When pastors who threaten to burn books become celebrities

How did an attention-seeking nonentity with barely enough followers to fill a phone booth provoke a global furor?

311_Koran burning pastor to cameras (photo credit: Associated Press)
311_Koran burning pastor to cameras
(photo credit: Associated Press)
So, is that what it takes to become a celebrity these days? Threaten to burn someone else’s Bible, and declare his religion to be satanic, and you are instantly the center of the news?
I wonder who is the bigger fool – Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who is an embarrassment to loving Christians everywhere with his original plans to burn Korans at his church on September 11, and who is the author of Islam Is of the Devil, or we, the public who gulp down his story as if it’s of interest.
There are times when I’m embarrassed to work in media. How did an attention-seeking nonentity with barely enough followers to fill a phone booth become an international personality and provoke a global furor? And who elevated this silly story to global news prominence?
It has to do with just how inane the media has become. Jones is filler for a 24-hour news cycle which is all scandal all the time. And if you can’t find a scandal, invent one. There is nothing novel about the existence of religious bigots, and it’s certainly not newsworthy. But allow me to teach Pastor Jones a lesson from Jesus’s famous pronouncement in Matthew 7:16, “By their fruits you shall know them.”
The holiness or devilishness of any religion comes down not to its articles of faith but to the deeds of its practitioners. The crusaders who slaughtered untold numbers of Jews in Europe as they marched to meet the Islamic infidel in the Holy Land were of the devil, even if Christianity is not. Likewise, the Spanish inquisitors who tortured nonbelievers and burned them at the stake were satanic, even as their faith, Catholicism, remains holy.
IN THAT sense, the whole debate as to whether President Barack Obama is a Muslim is ridiculous. Yes, he isn’t, and has said time and again that he is a Christian. But what if he were a Muslim? I couldn’t care less. My problem with Obama is not his faith or lack thereof, but his policies.
If Obama were an Islamic president of the United States who berated instead of coddled Arab dictators like King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, he would have my vote. If he were a practicing Muslim who promoted democracy across the Middle East rather than Kissingerian realpolitik, I would endorse him. If he were a devout Muslim first magistrate of the United States who regularly spoke out against the abuses of women in the Islamic world and gave a prime-time address condemning Iran’s plans to stone a woman to death, I would deeply respect him. If he were a Muslim who prayed in the Oval Office five times a day, fasted all of Ramadan and then lectured Hamas and Hizbullah to stop putting all their money into rockets against Israel and instead into universities for their people, he would inspire me.
The problem with Obama is that he does none of these things, rarely holding the Islamic world accountable for its absence of freedoms, refusing to personally condemn Iran for its plan to stone a woman to death, and putting the pressure on Binyamin Netanyahu to again freeze settlements rather than place the blame for the failure of progress squarely on the real culprits – the terrorist organizations of Hamas and Hizbullah, both Iranian proxies.
I have devout Muslim friends who love Israel and wish Arab countries emulated its democratic institutions, just courts and freedom of worship and press. Likewise, I have God-fearing Islamic friends who love America, would fight and die to protect it and believe it is the light in an increasingly dark world.
I would support anyone like this for president over, say, Jimmy Carter, a devout and self-declared evangelical Christian who goes against the stalwart evangelical Christian support for Israel and has the chutzpa to call Israel, a thriving democracy, an apartheid state. I would take a competent Muslim president who believes in lowering the burden of taxation, controlling runaway spending and vastly reducing the appalling federal deficit over a president like Carter who ran the country into the ground.
As a Jew, I am trained to judge someone by their actions not their beliefs. I will choose an atheist president who loves and respects all of humanity and would put an end to the genocide in Sudan over a religious president who believes that we Americans have no such responsibilities to people beyond our border.
If an American president believed in elves and the Easter bunny but fought Taliban misogynists who pour acid on women for attending university, I would follow him.
And if an American president spoke Klingon in his private moments and worshiped Capt. James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise as a divinity, but set up an alternative to the United Nations, to be known as the United Democratic Nations, open only to governments that were of the people and by the people, I would support him, too.
In short, I could not care less what a person believes; it’s what they do that matters.
Therefore, I will reject any pastor who claims to be religious but is a narrow bigot. I love my Christian brothers and sisters, but not those who deny the essential biblical truth that every human being – Jew, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic or atheist – is equally God’s child and that we have a responsibility to encourage people of faith rather than condemn their religion.
I trust that my evangelical Christian brothers and sisters, who love freedom and are disproportionately represented in the US military, fighting and dying for democracy in Islamic counties, will identify Pastor Jones as the bad fruit of which Jesus was speaking.
The writer is the international best-selling author of 23 books. He has just published Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley