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Christian Realism and the Rise of Islamic Fascism

By JosephLoconte

John Jay Institute

Peace in our time. A masterstroke of international diplomacy, declared the churches. “The peace of Munich was possible,” claimed Catholic thinker John LaFarge, “because of the habits and methods of peacekeeping learned through two decades of international discourse in the halls of the League of Nations .”

Others knew better. Protestant theologian Karl Barth, who fled Hitler’s Germany to Switzerland , wrote in his diary: “Catastrophe of European liberty at Munich .” Winston Churchill, still considered a warmonger and political pariah, called the Munich Pact a “total and unmitigated defeat” for the cause of peace. “They could have chosen shame or war with honor,” Churchill said. “They chose shame. They’ll get war, too.”

Yet, the utopian arguments continued even as the Nazi war machine con­quered most of the European continent. The name and the ethics of Jesus were constantly invoked to oppose U.S. military engagement.

The Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, of New York City’s Park Avenue Baptist Church, condemned the war against fascism as “the denial of everything Jesus taught…For the United States to become a belligerent in this conflict would be a colossal and futile disaster” (January 1941). The Rev. Albert Palmer, a leader in the Congregational Christian Church, admitted that global domination by the Nazis would probably follow an invasion of Britain —yet remain untroubled by the prospect. “Can military force do much against soul force which folds its arms and bides its day?” he asked. “Without military opposition, the Hitlers wither away.”

And who are their counterparts in the war on Islamic fascism?, a left-wing organization closely tied to the Democratic Party and liberal religious groups, issued this warning just before the U.S. war on Afghanistan : “If we retaliate by bombing Kabul and kill people oppressed

The editors at The New Republic, to their credit, grasp plainly what is at stake. “No, it was not Islam that took the towers down,” they wrote just after 9/11. “But it was not Episcopalianism either. The terrorists are waging a war of ideas, and the ideas upon which they are acting are ideas in the Islamic tradition…There are those who wish to deny the religious character of al-Qaeda’s violence, so as to transform bin Ladenism into another variety of anti-colonial protest.”

As Paul Berman summarizes it in Terror and Liberalism: “We have all the evidence in the world…to conclude that Islamism in its radical version of the present poses every imaginable danger.”

Statesmanship grounded in moral realism must, in fact, imagine the danger. It must remind Americans—calmly and with intellectual integrity—of the nature of the threat we face. This is not the politics of fear; it is the politics of moral clarity. The statesman can never ignore the religious character and the existential danger of Islamic fascism.

Second, the Christian Realist pursues economic and social justice, but not by denying the existence of radical evil. War critics in the 1930s misread the fundamental causes of fascist aggres­sion. From 1938 to 1941, American Protestant groups issued no less than 50 statements about how to achieve a just and durable peace. There was lots of talk about debt relief and economic assistance. Barely a handful of these manifestos argued that the defeat of Nazism was essential to international justice.

The Christian Realists avoided that mistake. They argued that Germany ’s economic grievances were real enough, but were being exploited by violent men with demonic ambitions. Read Lewis Mumford’s “The Barbarian Alternative” of 1939 — his summary of the fascist mindset. Their hatred of democracy, hatred of civilization, their delight in physical cruelty—it sounds like a recruiting manual for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

Thus it makes sense for the Bush Administration to invest billions of dollars to confront the AIDS pandemic in Africa , to support debt relief, and to prod developing nations toward economic and political reform with its Millenium Challenge Account. As we learned from Afghanistan and Sudan , failing states become breeding grounds for Islamic radicalism.

“The blatant venality and injustice of repressive regimes foster anti-mod­ernist and religious fundamentalist movements of rage against the West,” argues a recent USAID report. “The only way to prevent or reverse the threats that flow from bad governance is to foster stable, effective demo­cratic governance.”

Yet none of this is to be confused with rationalizing terrorist rage. Listen to former N.Y. mayor Rudy Giuliani, in the days after 9/11: “Let those who say that we must understand the reasons for terrorism come with me to the thousands of funerals we’re having in New York City ,” he said. “There’s no moral way to sympathize with grossly immoral actions. And by doing so…a fertile field has been created in which terrorism has grown.”

Finally, the Christian Realist argues that you cannot win “hearts and minds” without defeating the ideology of Islamic fascism on the battlefield.

Some argue that the Bush Administration’s approach to terrorism—the willingness to use force to help establish democracy in the Middle East—is a revival of Woodrow Wilson’s idealism.

There’s truth in this charge. Some White House officials have badly understated the challenge of building decent and democratic societies in Afghanistan and Iraq .

—whether he’s the Jew at Auschwitz or the Kurdish woman in northern Iraq or the Sufi villager in Western Sudan . In other words, it is a theology of love divorced from the Biblical demands of justice—which means it is not a theology of love at all, but a posture of pious indifference toward suf­fering and evil.

At exactly the moment when fresh thinking about the Christian “just war” tradition is urgently needed, progressives have abandoned the concept alto­gether. But this is no time to confuse the perfect peace of the Kingdom of Heaven with the struggle for relative justice among the Kingdoms of Earth.

