights and women’s rights, the Christian right has regularly used religious justifications for their policies. These politicians oppose gay marriage equality on the grounds that interpretations of their religion say that gays are sinners and that marriage is for heterosexuals. Similarly, many anti-abortion arguments are predicated upon the religious idea that “life begins at conception” and that the fetus has a “soul” before it becomes an independent and self-aware being. Such policy justifications are based in religion rather than logic and are examples of policies that violate the separation of church and state built into our 1st Amendment. It doesn’t matter what the religion is, any attempt to impose religious laws over the American people is equally invasive and unconstitutional.

Whenever a Christian politician proposes a policy based in “Christian values”, the bible, or on the teaching of “God”, every American should replace the Christian religious references with Muslim analogs and imagine that the politician is a Muslim rather than a Christian—the Bible is replaced by the Koran, God is replaced by Allah, and Christian values is replaced by Muslim morality. Once this substitution is done, these people should then reflect on their opinions of the new quote and think about whether they would support the idea of Muslim religious laws being imposed over their choices. In all likelihood, those who would support Christian religious laws would rankle at the mere thought of being forced to follow another religion’s codes, even if their religions agree.

Here are two examples of the substitution which I just described:

“Homosexual behavior is contrary to the fundamental, unchanging truths that have been ordained by God, recognized by our country’s founders, and shared by the majority of Texans. Homosexuality must not be presented as an acceptable ‘alternative’ lifestyle, in public policy, nor should ‘family’ be redefined to include homosexual ‘couples.”

–Texas GOP 2012 Platform–

Once Christianity and Islam are substituted, this is what the quote looks like:

“Homosexual behavior is contrary to the fundamental, unchanging truths that have been ordained by Allah, recognized by our country’s founders, and shared by the majority of American Muslims. Homosexuality must not be presented as an acceptable ‘alternative’ lifestyle, in public policy, nor should ‘family’ be redefined to include homosexual ‘couples.”

–Fictional Statement from a Conservative American Muslim Political Group–

This is a quote from Paul Broun (R-GA):

It [The Bible] teaches us how to run our lives individually, how to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason as your congressman I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.

–Paul Broun (R-GA)–

Once Christianity and Islam are substituted, this is what the quote looks like:

It [The Koran] teaches us how to run our lives individually, how to run our families, how to run our mosques. But it teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason as your congressman I hold the Holy Koran as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.

–Fictional Statement from a Conservative Muslim politician–

As immediately becomes obvious, the substitution of the Christian references in the quotes to the synonymous Muslim references would radically change the discussion over the situation. If a Muslim group or politician were to push this religious agenda within the United States, there is little doubt that the right wing would be up in arms about “Sharia taking over”, and the left wouldn’t be far behind. While there was little outrage over Rep. Broun’s assertion that he will legislate based upon the bible, it is undeniable that he would be facing severe consequences if he did the same in support of Islam (not that these consequences are wrong, as the problem here is that such consequences aren’t levied on Christian extremists).

Virtually all Americans can agree that Sharia laws are not what we want and that any attempt to impose such laws should be fought. Unfortunately, the American people have become so inured to the attempts by Christians to create religious laws that they fail to react in the same way that they would if it were a Muslim speaking. In reality, the effects of Christian law and Muslim law would be identical, yet the responses are radically different. A religious law is a religious law and I would hope that this type of substitution would help people see past their apathy on the imposition of Christian religious laws over the United States.

Religious Bigotry: Substitute Islam for Judaism and

In the post-9/11 America, Islamophobia has become fairly common in many parts of the United States—this xenophobia is common in both the culture and in the legislature. During the past several years, we have seen a rising tide of anger against Arabs, accompanied by many hate crimes and political campaigns that try to marginalize American Muslims. Individual Americans and legislators alike have singled out Muslims in ways which would not be socially acceptable for other religions.

Simply one example of this Islamophobia, is the fight over the “Ground Zero Mosque”. In 2010, the country became embroiled in a massive debate over whether an Islamic cultural center should be allowed to be built a short distance from the Ground Zero site in New York City. The Park 51 project—an Islamic community center that was erroneously labeled a Mosque—drew massive protests, as many Americans objected to the creation of a mosque near the 9/11 memorial. The objection to the Park 51 project is ridiculous for several reasons: First and foremost, the 1st Amendment protects an individual’s right to practice their religion and prohibits the government from banning a religion from building a house of worship on private land. Secondly, this is a standard that has not been applied to any other religion or for any other act of violence—Christian Churches are regularly built in areas near acts of Christian terrorism (abortion bombings, right wing religious militia terrorism, etc.). Third, many Muslims died on 9/11 and it is simply wrong to blame all Muslims for the actions of a few extremists.

