03/07/2013 03:58 pm ET Updated May 07, 2013

On Building Mosques and Worshiping in Caves

This blogspot is about the ways Christians try to prevent Muslims from building mosques, and I'll get to that, but first, I want to tell you about a recent trip to Switzerland.

If I had to guess, I'd say my knowledge of German is slightly worse than is my sense of direction, but let's not quibble: both leave a lot to be desired. Nor am I particularly at home in places filled with ice and snow (I'm a Californian, after all), but despite my lack of confidence in hard-to-find places where people speak German while enduring bitterly cold winters, in January I traveled with one of my brothers to Switzerland to visit a cave in the hills southeast of Zurich where, during the 16th century, my wife's Anabaptist forbearers went to worship in a place where their singing and preaching would not be overheard by Zurich church leaders who objected to their rejection of earthly rulers, their embrace of believer's baptism, their pacifism and their simple, biblical faith.

Back in the day, a person could be punished severely for the kind of heterodoxy practiced by Anabaptists, and so out of necessity, the Anabapitsts were serious about finding a remote location for their clandestine gatherings. And they succeeded. Even with the aid of such modern conveniences as photocopied maps, hints for finding the place downloaded from the Internet, sturdy shoes designed to compensate for pronating feet and a warm jacket from L. L. Bean, it was hardly the kind of journey most Americans would be willing to undertake in order to worship with like-minded Christians.

The casual pilgrim could drive most of the way from Zurich to the Anabaptist cave (or, Tauferhole, as they say in German), but looking for adventure, my brother and I took a commuter train from Zurich to the town of Wetzikon, and then a bus into the hills, to a smaller town called Bäretswil. From there we continued farther into the hills on foot to the tiny hamlet of Wappenswil, where we turned onto an icy logging road that led us higher and deeper into the hills, to a place called Holenstein, which is too small even to be called a village. In Holenstein, the roads (such as they were) ended and a trail took us, through ankle-deep snow, up a steep meadow, and then into the woods, along the edge of a deep ravine. Finally we found the place at the end of a gulley: a cave whose mouth looks something like a giant eye, with a waterfall that cascades down directly over the center of the opening. Inside, a few benches arranged like pews and a memorial plaque were there to remind us that, after a long journey, we had come to a house of worship.

The cave isn't particularly big. At its highest point, twelve feet separate the ceiling from the floor. All together, the cave wouldn't provide space for a large congregation - -a gathering of more than 50 people would require a lot of stooping and squatting at the back of the cave.

We came to the cave during winter because I wanted to experience the place at a time when visiting the Anabaptist's sanctuary would be least like going to my own church, a heated building in a temperate clime, a mere three miles from my house. I got my wish, more or less. The day was cold. The woods were filled with snow, and icicles hanging from the top of the cave's opening looked like giant eyelashes, but still, it was warm enough that the creek was not frozen, and the wind did not howl, and the sky was blue.

It could have been a lot worse, yet to me the cave still felt cold and damp. A well-used fire pit near the mouth of the cave suggested the possibility of warmth, and the view looking out of the cave and into the wintery woods was charming and serene, but I couldn't help wondering if I would come all this way for worship. I'd make the journey for summer camp without complaint, but could I visit the cave every Sunday, or even once a month, to engage in the worship of Anabaptists, an activity that could get me banished from my home or even killed? That's an answer that gets a little bit tricker.

What I can say is that I'm glad I live in a place where Christians do not treat one another as poorly as they treated one another 500 years ago in Europe. This is a new development. In fact, Christians have been oppressing and punishing and killing one another over small details of theology and practice for much of our 2,000 years of existence.

And when it comes to people of other faiths -- Jews, say, or Muslims -- our track record is even worse: witness 2,000 years of pogroms, crusades, inquisitions and ongoing injustice born of fear, nurtured by ignorance and fed by arrogance.

Now, about those mosques.

In modern America, when Muslims try to build houses of worship they become targets of Christian misbehavior (I write about this in my forthcoming book, "The Search for Truth About Islam"). The Christian response to the erection of mosques makes me wonder if, given their preference, a significant number of American Christians would force their Muslim neighbors to worhsip secretly in frozen caves, deep in forests and far from cities.

Every once in a while I hear American Protestants complain that they are oppressed. Usually this has something to do with an experience in the public schools: a child forced to learn evolutionary biology or kept from singing Silent Night at a Christmas -- or rather "Winter Holiday" -- program, or not allowed to say a prayer during a commencement address. American Protestants have teams of lawyers and lobbyists who are willing, at a moment's notice, to fight against such abuses by the secular powers that be.

I thought about the American Protestant sense of persecution as I sat shivering in the Anabaptist cave under a waterfall at the top of a gulley in the hills southeast of Zurich. It struck me that until we are forced to worship in secret, we should knock off talking about being persecuted. If we must talk about persecution, let's discuss ways of making sure we never use the political or societal power with which we are undoubtedly endowed to treat people of any other religious persuasion in such a way that they begin to feel the need to worship in caves.