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Ultimate prior claim

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

   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.

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