During the fight over Park 51, a flood of anti-mosque actions were reported, even in areas far away from New York City. Numerous groups protested the idea of mosques and proposed bans on mosque construction that would limits the ability of Muslims to practice their religion. Many mosques that were being built or were in the planning stages were disrupted by protests and attempts to use zoning or disruption to stop construction. This situation was, and is, unacceptable and it is a time where the religious substitution test would help give people perspective.

In situations where legislation or government action is directed at limiting a Muslim’s right to exercise their religion, the “Religious Substitution Test” should entail the substitution of Islam for Judaism. While there are many anti-Jewish hate crimes in the United States, mainstream politics finds any attacks on Judaism to be supremely unacceptable—the polar opposite of the mainstream rules regarding Islam.

Bryan Fisher, a major proponent of the anti-mosque furor and right wing leader, said the following about mosques in the USA:

“Permits should not be granted to build even one more mosque in the United States of America, let alone the monstrosity planned for Ground Zero,”

This comment is ridiculous, offensive, and would be completely unacceptable to Americans if it were directed at any other religion. It is inarguable that this comment, and the speaker, would have been widely condemned by the United States public if he said the very same words about Christianity or Judaism:

“Permits should not be granted to build even one more synagogue in the United States of America, let alone the monstrosity planned for Ground Zero,”

Islam is a religion which suffers from bigotry because many Americans are willing to overlook attacks on Muslims out of misguided hate. These people fail to realize that an attack on one religion should be seen as just as bad, and just as condemned, as an attack on any other religion. Putting the situation into perspective by substituting another religion into the attacks on Islam will hopefully allow people to look past their prejudices and see that attacks on Islam cannot be tolerated.

5 thoughts on “The Religious Substitution Test

  1. Christians (today, that is)view Judaism’s relationship to Christianity with a sort of affectionate pity. they are sort of Pre-Christians who didn’t so much as reject Jesus, but haven’t accepted him yet. Muslims are seen as foreign and violent, and those who know a little bit (a small amount of knowledge is often more dangerous than a moderate amount), see them as twisting Jesus to fit into Islam.


    • While I would agree with you on today’s Christians’ views on modern Jews, it remains true that they are among the most vociferous attackers of anybody to even hint at criticizing Jews. According to their beliefs, the end of the world will only happen when the promised land is controlled by the Jewish people, so they have an invested interest in supporting Israel (something that I find intensely creepy, as a Jew myself)–this interest in Israel is conflated with Judaism as a religion thus, in their mind, any criticism of Judaism is a direct attack on their potential religious prophecy.

      As to your assessment of their view of Islam, I agree with you but see the Christian bias against Islam to be deeper than a simple issue with Jesus’s biography (we don’t see the same level of hate with Mormons, who also twisted Jesus’s story to fit their narrative). American Christians have been attempting to impose religious laws for decades and are terrified of another religion joining their attempts. As Islam has a history of this in the Middle East, they are potential competition for Christianity and are seen as a threat.

      Thanks for reading my blog and leaving the insightful comment,


  2. Josh – Love the blog as usual and this “religious substitution test” is a great way to think about such issues. Also happy that you seem to be branching out into broader, more interesting territory.

    I think it’s important to remember what I call the “Twin Ds” of religious political extremism – Dualism and Doctrine. These D’s allow a vocal minority to have disproportionate control of the political process the world over. From Mississippi to Iran, these are what I see as the forces allowing religious extremism to have disproportionate control.

    Dualism – Religious based political views tend to paint things as either one thing or the other. (Which is why you won’t find too many Zen Buddhist political extremists) These dualistic views appeal to people who wish to paint the world in a simplistic light; things are either good or evil and there is no room for subtlety or disagreement. This means that there can be little room for dissent within the group, and allows for greater solidarity.

    Doctrine – dualism is useless without a central doctrine for the group to draw on. In the case of American Christian extremism, the doctrine agrees far more on what is “bad” than what is “good”, but there is enough consensus to create significant solidarity: Homosexuality = Bad, Abortion = Bad, Christian = Good, Muslim = Bad. These simple and easy doctrines allow politicians who rely on religious extremism to have more reliable voting blocs, a simpler rhetoric, and greater social control per capita.

