At the end of The Searchers, John Wayne stands framed by the darkened doorway of a cabin, and with the dry scrub and John Ford vastness behind him he contemplates the house his successful search party has just entered. He looks inside for a second, half smiles, turns, and walks with his John Wayne slouch back into the sandstone and prairie. The door closes in front of the camera, the screen is thrown into blackness, and the credits roll. John Wayne ain’t gonna do civilization: The End.
From Goldwater to W., the modern conservative movement has played up its unpolished cowboy roots and the flattering sense of self-reliance that comes with it. But with the self-reliance comes also an uncomfortable ambivalence about civilization, in the face of all the problems we have to deal with when the last bandit has been killed and the last Indian hostage returned: the problems not of ending lawlessness but of building law. For that, conservatism turns to its urbane and cultured wing, more preacher or newspaperman than cowboy: the William F. Buckleys and George Wills, the Commentarys and First Things.
The problem of Islam and the West is not just the cowboy’s task of combatting the terrorist enemies of Western order. Ours is also and even more a culture-building problem, the problem of finding a Muslim articulation of the Western tradition’s well-developed reflection on justice, and of creating institutions to articulate and instantiate that union. It is a problem not just of killing the outlaws but of building up the town.
Liberals may clamor for this most loudly, but there is reason to think only conservatives can effectively carry it out. In particular, only committed, religious conservatives can effectively address it, because only we have the traditions and institutions at hand for bringing together Western justice and an uncompromised commitment to God. Better than anybody, we know that a committed believer will not enter the public square on the secularist’s terms. The false dilemma of secularism—accept the benefits of the West and an anemic faith, or retain a robust faith and continued backwardness—is no help to the Muslim struggling to bring together the Western and Islamic traditions of justice into a system that can speak persuasively in the modern world. The secular pedant, for all his simpering about communication across cultures, is not a helpful interlocutor for one struggling with questions of Creation and sin, of reason and revelation, of human and divine justice.
But the Muslim and I can talk together: of truth, and God, and good and evil; of the sanctity of life and the perfecting of people; of the errors in his culture and the errors in mine precisely as errors and not mere differences. He as much as I remains suspicious of the naked public square, entered as individuals rather than communities, with preferences rather than values, aimed at stability and dialogue rather than virtue. I do not mean to deny all the differences between my creed and the Muslim’s. I mean only that we—traditional Catholics, Protestants, and Jews—are the natural interlocutors for Muslims in the West. We have the most to teach them, and we are best placed to learn from them in turn.
This last point deserves some attention: Both sides stand to profit from a conversation on the proper public role of faith. The West offers powerful arguments in support of religious freedom and the equal dignity of women, and a tradition of harmonizing reason and faith without compromising the one or making redundant the other. But the West also stands to benefit, not least from Muslims’ emphasis on the role of religion in shaping public life, from their support for traditional virtues, from their appreciation of the importance of all those intermediary institutions that lie between the state and the individual and that help keep the first small and the second good.
No doubt the Muslim tradition has often gone too far in allowing such institutions to dominate the individual, as with women in the family. But who can deny that we also have gone too far in allowing their erosion? What conservative, whose chief cause is to encourage these institutions’ renewal, would deny it? And isn’t that precisely why we stand to benefit each other? Do we not often fight the same fight? Honor killings are a terrible violation of the dignity of women, but so too, in a much smaller way, is pornography—and isn’t the common aim of westernized Muslims and Judeo-Christian conservatives to eradicate both?
We tend to think in terms of liberalizing Muslims, but might we not also find, in liberalizing them, that they have the resources to re-humanize us? Might we not especially find, in introducing them to the best of liberal democracy—which is the conservative tradition—that they prove helpful in protecting us from the worst of liberal democracy, with its degeneration into the insatiable demands of individual rights?
The Muslim political ideal, even a westernized Muslim ideal, will not look the same as the Western Christian or Jewish ideal. Even a markedly westernized Muslim vision may remain too communitarian and leave too little to the individual; it may give too much power to the religious community at the expense of dissenters; it may be unacceptably illiberal with doubters and apostates. We will not come to agree on everything, or even most things, but even bringing these Muslim voices into the public square would be a major victory, both in countering the radical voices in their community and in tempering the secular errors in ours.
But while Judeo-Christian conservatives are best placed to be the adjutants in this victory, we have largely held back from playing this role. We have preferred the sneaking irresponsibility of the cowboy: Our discussion of Islam always tends toward an enumeration of its threats, and inasmuch as we recognize the need for a Western Muslim voice to emerge, it is always somebody else’s job to help make it happen. Our instincts, reflecting a general conservative temptation, still have something of John Wayne in them, ready to defend but not quite ready to govern. We must defend, of course, even aggressively, and we must inspire others to defend, for there is still much that threatens.
Yet defense is not the only thing, and it is not our only vocation. We are not a leave-me-alone-and-let-me-flourish sort of animal; we are the together-we-construct-an-order-in-which-to-flourish sort. And for that, we must engage in the toilsome task of crafting and instantiating our positive vision of society, of an orderly and just and religious civilization, and we would do well to share that task with others equally religious, well for us and well for them.
There is something deep in the soul of the American conservative that struggles with this constructive project, something that always conceives of itself as fighting to be left alone. Yet in engaging Islam, above all, our ambivalence about civilization must be overcome. For within that engagement we have a vocation to contribute to the rapprochement of Islam and the West and to lend to the task the institutions we have developed for establishing a religiously informed public square. And through this engagement, we can better fulfill our primary vocation of building a society of ordered sovereignties under the one sovereignty of God. We must sometimes fight, but we must also and ultimately build—and for that let us remember the preacher and the newspaperman and forget, a little, the cowboy.
Ross McCullough is a writer living in Seattle, Washington.