Off With Their Heads

The late Christopher Hitchens got a lot of mileage out of laying blame for most of the world's atrocities at the door of religion. I know he expected to vanish into the cosmos at death, but recent images out of Iraq would surely conjure up more of his ire if nothing else. It does seem as if violent religion has escaped from rationality yet again. After all, how can we explain the YouTube beheading of an American journalist, likely performed by an English citizen? How can we see anything but sickness in the crucifixion of Christians and others by jihadist warriors?

I have some serious differences with the easy caricature of religion that Hitchens would bellow at cowed defenders of the faith during his many debates. But the ISIS phenomenon does put into serious question the comforting notion held by some kindly souls that all one needs to do in dealing with dangerous religious expression is to find the moderates. Most religions have a word for moderates when their faith is under stress and it is usually a word having to do with apostasy, not true belief. I notice that the ISIS activists call moderate or non-supporting Moslems “hypocrites.” After all, most faiths require wholehearted compliance. The gods are seldom satisfied with part-time worshippers.

It was not immediately obvious in the panicked days after 9/11 but an entire faith community is stirring globally. At first the problem was characterized as a small band of fanatical terrorists who were alien to Islam. Then the language shifted to dismissing the growing opposition to state intervention as “dead-enders.” And while we still try to split hairs between the different fundamentalist factions that battle Assad in Syria and trouble the globe from Indonesia to Nigeria it is time to acknowledge this for a phenomenon of religion; not just terrorism or political agitation.

After the religious awakening in Europe that characterized what we know as the Reformation, the resulting religious rivalries and political tensions that accompanied them erupted into what was known as the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Before that time the Western Christian world lived through a long period when Roman Catholicism was not only the monolithic religious force, but also exercised sovereignty over secular rulers as the inheritor of the Roman imperial power. Closer to the Reformation this religio-political union attempted to reinvent itself as the Holy Roman Empire.

While it can be horribly misleading to simplistically match one era with another, I think it not totally unwarranted to see this religio-political Christian power as the functional equivalent to the glory days of Islam under the Caliphate last based in Turkey. When this “Christian Caliphate” was threatened by the Reformation, the resulting war was long and bitter. While our modern wars have killed tens of millions, the devastation of the Thirty Years War was extreme. Armies denuded the landscape. Famine and disease ravaged the populations of Germany, the Italian States, Bohemia and the Low Countries, and a number of nations were bankrupted.

Something interesting came out the Thirty Years War. Yes, the integrity of Lutheranism was guaranteed. But it was also a victory that enabled the flowering of faith in the Christian west and led to many other Protestant movements, and not unsurprisingly to a serious reexamination of itself by the Roman Catholic Church. The aggressive counter-Reformation ordered by the Council of Trent (1545-63) slowly gave way to a more real politic approach to the new world order that finally resulted in the reforms of Vatican II; which came to grips with the separation of church and state and a need to respect the sovereign rights of the individual to choose his or her own spiritual identity.

But what especially came out of the Treaty of Westphalia was a new political order, based on the concept of a sovereign state. This has been seen as the precursor to our modern international law. And if you have been watching TV of late you will have noticed that ISIS (Islamic Caliphate of Iraq and Syria—or more accurately the Levant/eastern Mediterranean) spreads across several states and various representatives have stated that they will swallow up Turkey and beyond till its flag flies over Washington D.C.!! Their yearning for the global Caliphate is not only real but hardly shrinks from the absolutist religious control this predicates.

That Washington scenario seems very unlikely unless we start allowing Sharia law enclaves in our Levant. More likely is a new Thirty Years War within Islam and with the Christian West. Past Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, of the “unknown unknowns,” once said the war on terror would last a lifetime. He was probably right.

What is at play within the Middle East and soon the entire world is the old Gordian knot of religious sovereignty. Is the individual free to choose his or her own faith? Is a religious power free to mandate the behavior of a secular state? Is there such a thing as a state free of religious controls? And does a state have the right of sovereignty; and a right to be free from outside interference—even in the name of law and order, or in matters of religious behavior?

Religious freedom has never been more needed than now. The fleeing columns of Christian refugees attest to its lack. The butchered worshippers at a Shiite Mosque should have had safety if there were true religious freedom. The matter as always is Will we allow personal faith to flourish? Will we resist those who would compel their faith view? Will we guard the sovereign lines of demarcation between church and state. If not, the age-old Caliphate might just be driving down our highway.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."