The Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., with which I am pleased to be affiliated, was founded in the 1970s in large measure to combat the perception that an intellectually and morally impoverished understanding of the dominant American religious traditions had rendered those traditions useless, or (as in the lamentable presidency of Jimmy Carter) worse than useless in guiding Americans' thinking about a sensible and responsible foreign policy. The Christian faith has important things to say about power and war and moral responsibility. But it is not a suicide pact. The Center has made a real difference, most notably through the work of its senior fellow (and former president) George Weigel, in stimulating valuable thinking about the nation-state, war, and peace that is both strategically sound and theologically informed.
The problem has not gone away, however, a fact that was perhaps most stunningly confirmed by the jaw-dropping news that a crackpot September 11 conspiracy book, written by a "process" theologian from Claremont, is being published and marketed by the official press of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Westminster John Knox Press. This particular item can perhaps be dismissed as an oddity, but its appearance underlines the more general point that the most important intellectual and institutional expressions of the Christian faith, including Rome and Canterbury, have found almost nothing of value to say about the current Middle East crises, and more generally about the West's struggle against militant Islam and terrorism, and the terrifying possibilities now facing the entire civilized world. The patent inadequacy (to put it mildly) of the current cease-fire in Lebanon, which was precisely what the world's most vocal Christian leaders had sought, is but the latest indication of all the reasons why no one in his right mind would go to them for counsel in these matters.
Someone in search of political and moral understanding would, in my opinion, be far better off giving close attention to the most recent of Norman Podhoretz's series of superb analyses of the postSeptember 11 situation. Or the books and articles of Victor Davis Hanson, or Mark Steyn, or Christopher Hitchens. In other words, to non-Christian or secular writers. Even those who gravitate toward harsh criticism of the Iraq War and of Bush-era American foreign policy do not avail themselves, except in the occasional rhetorical flourish, of the pronouncements of religious authorities. Such authorities are pretty much regarded as irrelevant either way, and their views add little of value to the positions of secular authorities. The cottage industry of Christian critics of the Christian "pretensions" of George W. Bush, or of the nation's looming "theocracy," only adds to the sense, among thoughtful observers, that the whole lot of them can be safely ignored and dispensed with.
And that is a problem that should trouble Christians of all sorts. It is a problem when a crisis that penetrates to the very core of our civilization is not being freshly and meaningfully addressed and interpreted by the institutional representatives of what is, arguably, that civilization's single most important formative force. It is a problem that gives fresh plausibility to a very old charge against Christianity, put forward by the likes of Gibbon and Rousseau, that it disarms citizens and disables the polity. No responsible Christian who takes seriously the danger we are facing should be comfortable with that.
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