World Politics and Religion

Published December 31, 2006


In its last issue for 2006, Rzeczpospolita, one of Poland’s leading dailies, asked a number of intellectuals from around the world to survey the human future. EPPC Senior Fellow George Weigel was invited by correspondent Andrew Bielecki to answer several questions at the intersection of religion and world politics. The Rzeczpospolita interview with Weigel follows:

1.    Most people are pessimistic about the Iraqi war. Can the American defeat in Iraq be interpreted by Muslims as a defeat of the “crusaders“? Can it initiate a renaissance of Islamic power on the scale comparable to that in the Middle Ages? And do you expect, that in such a case, the most aggressive form of Islam will prevail in the Muslim world ?

It’s far too early to talk about “the American defeat in Iraq,” as if that were a settled matter. It is not. I think it is the case, however, that the serious security situation in various parts of the country can only be resolved, finally, by an act of will on the part of the Iraqi people, who must decide whether they want a country more than they want to kill each other. The U.S. can help, and should help, get the security situation under control; but it is, finally, the Iraq people who must decide whether they are going to let their accomplishments in the past three years be hijacked by thugs.

As for what the current situation means, it’s important to remember that Iraq is one front in a multi-front struggle against jihadist Islam and jihadist terrorism. There is also an Afghan front, a Lebanese/Syrian front, an Iranian front, a financial-flows front, an intelligence front, a homeland security front, and an economic front (i.e., can the West de-fund jihadism by undertaking a crash program in alternative energy sources?). The triumph of jihadism in Iraq would be a set-back in the wider war, but it would certainly not mark the end of the war, which is going to continue for at least a generation, and possibly longer.

There is no question that jihadist ideology is the most dynamic force in the multiple worlds of contemporary Islam, but its virtual condemnation by 38 prominent Muslim leaders in their mid-October “Open Letter to Pope Benedict XVI” was one of the most important developments of 2006. It should be noted that the “Open Letter” came in response, not to multicultural political correctness, but to the Pope’s forthright challenge to certain currents in Islamic thought in his September lecture at Regensburg University.

2.    The prime beneficiary of the Middle East crisis is Iran, which has strengthened its influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. Could this lead to an open confrontation between Shia and Sunni Islam, and if so, and what would the consequences be?

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran  is perhaps the most dangerous man in the world today. A nuclear-armed Iran led by a man who believes that he has a religious responsibility to hasten the advent of the messianic age by apocalyptic means is unacceptable. How to blunt that threat is the biggest international security problem of the next two years. It would be very helpful if Europe would face the truth about Ahmadinejad, but so far, Europe seems reluctant to do so.

3.    Pope Benedict XVI recently undertook a reconciliation mission to Turkey; at the same time, the European Union froze accession negotiations with this country. Is the construction of a multi-religious Europe still possible?

The Pope went to Turkey on an ecumenical and pastoral mission — Peter going to see Andrew, to strengthen the bonds of Christian unity. In the course of that pilgrimage, Peter had something to say about the restrictions that the Turkish state puts on Andrew; and those restrictions have a lot to do with whether Turkey can “fit” into Europe. Religious freedom in Turkey is not secure. Until it is, I don’t think it’s possible to talk about Turkey being part of the common political culture of the E.U. That day may come, but it isn’t here yet.

4.    The British police recently prevented the most serious terrorist strike attempt since September 11th. Once again, its authors were young Muslims who had grown up in Western Europe. Why has Europe, as opposed to the United States, been unable to assimilate this social group and what could be the consequences of this failure in the future ?

This threat of a “European intifada” is the direct result of the fact that Europe has been dying, demographically, for years. Generation after generation of below-replacement-level birth rates have led to patterns of European depopulation not seen since the Black Death; immigration from another cultural and civilizational orbit seemed to be the answer. Given the jihadism now flowing through a lot of the Islamic world, assimilation of Islamic immigrants has been very difficult. But western Europe’s lack of faith in the human capacity to know the truth of anything (the second major point raised by Pope Benedict at Regensburg) has also left Europe somewhat defenseless culturally and politically — if you don’t believe human beings can know the truth of anything with some confidence, how can you confidently defend human rights, democracy, and the rule of law against an assault from within by people who have a very different view of the human future?

5.    The conservative style of leadership of Pope John Paul II in the Catholic Church, continued by Pope Benedict XVI, has not prevented secularization of Western Europe. Can the Church regain its strong position in Europe without changing its position on
such issues as women’s priesthood, gay rights and abortion? Is the rebirth of religiosity in Western Europe still at all possible ?

