I saw one of those shadowy figures of evil on television a few weeks ago. A false and anti-Messiah figure named Osama bin Laden reached out from the desert of Afghanistan to offer a few more vague threats. And then he said something with the ring of profundity. “The winds of change are blowing,” he said.

A few nights ago my 3-year-old son came tearful to our bed and snuggled in next to me. “Daddy, the wind is blowing,” he said by way of explanation. And yes, it was blowing up a gale on our hill. Obviously a major weather change on its way–rain, cold, or perhaps a chilling early snow.

And I think something analogous is blowing in world events. There is a certain blustery instability in the wake of September 11 that bears watching as we reach for coat and gloves.

It’s great to see the flag flying. In the ambivalence of the Vietnam era I still remember, it was too often burned and sat upon. A retired neighbor on my street comes out early every morning to raise his neatly folded flag up a large pole in the front yard. And he is dutiful in returning at sunset to lower it for the day.

But I have too much of a memory of other recent events in our world not to be troubled by some of the flag waving. As I drive to work I am often surrounded by pickups and SUVs adorned by huge flags taut in the breeze of their haste. Some pickups have several flags on poles planted in their sides. I can’t help being unnerved at the similarity to scenes in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Beirut—places where revved-up irregulars in pickups raced through the streets in search of an enemy. I have learned to respect quiet patriotism, and fear the bravado of nationalism as an end in itself.

We are, and have always been, in a battle with anti-democratic, evil forces who would sully our freedoms. What is new to this generation, it seems, is a lack of clarity about the real issues at stake. Security and survival seem to have become ends in themselves. We seem to have—for the moment, at least—forgotten that these blessed states have flowed from the principles of our still-new and egalitarian system. We seem to have forgotten that the German Third Reich of Hitler and the “evil empire” of the U.S.S.R. flourished on promises of security to their favored sons.

What surprised me and many other commentators of freedom was not that the so-called U.S.A. Patriot Act (107th Congress Bill Number H.R.3162) passed, but that it passed almost without democratic discussion. When the administration first presented the shopping list that led to the act, one legislator commented that many of the articles had long been on the wish list of those wanting to limit individual rights. His cautions were clearly not contagious, because the measures pretty much passed as presented, with only a four-year sunset clause to allow for relief. Very telling was the comment of a Congressman who voted against the Patriot Bill: “Where does that leave me?” he asked, feeling his patriotism was somehow questioned.

Others have neatly enumerated the dangers inherent in the vastly expanded government powers to intrude into personal affairs, to search homes clandestinely, to detain permanent residents without charge, and in general to unleash things we have not seen since the days of McCarthy and Hoover. Some of the critics have been a little too loath to allow for very real government frustration in dealing with international agents of terrorism who utilize all the tools of our modern world to escape detection. And like it or not, all war situations create compromises with freedom (of course, to raise a constitutional point, the U.S. has not actually declared war, even if we are truly in that state). But where the enemy is within and covert, these compromises become dangerous because they can so easily lead to pogroms of any new enemy the state apparatus may identify within the population.

Religion is a powerful force for good when applied in the spirit of faith. A dangerous element when subverted in the way that the al Qaeda network has demonstrated. I do see a troubling disconnect in the national analysis of the religious basis of the new struggle. Ignorant of the subtleties of religion, many have come to see the danger as one of religious extremists, rather than religious hijackers of the icons of faith. And under the rubric of our need to remain tolerant of other faiths we are rapidly drifting toward a point where all religion is allowed, but only in a benign, recessive form.

We are in danger of treating any activist religion as a threat—and the Patriot Act will work as well there as its original target, I’m afraid. Taking one of those salutary lessons of history, it is worth noting the mechanisms used against religious groups and individuals in the U.S.S.R. Contrary to most public reports, it was mostly the activist elements of religion that were targeted, by an array of conventional state weapons like zoning, educational requirements, and residency permits. This was enabled because religious “activity” was seen as a threat to state security.

In the aftermath of September 11 the good mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani, observed to a UN audience that after meeting with the faithful at synagogues, mosques, churches, and cathedrals, “I would say to myself, . . . ‘I know we’re getting through to the same God.’” He meant well, but if that is the accepted way to see religious activity, we are in for troublous times. The Bible warns against a mingling of religions—our word would be “syncretistic” worship. Almost by definition a publically syncretistic religion will react badly to independent action by any faith group. A case in point here might be the “war” that recently erupted between the Vatican and China over that country’s control of all religion under the blending actions of the Three-Self Movement. I pray that our nation will have the polity to maintain its constitutionally mandated allowance for all religions to operate freely, without favoring any.

Religion gains its power through an inner observance of divine principles. Just so, curiously, these United States have gained and exercised power through the moral power of founding principles. Compromise plays badly in both religion and state

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."