America, Looking Inward

Since 9/11, there's a "new normal" that we've been trying to work out as a culture. One of the norms of American life is our capacity for self-criticism. The Constitution is, after all, predicated not on Jefferson's optimistic view that everybody is equally good, but on Madison's view that everybody is equally capable of corruption. It was Madison who said that if men were virtuous, there would be no need of government at all. Hence all that business of checks and balances that conservatives must constantly remind liberals of, lest they adopt a more messianic view of the state than they already have.

This deep-tissue awareness of the Fall that haunts the back of the American mind is why it's always been so easy to make Americans feel guilty and nervous about their power in the world. It's also provided an enormous check on our willingness to use that power for deeply evil ends. Sure, we haven't been perfect (just look at the Cairo Conference, our betrayal of Eastern Europe to Stalin, or our abandonment of the Kurds after the Gulf War). But these are blots on a rather astonishing record of power wielded in the defense of justice. We really have been remarkably restrained given the fact that we could - if we had the right lunatics in power - muster firepower Hitler could only have dreamed of for a campaign of global conquest that would have a high likelihood of success. Who's to stop us?

And yet we've never produced a Napoleon. It is a testament to the secret reticence of the American soul concerning the old dream of empire. A plurality, if not a majority, of us Americans fret about ourselves constantly; it's one of the secrets of our greatness. We listen to our accusers on NPR, or wherever the chattering classes meet, and worry dimly that they might have a point.

However, Americans - being human - do experience moments in which they get tired of being accused by people with urban accents and Significant Hair. September 11 and its aftermath have been such a moment. For a brief period, the professional scolds in the press and on the Left followed the tried-and-true course of hand wringing with questions like, "Why do they hate us?" But something remarkable (and unprecedented in my lifetime) happened.

The American people basically said, "We don't give a rip why they hate us. It's time for them to start asking why we hate them." There had developed, among the chattering classes, a deep hatred of Christian, Western, and American culture that found no enemy more repulsive than that dreaded triumvirate. And because they could not see past "Christian/Western/American" as the true and only enemy, they were blindsided by the real enemy when he massacred nearly 5,000 people on September 11.

Ordinary people, seeing the tepid condemnation of - and sometimes the appalling enthusiasm for - 9/11 from the Islamic world, were shocked. But they were doubly shocked to find the extremes of America's own Left gleeful about 9/11. Such ordinary people at last saw the face of the Enemy, and were repelled. They said, for the first time in a long time, "The time for listening and tolerance and infinite acceptance of different points of view is over. Decide: You are with us or with the terrorists." Here in Radical Islam, at last, was something that could be unequivocally condemned and in the heroism and justice of America's cause in this war something that could be unequivocally loved.

All this is to the good. But as Luther points out, drunken men can fall off horses on both left and right. The first tentative steps toward regaining moral clarity in American public discourse - good as they are - are not a foregone success. There does remain the danger that, in our newfound love of country, Americans will go to the opposite extreme to embrace moral absolutism that can tolerate no criticism.

All one need do is turn on the radio or log onto the Internet. Shouting matches regularly break out when somebody makes some mild observation to the effect that American culture is not an unalloyed good, or that American foreign policy has not always been the best. On more occasions than I can count, I have seen such observations shouted down by angry people saying, in effect, that if you are critical of America in any way, you are siding with the terrorists.

From an emotional point of view, this is readily understandable. I too am tired of the routine suggestions that we have to look for the "root causes" of 9/11. I, for one, am not interested in root causes of 9/11 any more than I'm interested in whether Hitler's mom was mean to him. There is no root cause that can make either the Holocaust or 9/11 justifiable or understandable. There is simply an evil there that has to be stamped out. But to say this is not to say that there is no Islamic critique of the West worth hearing. Paradoxically, it is precisely as a Westerner, an American, a Christian and, indeed, a Catholic that I think there are Islamic critiques of the West which we, as Western, American, Christian Catholics share. For the fact is that the Islamic world shares with John Paul II some strong misgivings about our drive to export the culture of hedonism, contraception, consumerism, and the cult of self to the world. It is why the Pope allied so easily and readily with Muslims when the Cairo Conference attempted to send a message to the Third World that P.J. O'Rourke so nicely summarized as "Just enough of us. Way too much of you." This critique of the Culture of Death is sound, and Islam - for all its many faults - sees this clearly, whatever else it doesn't see. Similarly, it is the West that is laboring to accomplish the monumental evil of cloning human beings. To call this evil is not to "side with the terrorists." It is rather to obey the task of good people anywhere: to tell the truth.

It is not an act of moral equivalence to say that we do evil but that bin Laden poses an even greater threat. Rather, it is to call us to fight evil within as well as without. That is why Christian theology always begins with repentance. But true repentance always faces two threats.

The first threat is the devil's parody of penance: accusation. The Left excels in palming off accusation as the conviction of the Holy Spirit (or at least it did till 9/11). Now it is rather easier to see that what the Left puts forward as "loving criticism" is typically simply hatred of what is Christian, Western, and American. Americans, snapping out of it, have to a large degree simply rejected this. But now the danger is the opposite: in rejecting hatred toward us masked as healthy and loving criticism, it is quite possible we will reject the healthy spirit of penance that is at the root of Christian culture. If we do that and embrace the silly notion of "My country right or wrong," we shall, as Chesterton points out, be as foolish as those who say, "My mother, drunk or sober."

As any faithful Christian recognizes, America has much to blush about and repent of. It does not follow that she has no right to prosecute this war. It does not follow that we "deserved" 9/11. It does not follow that we are the moral equivalents of the people we fight. But neither does it follow that in prosecuting the war against evil abroad we should ignore the war against evil at home.

To criticize America with the mind of the Christ is a duty of every American Christian. But, since 9/11, many more Christians and many Americans now recognize that all such criticism should be done with reverence and gratitude for the truly great country this is.

America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
confirm thy soul in self-control,
thy liberty in law.

Copyright 2002 - Mark P. Shea