    For the sake of this example, I’ll use religious extremism, but other philosophies have used Dualism and Doctrine to exert disproportionate control – two prime examples being National Socialism (Aryan = Good, Jewish = Bad, Solidarity = Good, Dissent/disagreement = Bad) and Marxism (Rich = Bad, Capitalism = Bad, working class = Good, State = Good)

    The reason other political rhetoric does not exercise the same level of control (per capita person who believes it) is that much of the time, it lacks Dualism, Doctrine, or both. There are many people with a more leftist bent to their views (I hope you know I would never consider you to be in this category) who hold what I consider to be just as dualistic beliefs based on knee-jerk emotional reactions. Examples of this are sometimes close to Marxism, but they often contain other beliefs as well. The reason these beliefs do not exert the same disproportionate control is that they often disagree to the exact doctrine as it applies to specific situations. They often seem to be in a pissing contest of who can espouse more anti-establishment type collectivist ideas, with the vague doctrine that capitalism is bad but with no specific guidelines as to how bad or what should replace it. They have Dualism but no central Doctrine.

    People with more informed political opinions, whether they be progressive, classical liberal, libertarian, socialist, or some other political philosophy (I’m sorry, but you can’t tow the Republican or Democratic party line on every issue and consider yourself to be informed) tend to lack Dualism, and sometimes Doctrine. This is a good thing and I would dare to say that Dualism is completely unnecessary for conscious thought in general. For example, your piece on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict refuses to fall into the trap of Dualist thought and, when read with an open mind, is very informative and certainly caused me to think (even if I don’t agree with everything you said). It won’t be driving people to the polls however, because it isn’t simplistic enough. This is why many politicians have to dumb down their own reasoning and agendas for the American public come election time – not because Americans are stupid, but because Dualistic reasoning generates greater solidarity among voting blocs. Ultimately, politicians will use whatever factions they can to get elected. Their goal is to harness the Dualist machine of thought to paint themselves as good and their opponents as corrupt, evil, or inept.

    One of the greatest lies told every election time, repeated by pundits and comedians on both sides of the aisle is that undecided voters are stupid. I won’t comment as to the intelligence of people that I don’t know, but what I can say is this – if your views on who to vote for aren’t at least a little conflicted, it means you are most likely subscribing to an oversimplified Dualistic view of the world. And if your Dualism is backed by a central Doctrine, then perhaps you are in fact a stupid person, regardless of who you decide to vote for.


    • This is an extremely well written and thought out explanation of a very important concept. In addition to the concepts of dualism and doctrine, I see the concept of authoritarian thought to be an important third aspect of this discussion.

      People have widely varying levels of acceptance of authoritarian dictates on thought (ex. by political or religious leaders) and this is a vital variable in determining whether an individual even gets to make their own decisions about their doctrine/dualism. If an individual has a high acceptance of authoritarian guidance, they are more likely to fall into the trap of not actually having a doctrine past what their leaders say is the doctrine of the moment (ex. the Republicans falling into line by for party leadership). On the other hand, people who are compulsively independent (ex. anarchists) often find it difficult to become relevant in politics, as they are unable to conform to any structured rule system.

      The one problem I have with what you are saying is in the end, when you say that “if your views on who to vote for aren’t at least a little conflicted, it means you are most likely subscribing to an oversimplified Dualistic view of the world.” In normal politics I would agree with you, but in today’s political landscape I would have to disagree: the parties are so imbalanced within the United States that those who have to question whether to vote Republican or Democrat are either rich or simply uninformed. Our right wing has gotten too extreme and is a danger to our country when in power, thus it is rational to vote for the not-insane candidate by default–I may not like many of Obama’s policies, but I was’t the least bit conflicted when I voted for him over Romney (a man with no doctrine, dualism, conscience, or empathy).

      Thank you for reading my articles and writing such an interesting comment,


  3. Josh –

    I guess what I mean by “a little conflicted” is that you don’t see one candidate as universally good and another as universally evil. Like you said, you disagree with many of Obama’s policies. You probably wouldn’t agree with me if I told you he was more like George Bush than Bill Clinton, but I would still vote for him over Romney (If I was able to vote in the last election). However, with the wealth of third party perspectives across the political spectrum, I would say that not voting for either is a legitimate option.


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