During one of his recent trips to Europe, Barack Obama was asked about American exceptionalism, the belief that the United States is a special nation.
The President replied that he believes in American exceptionalism in the same way that the British believe in British exceptionalism or Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.
Responding to Obama’s comment, John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said, “Given that there are 192 member countries in the United Nations, I’m sure he could have gone on naming another 189 that believe in their own exceptionalism. But in any case, the idea that all countries believe themselves to be exceptional in the same way leads to the unmistakable conclusion that none are truly exceptional.”
George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, says that this kind of “moral insouciance” is misguided, to say the least. In an age of religiously inspired terrorism, such as the attempted Christmas Day downing of Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit, such postmodern moral disarmament is a luxury we can no longer afford.
Agreed. It is time for a moral rearmament in the West, led by the church.
September 11 should have put to death for all time the quaint notion that the world is getting better and better as it marches toward a bright, secular future—presumably with personal jetpacks, moon colonies, and every hut wired to the Internet. If anything, the planet is getting more religious, not less. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Combined with the best insights of modernity, the growth of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America has led to increased political and economic freedom for many, as it did in Europe and the United States. But the spread of a malignant form of Islam shows that man’s incurable religious impulse can be turned toward darker ends, too.
And a secularized, politically correct society that has severed itself from its Christian roots will have no vitality to counter the onslaught of this era’s aggressively spreading darkness. That’s the thesis of Weigel’s updated call to action, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism.
A West that sees nothing in its past but pathology—racism, colonialism, religious wars and persecutions, sexism, and all the rest—is a West that cannot, and almost certainly will not, defend its present. A West that can’t remember its past accurately will not be able to project itself imaginatively in the future. A West that has airbrushed from its collective memory the contributions of biblical religion to its present freedoms is a West that is in a poor position to meet the challenge of a religiously shaped alternative reading of the past, present, and future.
Some, of course, may argue against a return to our Christian foundations in the war against jihadism, saying that stronger religious commitment on our part will only inflame the jihadists further, reigniting sectarian passions that have smoldered since the Crusades. To that I say, the jihadists already identify the U.S. and other, even more secular Western countries as “the crusaders.” A morally and intellectually reinvigorated Christianity is unlikely to make them hate us more.
Weigel labels jihadism “an existential enemy...whose primary motivation is the overthrow of our very way of life—our civilization.” Weigel calls for a patient, comprehensive, bipartisan response led by the United States that rivals the Cold War in its scope, employing military, legal, political, and diplomatic tools.
How can America lead, however, if it no longer sees itself as exceptional? I wonder about our priorities when leaders act as if war has not been declared upon us and who fritter away trillions—sapping our economic vitality and options—on second-tier issues such as “economic stimulus,” global warming, and a new, sclerotic health care bureaucracy.
Even more important, perhaps, is Weigel’s call to counter the evil of religiously inspired terror at the level of worldview and ideas. Such a commitment will both encourage Muslim leaders to find resources within their own history to answer extremism, and show those of us in the West the link between biblical faith and freedom. This is where Christians, whose first loyalty is ever the kingdom of God, must step in if the West is to survive and prosper.
Weigel calls for the creation of societies, publications, and Internet resources that can counter jihadist propaganda—and, I might add, show the link between Christian faith and American exceptionalism. These are lessons that many of today’s secularized leaders must also learn if they are to help us survive the current danger from jihadism.
If the West is to remember its past, do Christians have the skill, strategies, institutions, and resources to overcome the suffocating secularism that now rules in the hallways of our boardrooms, academic and political institutions, and major media? If not, then we’d better get started, and be prepared to learn on the fly. We need cultural transformation, in addition to personal transformation, now more than ever.
Interestingly, Weigel argues forcefully that religious freedom—even in the Muslim world—“is not a private matter, nor is contending for religious freedom a kind of optional humanitarianism. It is a matter of self-respect....It is also a matter of making the world safe for diversity.” Weigel, for instance, says U.S. policy ought to drive a wedge between the millenarian theocrats running Iran and the oppressed Iranian people, who have begun demonstrating for greater freedom, often at great personal risk.
Christians have a role to play here, too. In many parts of the world, such as Iran, Muslims have seen the ugly side of Islam and have opted for the freedom, peace, and beauty available only in Christ. Their right to change their religion ought to be upheld strongly, as well as the right of Christians to tell them the good news.
Much of Faith, Reason, and the War against Jihadism attempts to help Muslim reformers to critically engage with the best of results of modernity—political pluralism, human rights, and the like—by finding precursors in Islamic history on which to build new understandings of genuine tolerance—ideas that have been in woefully short supply in the Muslim world since the time of Muhammad.
While one can applaud such efforts as both shrewd and existentially necessary, we should never confuse our need for a peaceful and tolerant Islam with Muslims’ need for peace with God through Jesus Christ. Here’s a call to embrace Christian exceptionalism. As the late John Paul II noted:
Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Qur’an, but he is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God with us.
Stan Guthrie is freelance writer, editor, speaker, and teacher, and a Christianity Today editor at large. He and his wife, Christine, and their three children live near Chicago.
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