From Awakening to War

From Awakening to War

Mini Teaser: Without quick mediation, the politicization of religion could lead to conflict.

by Author(s): Robert F. Ellsworth

A resurgent and increasingly fundamentalist Islam is embroiled in a fateful clash with America's historic, faith-based claim to a dominant role in the world. The Islamists are sustained by passion and rage; Americans draw inspiration from our Founders' claims that freedom and democracy were universal values. In the 21st century, these values are as precious and unique to America as ever; but as universal claims, they are demonstrably false, dangerous and costly. And while the 2006 National Security Strategy proclaims, "The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world", Islamist-inspired protestors in Western capitals carry placards about how one day all will be united into a single Islamic community.

The Great Awakenings

American Protestant eschatology (with its particular interpretation of the Book of Revelation and awaited "End Times") has historically maintained that the world is moving toward an end state in which America is the chosen agent through which good will triumph over evil. President Bush and some of his supporters are evidently influenced by that religious worldview--which many Americans believe is firmly rooted in our experience.

For example, in late April in northern California, President Bush said: "I base a lot of my foreign policy decisions on some things that I think are true. . . . One, I believe there's an Almighty. And, secondly, I believe one of the great gifts of the Almighty is the desire in everybody's soul, regardless of what you look like or where you live, to be free."

Robert William Fogel, the 1993 Nobel laureate in economics and a professor at the University of Chicago, describes American history in terms of recurring cycles, or Great Awakenings.1 The First Great Awakening of the early and middle 18th century emphasized individual responsibility for salvation. With preachers inveighing against corruption in London, this Great Awakening was instrumental in giving momentum to the American Revolution and the creation of a republic of free citizens.

The Second Great Awakening, in the early 19th century, held that anyone could achieve saving grace through inner (personal) and outer (societal) struggle against sin. This led to a number of reform movements--my family members, for example, were active abolitionists--that coalesced to form the Republican Party. Those movements and the party decried the moral corruption of the South and were a contributing force leading to the Civil War.

The Third Great Awakening--which started in the early 20th century--shifted the emphasis in American religious life from personal sin to institutional transgressions. It propelled the country to address the corruption of big-business "trusts" and the need to promote civil rights and equality of condition, and provided the underpinnings of support for more activist government programs such as welfare (as well as the need for an income tax).

The Fourth (and current) Great Awakening, beginning about 1960--the year I was first elected to Congress--eschewed the "Social Gospel" in favor of a return to emphasizing the importance of personal conversion, de-emphasized sacramental worship in favor of individual experiences of God's presence, and stressed a more literal, experiential reading of the Bible. Politically, this has led to the rise of pro-life, pro-family movements, expansion of the tax revolt and reform movements that have included attacks on corruption in corporate governance, on financial and sexual misbehavior in churches, and on corruption in politics at all levels, from the United Nations and certain members of Congress down to state governors and city officials. (One additional outgrowth of the Fourth Great Awakening is the phenomenon known as Christian Zionism, the belief that the creation of the state of Israel is an indispensable part of the divine plan and that American support for Israel should rest less on an assessment of U.S. national interests and more on a selective reading of the Old Testament.) In addition, the ethos of the Fourth Great Awakening, with its focus on combating personal sin, also helped to transform the U.S. military in the 1980s, rescuing the Vietnam-era Army from the drugs, alcohol and alienation that previously plagued the corps, at a time when the draft was abandoned in favor of volunteers, producing today's highly motivated, well-trained force.

While opposed to secular humanism at home, the religious perspective of the Fourth Great Awakening has merged with the belief held by many secular thinkers of the likelihood, if not the inevitability, of the triumph of Western civilization, defined in terms of democratic values. In a private conversation in late March, Professor Thomas Schelling, the 2005 Nobel laureate in economics, conveyed a highly sophisticated version of that notion. He said the dominant civilization--the West--is highly likely to prevail in the world, compared with the fundamentalist forces within Islamic (and other) religions, even if he did not suggest that this likely prevalence would be due to the forces of religion. The view that Western democracy is the end point of human social development created a bridge between the president's evangelical Christian base and the neoconservatives.

President Bush has used the language of the Great Awakenings to advance the American eschatological claim of good (democracy) triumphing over evil (non-democracy). The fusion of America's faith in democracy with geopolitics was completed in the second Inaugural Address, and reiterated in the 2006 National Security Strategy: "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands."