Protestant reformer Martin Luther argued that “every lord and prince is bound to protect his people and to preserve the peace for them. That is his office; that is why he has the sword.” Theologian Karl Barth, writing to Christians in Great Britain , then under siege from German air attacks, said the State “would be failing in its duty as an appointed minister of God…if it failed to defend the bounds between Right and Wrong by the threat, and by the actual use, of the sword.”

Likewise, Reinhold Niebuhr flogged American theologians for invoking Jesus’ command to “love thy neighbor” to justify American detachment. “This form of pacifism is not only heretical when judged by the standards of the total gospel,” he wrote. “It is equally heretical when judged by the facts of human existence.”

A Higher Goal than Peace

By denying these facts, by rejecting the reality of radical evil, by confusing the roles of church and state, the utopians are succumbing to an old temp­tation: They’ve allowed their hatred of war to blot out all other virtues.

It’s worth remembering that orthodox Christians have never viewed peace as the highest good. There are other goods: empathy, courage, sacrifice, and an iron will to protect the innocent from great evil. A just peace may be the final result of these pursuits, God willing. But if peace is made the supreme goal, if it consumes all other virtues, it becomes an idol—and a snare to the statesman as well as the saint.

Like the campaign of the 1930s, the great danger of the utopians today is their effort to persuade democracies to ignore the true nature of Islamic barbarism—and to throw down our defenses in the name of peace.

William Manchester, the great Churchill biographer, put it this way: “The first Allied response to the Nazi regime had been prompted by the universal loathing among decent men of modern war’s senseless slaughter,” he writes. “But revulsion is a frail foundation for a foreign policy.”

Frail indeed. Today it would all but guarantee the erosion of freedom and security across entire continents. President Bush, in a visit to the concen-tration camps in Poland a couple of years ago, warned strongly against that course. “The death camps still bear witness,” he said. “They remind us that evil is real and must be called by name and must be opposed. All the good that has come to this continent—all the progress, the prosperity, the peace—came because beyond the barbed wire there were people willing to take up arms against evil.”

As George Orwell once warned: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

Recovering Moral Courage

This realist response to terror requires a reality check of its own. Our best theologians— St. Paul , Augustine, Luther—have always emphasized our mixed motives in every noble endeavor and our limited ability to achieve our goals in a world awash in sin. Our war against terror will not make the world safe for democracy. As Jean Bethke Elshtain puts it: “Augustinian realism offers no assurances that we can make the world safe for anything.”

Nevertheless, triumphalism is not the greatest danger at this political moment. The greater danger is utopianism, one of the oldest impulses in both politics and religion, now back with a vengeance. It seemed to slip into decline with the fall of Soviet Communism. But the events of 9/11 have exposed its resilience: Aside from extremist Islam, no ideology represents a more serious threat to the health and even survival of American democracy.

Defeating this utopianism means recovering the wisdom and resolve of those who recognized the supreme malevolence of their own day. Only a handful of leaders realized the demons that Nazism had let loose in the world. Few could imagine the sacrifices that would be required to meet them. And fewer still dared to predict the consequences of shrinking back from the duties assigned to America , Great Britain and their allies. Then, and now, the darkness must be confronted.

The earlier darkness was national and race-based. The darkness we face today is supra-national and faith-based. If we fail to reckon with the nature of this threat, if we try to appease it, it will devour us—and everything else that is decent, and noble, and honorable that stands in its way.

“Do not suppose this is the end,” warned Winston Churchill, in a speech to the House of Commons after Munich . “This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.”

We cannot wait for perfection or for the absolute purity of our motives before we rise to take our stand. We must take it. We will stumble, we may lose our way. But we must take it. Against this evil, we must stand for freedom.

“This is a chapter of ancient history which it might be good to recall,” says Gandalf as he explains to Frodo the exploits of the Elves in their struggle to resist the Dark Lord from the Tower of Mordor . “Yes, this is a chapter of ancient history which it might be good to recall, for there was sorrow then too, and gathering dark, but great valour, and great deeds that were not wholly vain.”

Questions for Consideration:

1. According to Mr. Loconte, what lesson from World War II is most relevant for confronting the ideology of terrorism today?

2. What is utopianism? How did it inform the public debate about entering World War II?

3. What is Islamic Fascism?

4. Itemize and explain Mr. Loconte’s catalogue of utopian fallacies.

5. What is “Christian Realism” and how does it differ from utopianism in responding to Islamic Fascism?

6. What does Mr. Loconte mean by the phrase “persistence of radical evil”? What is radical evil and how might its existence inform foreign and defense policies?

7. How does Mr. Loconte explain and differentiate the roles of church and state? Why does he think the differentiation of church and state roles is important?

8. According to Mr. Loconte, where is peace in the hierarchy of Christian values? How might the prioritization of Christian values inform foreign and defense policies?

9. How does moral courage apply to public policy?