You are viewing an archived page on our old website. Click here to visit our new website.

Home | Join/Donate | Current Voices | Liturgical Calendar | What's New | Affirmation | James Hitchcock's Column | Church Documents | Search

Faith, Truth and Terrorism 

by James Hitchcock
January 18, 2002

It is now obvious, if it was ever doubted, that Muslim extremists cannot hope to defeat the United States on a military basis, whatever they may have once thought. But they will probably keep fighting because they see the war as a spiritual struggle, a conflict of beliefs and ideas, and they are correct in thinking that the United States is ill-equipped for such a conflict, indeed refuses to enter into it. Polls now show that the events of September 11, despite the temporary "return to religion" which they seemed to inspire, will have no long-term affects on our culture, especially given the ease of our military victory.

The main strength of the terrorists, indeed practically their only strength, is their absolute conviction, their refusal to entertain even the possibility that they may be wrong, their utter unwillingness to modify their beliefs through "dialogue". On the other hand there are no longer any working absolutes in American culture except the insistence that there are no absolutes, precisely the spiritual flabbiness which invites attack by extremists.

This reality causes some people to see the struggle of "us" against "them" -- not in terms of Muslim versus Christian but in terms of religion versus secularism. "We" are the people who believe in endless toleration, including abortion and all forms of sexual liberation. "They" are the bigots who want to restrict people's freedoms. "We" embrace the modern world in all its complexities. "They" are resolutely anti-modern.

The irony is that somehow "freedom" has come to mean that we have no choice but to embrace things of which we disapprove. For a long time this contradiction was papered over with vague talk about liberty for everyone. But now it has become increasingly common for liberals to admit openly that freedom only extends to movements and ideas which are themselves liberal.

One typical recent analysis "proves" that religious belief inevitably leads to terrorism, because people with strong religious beliefs cannot accept "diversity" and are frightened of personal liberty, thus use force to try to hold back the clock. Such an analysis does of course describe some believers.

But the argument is dishonest in that it ignores all the modern evils, including terrorism, which have nothing to do with religion and even in fact emanate from sources which are anti-religious, Communism being the chief example. People who warn that strong religious beliefs lead to extremism seldom add that strong political beliefs of any kind have the same affect. Recalling the evils of Communism would require admitting that the rejection of religious absolutes, the "liberation" of people from old orthodoxies, and the embrace of "progress" can themselves lead to the same evils as extremist religion.

Nor is the problem confined to Communism. Few modern wars, and none of the great ones, have been fought for religious reasons, and what is sometimes seen as religious conflict, as in Northern Ireland or the former Yugoslavia, is often more a matter of ethnicity or territoriality. Bad as the Taliban are, they do not rank at the top of the list of the most evil regimes of the past century. The totalitarian modern state began with the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, an episode precisely intended, among other things, to "liberate" Frenchmen from the shackles of religion.

Faced with the accusation that their beliefs inevitably lead to violence, some Christians become nervously apologetic. It is ironic that some Democrats are accusing the Bush administration of being aligned with religious fanaticism, since President Bush has now endorsed the United Religions Initiative, a liberal group which condemns religious orthodoxy as a threat to peace and freedom. Thus the President seems to confirm the claim that some of his own strongest supporters are a danger to society. (George Schultz, who was Secretary of State during the Reagan administration, is a member of the URI advisory board.)

Some Christians may be tempted to look almost with nostalgia at the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, where raw coercion was used to maintain approved behavior. But the real challenge is to continue to show that genuine religious faith, including moral absolutes, is possible in a culture which also respects human freedom.

James Hitchcock
6l58 Kingsbury Ave.
St. Louis, Mo. 63ll2
E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

James Hitchcock,
professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

**Women for Faith & Family operates solely on your generous donations!

WFF is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Donations are tax deductible.

Columns copyright © 1995 - 2004 by James Hitchcock. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without permission. (Permission is granted to download articles for personal use only.)

Voices copyright © 1999-Present Women for Faith & Family. All rights reserved.


All material on this web site is copyrighted and may not be copied or reproduced without prior written permission from Women for Faith & Family,except as specified below.

Personal use
Permission is granted to download and/or print out articles for personal use only.

Brief quotations (ca 500 words) may be made from the material on this site, in accordance with the “fair use” provisions of copyright law, without prior permission. For these quotations proper attribution must be made of author and WFF + URL (i.e., “Women for Faith & Family –

Generally, all signed articles or graphics must also have the permission of the author. If a text does not have an author byline, Women for Faith & Family should be listed as the author. For example: Women for Faith & Family (St Louis: Women for Faith & Family, 2005 + URL)

Link to Women for Faith & Family web site.
Other web sites are welcome to establish links to or to individual pages within our site.

Back to top -- Home -- Back to James Hitchcock Column Index
Women for Faith & Family
PO Box 300411
St. Louis, MO 63130

314-863-8385 Phone -- 314-863-5858 Fax -- Email

You are viewing an archived page on our old website. Click here to visit our new website.