Can ballots and technology win souls?

kids koran hamasI was surprised that Peggy Noonan did not do much with the echo of the “ending tyranny” theme in President Bush’s State of the Union address, the almost messianic theme that had been so controversial in the 2005 address.

Still, she made it clear that she thinks that some tensions remain on that issue, saying of the president:

He asserted more than he persuaded, and he chose to redeclare his beliefs rather than argue for them in any depth. If you believe, as he does, that the No. 1 priority for the American government at this point in history is to lead an international movement for political democracy, and if you believe, as he truly seems to, that political democracy is in and of itself a certain bringer of world-wide peace, than this speech was for you. If not, not. It went through a reported 30 drafts, was touched by many hands, and seemed it.

However, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has written a column that I believe points at a major story that is developing linked to this administration’s understanding of the role of faith in the blood-soaked Middle East and, now, in the world as a whole.

It seems to me that when people as diverse and talented as Cohen and Noonan are worried about the same basic issue, it’s time to pay attention. I wonder how many evangelicals are thinking twice about the president’s belief that mere democracy can destroy tyranny and evil. What if people who hate democracy — or, at least, the concepts codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — win in a majority vote?

Thus, Cohen writes of the recent Palestinian vote:

The mistake of the Bush administration is to think, based on not much thinking to begin with, that people are people — pretty much the same the world over. This is why the president extols democracy. It must be what everyone wants because it is what everyone here wants. To denigrate this kind of talk suggests racism — You mean we are not all the same? — or a musty neocolonialism. But the hard truth is that culture and religion matter, and we should not expect moderation just because that’s how we would react. Toto knows the truth. The Middle East is not Kansas.

The leaders of Hamas brim with the word of God and the certainty of their cause. From here on they will lie about their ultimate aim and smilingly assure us that what they have always said they no longer mean.

Well, you know you are in an interesting and disturbing age when you can leap straight from a Cohen column in the Washington Post to a cover story in the Weekly Standard without skipping a beat.

GetReligion readers may have missed this scary essay by retired U.S. Army officer Ralph Peters, in part because the cover title and the headlines offer no clue whatsoever that religion plays a major role in it. Just look for the headline “The Counterrevolution in Military Affairs” and then make sure that you keep reading until you hit the subheadline “Wars of Faith” (in the print edition, that is).

On one level, Peters’ article is about America’s urgent drive to develop a highly technological military for fast-moving combat on a large scale, while our world is increasingly dominated by conflicts involving “flesh, faith and cities.” The symbol of the real world today is what he calls the media-based “liturgy” of the suicide bomber, that brilliant combination of human will and explosives.

Not a single item in our trillion-dollar arsenal can compare with the genius of the suicide bomber — the breakthrough weapon of our time. … We refuse to comprehend the suicide bomber’s soul — even though today’s wars are contests of souls, and belief is our enemy’s ultimate order of battle. We write off the suicide bomber as a criminal, a wanton butcher, a terrorist. Yet, within his spiritual universe, he’s more heroic than the American soldier who throws himself atop a grenade to spare his comrades: He isn’t merely protecting other men, but defending his god. …

Our enemies act on ecstatic revelations from their god. We act on the advice of lawyers.

gaza hamas demonstrationIt is, Peters writes, hard to fight solitary prophets hiding in crowds of fellow believers with a military that worships computers and satellites. America’s leaders do not believe that they are involved in a religious war. However, our enemies believe that they are involved in a religious war against us.

Noonan is worried that America cannot automatically install democracy and defeat tyranny.

Cohen is worried that our government fails to understand the power of faith, especially a faith that is opposed to the freedoms of the West.

Peters is afraid our military leaders do not understand that cruise missiles cannot defeat prophets. This is where his article reaches a crescendo that, to me, seems to be aimed straight at the White House and the military elites that answer to it.

Hang on, because this gets blunt.

A dangerous asymmetry exists in the type of minds working the problem of Islamist terrorism in our government and society. On average, the “experts” to whom we are conditioned to listen have a secular mentality (even if they go to church or synagogue from habit). And it is a very rare secular mind that can comprehend religious passion — it’s like asking a blind man to describe the colors of fire. …

Those who feel no vital faith cannot comprehend faith’s power. A man or woman who has never been intoxicated by belief will default to mirror-imaging when asked to describe terror’s roots. He who has never experienced a soul-shaking glimpse of the divine inevitably explains religion-driven suicide bombers in terms of a lack of economic opportunity or social humiliation. But the enemies we face are burning with belief, on fire with their vision of an immanent, angry god. Our intelligentsia is less equipped to understand such men than our satellites are to find them.

All of our technologies and comforting theories are confounded by the strength of the soul ablaze with faith.

There is much, much more to read on this theme in Peters’ essay and he does move on to other issues. But you can read that on your own. Nevertheless, the emphasis on faith trumping modernity and technology never goes away. Do not read this article right before you go to bed.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Herb

    I thought that this article was pretty good in analyzing a lot of the current situation.

    One needs to differentiate in looking at Islam, like identifying the different “strands” of the rope. Some are evil, some are not.

  • John Cox

    Depressing and dispiriting reading. Peters presumably is focused on a thorough analysis of what’s wrong with the current military-political thoughts and actions in this modern “War of Faiths.” But surely it cries out for a “Part II” — an equally thorough analysis of what can, or should, be done.


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