January 29, 2008

In the last few months, it was common enough to see people invoking the apocryphal quote attributed to Martin Luther, “It is better to be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian.” It would take something like a foolish Christian, knowing what someone in the early 16th century could have learned about the status of Christians under the sovereignty of “wise Turks,” to have accepted that bargain. This remark gained new currency during the debate over the role of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and whether it was appropriate for voters to take a candidate’s religion into account and even to vote against him specifically because of it, and remarkably different authors keep invoking the quote in defense of a secular argument that Romney’s religion was strictly irrelevant.  

A statement that would have been made in the midst of confessional polemic, the apocryphal sentence has acquired a curious life in the present as a clarion call to religious indifference masked as “tolerance.” Purportedly uttered in an age when it was taken for granted that the secular arm would and should vindicate the claims of the Faith, it is now marshaled in the name of declaring the Faith irrelevant to public affairs. As it is used nowadays, this remark functions as the exact opposite of the equally famous “Better the turban than the mitre” line attributed to the megas duxLukas Notaras before the fall of Constantinople. Both were mistaken, since being under a heterodox Christian authority would have entailed fewer social and legal disabilities than the mercies of the Sultan and living under a foolish Christian would be a temporary case of misrule rather than a systemic reduction of the entire community to subordinate status. Yet the Notaras line remains a clear statement of fidelity to orthodoxy, while the “wise Turk” quote, at least as it is used today, implies a lack of interest or even disdain for the limits of orthodoxy.

Missing from these remarks was any awareness that applying this phrase to Romney implied that he was playing the role of the “wise Turk””€”and no doubt many would have assigned the role of “foolish Christian” to Huckabee”€”which would have the effect of redoubling the appearance of Romney’s religious difference. One need only consider the grief the Obama campaign has endured from the false charge that Obama was a former or crypto-Muslim to realize that comparisons between religious minority candidates and the Ottoman Sultan tend not to inspire a spirit of accommodation.


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