First of all, permit me to suggest that it is ridiculous to continue using these shopworn categories of “liberal” and “conservative” churchmen; there is no need for Polish journalism to imitate the silliest facets of American journalism. John Paul II was a Christian radical; so is Benedict XVI. Benedict understands, as John Paul understood, that he is the servant of the truths of Catholic faith, not its master. The Catholic Church doesn’t have “positions” on women in the priesthood, “gay rights,” and abortion, the way politicians have “positions” on tax rates, budgets, and defense policy; the Catholic Church teaches what it believes to be the truth about the sacramentality of the body, the complementarity of men and women, and the inviolability of innocent human life. These teachings are not going to change. Moreover, those Christian communities which have caved to the leftist Zeigeist on these questions are dying or dead; so from a purely sociological point of view, there is no “advantage” to the Catholic Church becoming a club of the pious, politically correct.

We have to hope that Europe is capable of rediscovering its Christian roots and its faith in reason, because if it doesn’t, it is going to die. Perhaps a first, and parallel, step is a European rediscovery of faith in reason which, in moral terms, would lead to something else Pope Benedict has proposed: nonbelievers committed to living “as if God really existed.”

6.    For many years,  Poland has been considered the most religious country in Europe. Now, however, as part of the European Union, it has become richer and  has absorbed
Western European values. Will it, in spite of this, stay an exception in Europe or, like Italy or Spain, will it become secularized?

Poland has a unique opportunity to be “the Church in the modern world” envisioned by Vatican II. Human rights and democracy came to Poland, not against the Church, but through the Church — that is a very big difference between the Polish experience in the 20th century and the western European experience in the 19th century. If Poland remains true to itself in the 21st century, it could be an agent of the re-evangelization of Europe, and it could steer help steer the E.U. back to a more morally serious view of politics.

7.    George W. Bush is considered the main representative of neo-conservatives and of the religious right. However, the defeat in Iraq resulted in the decline of his popularity: presently only 1/3 of Americans support him. Does this mean the beginning of the retreat of religious fundamentalism in the US or, in the light of the increasing danger from Islam, will religion take an even more important role in the American policy?

This question, if I may be frank, confuses any number of things. It is simply not the case that “religious fundamentalism” = “neo-conservatism” = George W. Bush. These are three distinct phenomena. Religious conviction — some of it thoughtfully expressed, some of it not-so-thoughtfully expressed — will continue to play a large role in American public life, because the American people are a thoroughly, if diversely religious people; they’re not ashamed of their deepest convictions; and they think those convictions have something to do with the task of building a free, just, prosperous, and secure society.

As for meeting the threat of Islam, I think the Pope gave the world a vocabulary for real dialogue (as opposed to the politically correct exchange of vacuous pieties) at Regensburg: the vocabulary of “rationality” and “irrationality.” As John Paul II taught, faith and reason are two wings on which the human spirit rises to contemplate the truth of things — and in doing so, learns how to structure  public life in accord with human dignity.

8.    Evangelicals are rapidly gaining new followers in Latin America and Africa. To what extend can this endanger the position of the Catholic Church?

The Catholic Church is also growing in Latin America and Africa; many Catholics who become evangelicals eventually return to Catholicism; evangelicalism seems to promote certain virtues better than the Catholic Church has been able to do in parts of Latin America. All of these facts suggest that the picture is not a zero-sum game in which one side’s gain is inevitably another’s loss. Evangelicals and Catholics can work together to build free and prosperous societies in Latin America and Africa, just as we do in the United States.

9.    In the next 10 years the Chinese economy will equal the size of the American one. Can we expect at the same time a growing world role for Asian religions, Confucianism and Buddhism, with their becoming perhaps just as important as Islam and Christianity are today?

I doubt it. I don’t think China is a good long-term bet, because it will soon experience the same demographic/fiscal crisis as Europe: too few tax-paying workers attempting to support an aging population. Indeed, when China finally opens itself completely to the world, I think China will be the greatest field of Christian mission since the Europeans came to the western hemisphere in the 16th century. Traditional Chinese religions have been largely crushed by communism; Christianity is identified in China with modernization and freedom; therefore, look for China to become a great Christian mission field by the middle of the 21st century.

10.    The degeneration of religious values in the countries of the former Soviet Union has led to moral devastation in this part of the world. Every year, the population of Russia diminishes by seven hundred thousand people.Will this dramatic situation be changed by a religious revival?

Russia is in very bad shape, demographically and in terms of public health; as a result, Yemen will have more people than Russia by 2050. I would like to think that Russian Orthodoxy could be the engine of human and cultural renewal in Russia, but Orthodoxy will first have to liberate itself from the embrace of the Russian state.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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