The alleged moral basis for our invasion of Iraq--promulgated by both neoconservatives and hard-line Protestant and Catholic evangelicals--simply crowded out almost all considerations of the national interest. Since the 1970s, leaders of the emerging political and religious Right have never quite forgiven President Nixon and Henry Kissinger for extricating the United States from Vietnam, forging a new relationship with the Soviet Union and starting a rapprochement with China--achievements that served the American national interest but did not advance America's "destiny." It is not surprising, then, that in a January opinion poll Daniel Yankelovich found that support for the Bush Administration's conduct of the War on Terror and the reconstruction of Iraq "seems to track the public's religiosity: the more often Americans attend religious services, the more likely they are to be content with current U.S. foreign policy." The Southern Baptist Convention (America's largest Protestant denomination) entered the geopolitical discussion in June 2003 when they unanimously resolved to "affirm President George W. Bush, the United States Congress, and our armed forces for their leadership in the successful execution of Operation Iraqi Freedom." Franklin Graham, the evangelist and son of Billy Graham, said he saw the invasion of Iraq as an opportunity to proselytize among Muslims. Jerry Falwell was quoted as saying "God is pro-war."2

This intense moral atmosphere and the war's sophisticated promoters silenced planning and even professional intelligence analysis for the post-invasion management of Iraq. That approach would have been inconsistent with their "cakewalk" theory of the invasion and its aftermath (since the forces of light were to be triumphant over the evildoers). As a result, as Vice President Dick Cheney maintained, we should have been welcomed in Iraq and throughout the Middle East as liberators. By logical extension of that premise, just as it was outlined in the Book of Daniel in the vision of the statue of the kingdoms, the Palestinian intifada and Hamas would wither away, along with the Saudi regime and the dictatorship in Syria and the theocracy in Iran. But the Muslims of the Greater Middle East have not been receptive.

Islamic Resistance

After the Second World War, the Middle East did experiment with Western civilization--Western science, Western political and economic theories, and even Western-style nationalism--as a potential solution to their own problems. They were disappointed. Industrialization and modernization did not bring about widespread prosperity. Western models could not prevent the squandering of the enormous wealth generated from the discovery of oil on palaces and arms purchases; Western planning seemed to offer no solution to the problems of population growth and water shortages.

Instead, the West's culture seduced the rulers of the faithful, rendering them weak, incompetent and corrupt. Islam suffered the loss of Palestine and then Jerusalem, its third-holiest city, to that outpost of Western modernity, Israel.

Muslims concluded that they were being punished for their apostasy in following the two secular outgrowths of Christianity: capitalism and communism. Both had failed. It seemed that, in the slogan adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood, Islam was the solution.

In the early 1970s the return to the "fundamental" precepts of Islam became unmistakable throughout the Middle East. There was greater adherence to the dietary laws, greater observance of the fast at Ramadan, more praying and vastly more people going on the pilgrimage to Mecca. The stagnation of the region's economies also spurred massive emigration to global urban centers like London, Marseilles, Detroit, Hamburg, Newark and Hong Kong--all of which became, to a greater or lesser extent, new centers of Islamic faith, culture and resentment.

In 1973 the fundamentalist Islamic resurgence intersected with geopolitics for the first time in the Yom Kippur War--when Egypt and Syria tried to prove that Arab Muslims could defeat the Israelis on the battlefield (but ended up being crushed by General Ariel Sharon). This was followed by Saudi Arabia's successful embargo on oil, which drove prices through the roof and severely damaged the economies of the Western world. In 1979 an elderly Muslim Shi'a cleric--Ayatollah Khomeini--led a revolution of militant pietists in Iran that destroyed a modernizing power supported by the United States. This revolution transformed the geopolitics of the Greater Middle East, first and foremost by opening the door to a war by Iraq against Iran. We ended up supporting Saddam's Iraq, a secular Arab power, against the passionately religious Shi'a Iran--and set in motion a chain of events that has brought us to our current predicament in the region. The Soviet Union was driven from Afghanistan, and Israel was pushed out from Southern Lebanon, in both cases by holy warriors inspired by their faith. And then there were the 9/11 attacks. The lesson seems to be that when Muslims embrace their religion and identity, they can triumph against the West.

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