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Don’t Call Me Secular!
The U.S. is anything but.

By Michael Novak, the George F. Jewett scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Novak is the author, most recently, of the upcoming On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding.
October 11, 2001 1:20 p.m.


he present war is not a war between a secular nation and a Muslim nation. Ours is not a secular nation. We are the single-most religious of all the advanced nations, and the third- or fourth-most religious of all nations anywhere on earth.

Our Founding's religion, in case you want to know, is predominantly Christian and Jewish. And a good thing, too!

Now, it may well be that politicized Muslims actually do believe that suicide bombings are a way to Paradise (though I doubt it). But they're making a mistake if they believe that they are alone in being willing to die for their beliefs. They are not even alone in believing in eternal life.

We Jews and Christians do not morally approve of suicide. We regard a suicide bombing of innocent noncombatants — such as those going to work in the World Trade Towers on the peaceful Tuesday morning of September 11 — as a symptom of pure, rank, and rotting evil in the bodies that carry it.

But we are willing to die in self-defense, we are willing to give our lives for others — as did our brave fellow citizens, our brothers, on United Flight #93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, who crashed into the ground to thwart the would-be suicide bombers. Many, many more of us will be willing to die in the battles ahead.

Although the Hebrew Scriptures speak more than once of prayers and sacrifices for the souls of the dead, Jewish writers make little reference to eternal life. It is otherwise with Christians. We believe that life on earth, sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter, as may be, is framed within a far larger reality: the lightsome reality of our Creator and Redeemer, Who has called us, as He once called the patriarchs of Israel, to be His friends.

We do not have much idea what eternity will be like, although sometimes we have intimations of it, in moments of overflowing absorption in things beautiful and good, when we lose all awareness of passing time, and seem to dwell in an abiding now of total attention.

Having often been much moved by the sweet, sweet beauties of earth, we have no doubt whatever that that Beauty, in whose image all things beautiful were made, is superabundant, overflowing, beyond our capacities to absorb even a fraction of it.

To be in communion with the One who has addressed us as "friend" is to have stretched our capacities for love and life and light infinitely beyond themselves.

I have yet to see journalists point out the political implications of the prevailing Christian view of eternal union with God, and its Hebrew analogue. These implications are many and profound.

First there is the dignity of the individual. Addressed by his Creator as friend, each woman and man faces the solitary responsibility, the inalienable responsibility, not to be shucked onto anybody else, of making a free response.

Our God wants the friendship of men and women who are free and standing erect — not the worship of slaves.

"The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time," Thomas Jefferson instructed us.

A sense of our individual and inalienable responsibility in the face of God gives Jews and Christians our bedrock conviction in the dignity and immortal value of every single woman and man. Our Creator made us so, gave us such responsibility, holds us alone accountable for it. No other person, agency, or institution dares to interfere with that responsibility.

That is why we hold every single individual to be an irreplaceable diamond, an immortal diamond.

"The human person," Thomas Aquinas wrote, "is the only creature made to be an end-in-itself," a center of self-governing insight and choice, formed in the image of God Himself.

There is a second political point. Whereas, for the Greeks and Romans — and for virtually all other peoples on earth — it is the inequality of humans that is the natural law, for Hebrews and Christians every man and woman is made in the image of God, is of incommensurable value, and is in God's eyes equally needy and equally precious. This very idea of equality owes its origins to belief in human immortality before the judgment seat of God. In God's eyes, every boast of humans, insofar as it is true, owes its reality to Him. No human being huffed and puffed his own way into existence. We are dust, and unto dust we all return.

The third political point is that eternity is to be imagined as a communion with all those we love, with all who have extended friendship to us, and we to them. Our idea of community is friendship, and the freedom from which it springs and in which it is rooted: the free gift of self to another, and of another to oneself.

That is why the Christian founders of Pennsylvania chose as the name of their capital city the inspired name of Philadelphia, "love of brothers."

It no doubt seems odd to other people, in other places, that we Americans, when danger looms, do regard one another as friends. We rely on each other as teammates do. (Did you watch the Americans in the first hours of the World Trade Center disaster?) We work together. We freely form one will. We unite. Spontaneously we adjust to one another, see what each of us can do, and set to doing it without waiting for orders from on high. We know what needs to be done. We do it. As brothers, as sisters. As Cicero wrote, the essence of a republic is friendship.

Perhaps I am taking things too far, making too much explicit — but this is also why Christians regard God as more like a community of persons, a Trinity, than like the solitary nous that Aristotle imagined. Ubi caritas et amor, ibi Deus est, runs the medieval chant, in a lilting Gregorian tune: "Where charity and love is, there is God — That unites us in one, that love of God."

To think of Americans as materialists is to get things all wrong, upside-down, crazy. There are a few materialists among us, very few. Mostly, we believe.

To think of us as secular is to mistake the most vocal eight percent for the religious whole.

"The first political institution of the American Republic is their religion," Tocqueville wrote — I paraphrase. From our religion we get our sense of the importance of the individual, our love for liberty as the deepest drive in the human breast (at the origin of inquiry, at the origin of love and friendship), our sense of equality before God, our fiery friendship for one another, and our willingness to die for our experiment in liberty.

And our religion teaches us that at its pure root is the conscience of each. Though we are all called to one community, the roads by which we journey to it are many, often twisting and obscure, and in any case to be traversed by each man and each woman, and each community of faith, at an individual pace, in an individual way.

As the things of Caesar are not the things of God, they must not be given to Him, nor the things of God to Caesar. So also experience shows that a pluralism of religious paths is best. The God who wants our friendship will accept it only freely given, from the depths of the conscience of each. For the conscience of each, therefore, more than tolerance is due — respect is due. The same respect the Creator lavishes on it, with infinite patience for all.

All of us in America know in our ancestral memory — often not further back than two or three generations — what it was like to have lived in other lands. We know that, there, we could have worked physically harder, and in the end had less to show for it. We know that, there, we would have been scarcely half as free as here. We would have had less than half the opportunity.

Here, we know we have no excuses. Here in America is the fairest place that ever was. We each have our chances. If we don't use them, blame us. Don't blame America.

Don't call us secular, bin Laden. Don't call us unbelievers. Don't call us infidels. God shed His grace on us! and crowned our good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.

You ought never to have messed with us, bin Laden.


The Libertarian Lie
Responding to Nick Gillespie and Virginia Postrel. By Jonah Goldberg. 12/18/01 3:10 p.m.
The president doesn’t need a bill. By John J. Miller & Ramesh Ponnuru. 12/18/01 2:10 p.m.
Remaking the INS
Immigrants aren’t “customers” and citizenship isn’t a “service.” By John J. Miller. 12/18/01 1:20 p.m.
The Most Dangerous Man at State
John Bolton and arms control. By Rich Lowry. 12/18/01 12:20 p.m.
Pentagon’s Bad Move
Congress should undo it. By Henry F. Cooper. 12/18/01 10:35 a.m.
Jeffries Redux
Same old world at City College. By Mark Goldblatt. 12/18/01 9:10 a.m.
The Pointe of It All
Hey hey, ho ho, Western civ’s the way to go! By John Derbyshire. 12/18/01 8:40 a.m.
Unnecessary Threats to Freedom
Greens misread national-security needs. By Kenneth Adelman. 12/18/01 8:35 a.m.
Odd Couple Out
Leftovers in a new civilization. By Victor Davis Hanson. 12/18/01 8:25 a.m.
ABM, R.I.P.!
At last. By James S. Robbins. 12/18/01 8:15 a.m.

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