copyright © 2001 Dennis Paul Himes

The Greater Struggle

To the People of United States of America

When the United States was attacked by theocratic extremists in the ninth month of this new millennium the president and congress wasted no time in sending a strong message to those who planned and aided the attacks. That message was, "We support what you're trying to do. We disagree with your methods, but we agree with your philosophy."

We were attacked because we are a secular nation. We have successfully separated religion from government in a way that allows people of any or no religion to feel free to be honest about his or her conception of God. It has been an imperfect separation in many respects, but it was a founding principle of the republic, and one which over the years has become more strongly enforced and more deeply ingrained in our political culture.

There are those, however, for whom the freedom to make up one's own mind about religion is a threat they will not tolerate. There are extremists, such as Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban, and there are moderates, such as George W. Bush and the House of Represetatives, but they all share the same philosophy: "If your beliefs are different enough from mine, you don't deserve the same rights I do."

When the theocrats attacked, our leaders were just as quick to reassure the world that they support the terrorists' aims as they were to demonstrate that the terrorists' tactics were unacceptable. President Bush had long been an opponent of freedom of religion and lost no time in using this crisis as another wedge in his campaign to divide the country along religious lines. The House of Representatives, for its part, voted 404 to 0 to support the display of "God Bless America" in public schools. Theocrats in state and local governments throughout the land used the crisis to defy the religious guarantees of the U.S. constitution, knowing that, compared to what happened on the Eleventh of September, their attacks would seem mild.

It is at best in poor taste to bend over backwards to give comfort to the enemy this way while their victims are still being pulled from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. More importantly, it opens up the possibility that while our military is trying to eliminate the external threat, we will succumb to the internal one.

Theocracy is an inherently oppressive form of government. To the extent that the citizenry agree with the theology of the government it is irrelevant, to the extent that they don't they are at best forced to subsidize the propagation of opinions they oppose and at worst forced to decide between living a lie or forfeiting their civil rights, their liberty, or even their lives. Our founding fathers, or at least a significant portion of them, recognized this, and instituted a government which, at least in theory, was neutral with respect to religion and allowed the people to determine their beliefs through free inquiry.

Free inquiry is precisely what the theocrats are afraid of. If everyone determined their religious philosophy via free inquiry there would be no such thing as a "Christian nation" or an "Islamic nation". A person in Iran would be just as likely to end up a Christian as a person in Mexico would. This would greatly diminish the power and authority of the mullahs and priests of the majority religions. There are some religious leaders who only want believers who truly believe, but there are many more who are more than happy to accept those who are members of their religion just because their parents were or because that is what is expected of someone of that ethnicity. To encourage this sort of false belief, the more shameless leaders teach that it would be a betrayal, or worse, to think too much about what is true or false in religion. Religious leaders have long acted to confuse morality with religious taboos in the minds of people -- it is the source of much of their authority -- and convincing people that questioning their edicts is sinful fits right in with that. It becomes a vicious circle. In order to realize that questioning religious dogma is not immoral one has to question the dogma that questioning religious dogma is immoral, which one is not likely to do before one has realized that questioning religious dogma is not immoral.

The advantages of this system are not lost on political leaders, many of whom are more than willing to tap into it, casting themselves are preservers of the Islamic, Christian, or whatever nature of the nation, supporting the hold of the clergy on the people and receiving the clergy's support in return. American leaders have had a more difficult time of this than most, given the secular nature of our political structure, but they have tried anyway. Over the centuries the theocrats in our midst have been forced to slowly widen the list of religions they support, from Protestant to Christian to Judeo-Christian, but they still continue to cast themselves as defenders of one set of beliefs over another, and try to reverse the separation of church and state wherever and whenever they can.

After the attacks of September 2001 it has become more important than ever to resist the agents of theocracy. They are no longer just trying to put prayer in our schools; they now are murdering people by the thousands. Of course, looking at the situation globally this is not really new; they've been murdering people for some time. The attacks, however, made it clear that we cannot separate our struggle against the moderate theocrats from others' struggle against extremist theocrats and say that the latter is not our problem. It is our problem, and it is one which cannot be solved if we don't go to its root, and oppose theocracy wherever it may be found, whether it's in Islamic Afghanistan, Christian Texas, or even Atheist China, where Communists continue their tradition of suppressing free inquiry in the name of Marxism.

One of our major foreign policy goals, if we really wanted to establish a just world, would be to establish the principle that religious freedom is a fundamental human right. In theory, this is accepted, but in practice it is all but ignored. Any nation with an official religion should be considered an unfriendly nation, and any nation in which apostasy is a crime should be shunned as vigorously as South Africa was during the apartheid years. There are those who would complain that this would be imposing our traditional values on cultures with other traditions, but they are forgetting that these are not our traditional values. Our traditions until just recently were just as oppressive as anyone's, and it would be selfish to enjoy the benefits won by the Thomas Paines in our culture while refusing to help the Taslima Nasrins in others'.

Of course, if we are going to establish this principle in the world we should maintain it at home. What we should be doing is removing the last vestiges of the comprimises the founding fathers made to achieve independence and reversing the gains the theocrats have made since then. We should change our tax laws to eliminate the subsidy of religion. We should remove the phrase "in God we trust" from our coinage. We should stop pretending that endorsing a collection of sects is fundamentally different from endorsing a single sect.

Instead, we have elected (in some sense of the word) a president who wants to increase government subsidy of religion, who wastes no opportunity to ask all Americans to pray, who is the protege of a former president who proposed a religious test for citizenship. He has not responded to the attack on America by defending the freedom which the terrorists oppose, since he opposes it as well. He has instead seen the attack as a turf war between his faction of the religious right and Osama Bin Laden's. It is, in some sense, a good thing that the enemy is fighting among itself. It will be an especially good thing if the moderate faction wins. As bad as the Republicans are, they are nowhere near as bad as the Taliban. However, we must not lose sight of the greater struggle, the struggle to fulfill promise of the American Revolution, the struggle to create a truly free nation in a truly free world, where there are Christian, Islamic, and Atheist people, but no Christian, Islamic, or Atheist nations.

Commentary is welcome. Choose the appropriate option based on your desired degree of privacy.
N.B. HTML-only email will be treated as spam and in all likelihood not read.

mail which I do not have permission to make public
mail which I do have permission to make public, but only if I suppress the sender's identity
mail which I do have permission to make public, including the sender's identity

Commentary received so far

You can read my other online essays:

You can also go to my homepage.