While the 2012 election produced ample opportunities to expose the underbelly of American exceptionalism, I observed one especially cringe-worthy moment during the second presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney. While describing his life experiences, Romney attempted to illuminate how his stint as a Mormon missionary makes him uniquely qualified to serve as commander in chief.
Immediately, my mind immediately flashed back to a press trip I took to Jordan in September 2012 where I joined a contingency of predominately evangelical Christian writers. This marked my second press trip to Jordan, as five years ago, I traveled with a contingency of mostly Catholic and Anabaptist journalists during the month of Ramadan. Throughout my initial foray into a predominately Muslim country, our group seemed to view this trip as a learning pilgrimage where we soaked in the history and hospitality that greeted us at every turn.
Even though we did not enter the mosques while the men were praying, the repeated calls to prayer lent a rhythm that connected us somehow with a culture seen in a negative light by many U.S. evangelical Christians. I came away from this trip with a profound sense of what we can learn from global cultures by observing their customs, hearing their stories, and walking on their soil. Following my return to the United States, I continued my education thanks to organizations like Unity Productions Foundation, a nonprofit that uses media to help achieve cross cultural understanding of different faiths with a focus on the Muslim religion.
But as I reported in the Guardian’s belief section, during my second trek to this Holy Land, most of these representatives of evangelical bodies acted as though they were on a trip to religious Disneyland. Instead of trying to ascertain what they could learn from another culture, they chose to impart their version of Americana Christianity on a largely Muslim culture. As the week progressed, I noticed that unlike my first trip where we were often left alone to contemplate or invited in for some genuine conversation, some in this group got accosted by children even in non-tourist sites. What they perceived as hospitality was in fact salesmanship–even the littlest of these can discern between a pilgrim and a tourist. Just about the only time I noticed they quieted down were those times when just about every Jordanian we encountered noted they would prefer Obama remain in office.
Upon returning to the United States, I became increasingly incensed by Christian leaders whose advancement of their own ideologies kept them blind to the possibilities of any semblance of meaningful dialogue with Muslims. Unfortunately, these voices show no sign of dissipating as evidenced by their repeated abominations that God has now rejected America for reelecting Obama. Such messages continue to perpetuate the ongoing myth about Obama’s Muslim heritage.
For those evangelicals limit religious treks to holy sites to Americanized style tours, what would happen to their perceptions of the Middle East if they actually traveled to the Holy Land and left behind their U.S. evangelical preconceptions? Now I do not want to join hands and sing kumbaya or some other Coca-Cola inspired tune designed to produce a faux sense of global harmony. But what changes might occur if we all set outside of our comfort zones and encounter those we dismiss as “the other?” What prevents us from seeking to create the kind of communities envisioned by my ancestor Roger Williams where all were free to practice their own beliefs according to their individual conscience?
In an interview I conducted with Father Nabil Haddad, executive director of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, he discussed the need to find the commonalities in the value systems present within the local culture and the international human rights culture as the basis to begin dialogue. But first we need to turn down the incessant evangelical chatter that continues to dominate the U.S. media landscape. Only then can we engage in the kind of deep listening needed for us to explore what we have in common via our shared humanity.