Cartoons and the clash of civilizations

George Weigel

Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s “class of civilizations” hypothesis — a provocative preview of a twenty-first century in which religiously shaped cultural conflicts define the fault-lines of world politics — created a considerable intellectual stir when it was first published in 1993. It also caused an allergic reaction in the Vatican that persisted for over a decade, which always seemed to me puzzling.

Perhaps some churchmen, reading about the controversy over the book rather than reading the book itself, imagined that Huntington was prescribing a clash of civilizations; in fact, the mild-mannered professor was simply describing what seemed to him the most dynamic forces shaping world affairs today. Another curiosity of the reaction inside the Vatican was that Huntington’s was the first analysis in decades in which a world-class scholar took religious conviction seriously as a factor in global politics — which, one might have thought, would have commended it to the Holy See’s diplomats. But there is religious conviction and there is religious conviction: and doubtless Huntington’s detailed description of Islam’s “bloody borders” raised eyebrows in a Vatican already concerned about the pressures being put on Christian communities by radical Islamists along a fault line of conflict running from the west coast of Africa through Sudan and Pakistan and on to East Timor.

Given that background, a single adverb stands out dramatically in Pope Benedict XVI’s January 9 address to the diplomats accredited to the Holy See. In the course of discussing the relationship of truth to politics, Benedict referred to “today’s global context, in which attention has rightly been drawn to the danger of a clash of civilizations.” Rightly been drawn. Not “incorrectly…” Or “mischievously…” Rightly.

This realistic appraisal of the contemporary world scene came not a month too soon. As I write in the second week of February, the publication of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in a hitherto obscure Danish newspaper has ignited a “planetary intifada” (as French commentator Bernard-Henri Levy put it, with only slight exaggeration). Encouraged by Islamist clerics and political scoundrels like Syria’s Bashar Assad and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, protesters have burned embassies and consulates, aroused mass demonstrations that have led to casualties and fatalities, intimidated European governments – and murdered Fr. Andrea Santoro, whose teenage assailant shouted “God is great” while shooting the Italian priest in the back as he prayed before the altar of his small church in Turkey.

I have no brief for the cartoons, any more than I had a brief for the far more vulgar “Piss Christ.” And yes, there was something ironic about passionate defenses of “free speech” in countries like France, where a parliamentarian was recently sentenced to a heavy fine because he had publicly proposed that “heterosexuality is morally superior to homosexuality.” But arguments about the legal boundaries that should or should not be erected against “art” that religious believers find offensive, or arguments about the nature of Europe’s soul-withering de-Christianization and its relationship to the rise of radical Islam within Europe, can be engaged at another time. At this particular moment, a few basic markers must be laid down.

The West cannot acquiesce supinely to the demand of radical Islamists that their standards of the appropriate are to be imposed in the West – or else. Nor can the West acquiesce to the Islamists’ defense of violence, assault, and murder in the name of “rage.” Nor can the West accept the radicals’ suggestion that entire nations are to be held responsible for the arguably boorish behavior of some of their citizens, which would imply a level of governmental control of cultural life that is incompatible with a free society.

State-controlled media throughout the Islamic world regularly print and broadcast unspeakably vicious anti-Christian and anti-Semitic images. Will the Muslim leaders who have rightly condemned violence as a response to cartoons — King Abdullah of Jordan and Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani of Iraq, to name two — take the next step and call for a reform of the ways in which the media in Islamic countries depict Christians and Jews? That would be one positive development to come out of this otherwise dismal affair, which has ominously broadened Islam’s “bloody borders.”

COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.