Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Person and Leadership

This afternoon we learned that Mark Sanford, Republican governor of South Carolina and married father of four, took off over Fathers Day weekend to spend some time with his paramour in Argentina. It's unfortunate, because he was one of the more interesting up-and-coming conservatives who might run for President (though honestly, I always doubted his connection with the cultural side of conservatism -- the most important). But it is also an interesting case in point on the relationship between persons and leadership.

Over at National Review Online, ever more libertarian and neo-con than conservative, the conversation is ranging between two poles. Some are saying, gosh, who cares. We shouldn't worry about the personal lives of politicians. (Interestingly, this is often followed by, "and they shouldn't worry about ours": pure libertarianism, the very negation of conservatism.) Of course, even these people admit that Sanford's disappearing for five days with no contact information while he's supposed to be governing a state is probably disqualifying for higher office. But the initial argument stands: why do we care about a politician's personal life?

To which others at National Review respond (predictably echoing their editorial preference during last year's presidential primary), if we want squeaky-clean politicians, then go Mitt!

Both arguments show how far National Review has fallen from true conservatism. More on that another time: this post is about the importance of the personal, not National Review.

Personal things matter in our politicians for two reasons. First, as a measure of the man we are putting in charge of office. This event reveals a lot about Mark Sanford. Above all, that he is a creep: and we can expect that to inform his judgment on various issues. We can't determine everything about a leader based on his answers on an issues questionaire, both because politicians aren't always entirely forthcoming, and because we never know what issues will come up.

When George Bush was first elected, we had no idea there would be a terrorist attack; no idea when Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist would die and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor would step down, or who was available to replace them, or who would not step down, or what issues would be on the table; no idea what developments there would be in biotech, or in the development of the gay marriage debate; no idea that he would have majorities in both Houses of Congress, then lose them both in 2006 -- etc.

We use every datum we have to judge what kind of person we are considering for election, and whether we can trust their judgment. Will they be true to their promises? (Most politicians aren't: but in what ways?) What will be their priorities, and how hard and effectively will they work to advance them? And how does what we know extrapolate to all the issues that we haven't even considered yet? We do learn a lot about a guy when we find out he's flying to Argentina to ditch his wife and four school-aged children. We learn about his values and his character. Why should we ignore that information?

The other significant aspect of such lessons is not about how a leader will behave, but what he says about our nation. A president fooling around with interns in the Oval Office is not just unprofessional, it's gross. Symbols matter. It's not surprising that some of the people who say we shouldn't care about a politician's personal life also say we shouldn't care about our own. The kind of men we elect is a profound statement about how we think of ourselves as a nation. To elect someone who is personally corrupt is a very strong statement of moral relativism. It's not surprising that libertarians are okay with that -- but conservatives are not, cannot be.

And this figure-head aspect effects not only our own culture, but the culture of other countries as well. To send a philanderer to speak to the Muslim world, for example, does send a message about what kind of values back up our foreign policy. Muslims are rightly suspect of a country that so often presents itself as anti-moral. And people in socially liberal countries in Europe take the measure of our country based on the people we choose to represent us. Do we want to be a nation of perverts, or a nation of high moral values? What do we want to promote in the world? Those are of course matters of political debate. But there should be no question where conservatives stand in such debates.

So the morals of our leaders matters both with regard to their personal competence and their symbolic value. But unfortunately, this cuts against "squeaky-clean Mitt Romney," too. On a symbolic level, Christians are uncomfortable with electing a Mormon president. Why? Because it suggests a moral equivalence between Christianity and this made-up, anti-Trinitarian (honestly, anti-theistic), anti-Biblical religion. We would rather have a bad Christian than someone who is not a Christian at all -- because we believe this is a Christian nation, and we believe that matters.

It matters, not as a matter of intolerance -- such that we would drive Mormons, Muslims, and other non-Christians out of the country -- but, among other things, precisely as the reason for our tolerance. We believe we are tolerant because we are Christians. It's clear that many in the "conservative" press don't understand that argument. But for many Christians and conservatives, Christianity does actually matter, also on a social and political level.

Romney's Mormonism also cuts against him as a suggestion of his character. Mormonism is a perfectly respectable way to live one's life: clean, family-oriented, neighborly. Those are good things. But on a theological and philosophical level, Mormonism is loony. Is that judgmental? Of course it is. (Again: to say that people should not be judgmental about philosophical positions is a profound statement of philosophical and theological relativism. That relativism is central to American liberalism -- but it is antithetical to conservatism.) To live by a nonsensical religion says something about a person's philosophical coherence.

As neighbors, even as friends, fine. I know some perfectly lovely Mormons. But at the helm of my country, I want someone who is a clear thinker, especially in matters of philosophy. There are a lot of issues in politics that require much more sophisticated thinking than does running a bank. I'd love to have Mitt Romney as my banker -- or, perhaps, my Treasury Secretary. But thinking through matters of Constitutional Law, or foreign policy, or even tax policy? It makes me nervous.

Ultimately, all the issues questionaires are just one more contribution to the fundamental question for a democracy: what kind of man are we thinking about electing? The personal is not irrelevant. It is the most important of all.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Liberalism and the Pro-Life Movement

This post is going to be critical of the recently deceased Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (priest of the Archdiocese of New York, best known for founding and editing First Things), so let me begin by saying: Fr. Neuhaus was a great man. He did an awful lot to help me understand conservatism and the connections between faith and politics -- in fact, between faith and all of life. He is responsible for all sorts of conversions of all sorts of people in all sorts of directions. And he was one of the most cultured voices of our time (which, unfortunately, is kind of a back-handed compliment). That said . . .

Fr. Neuhaus used to describe his movement from the Democratic Party of the 1960's to the Republican Party almost entirely in terms of abortion. As far as I can tell, he wasn't all that interested in economics, and though he had sympathies with and friends in the so-called "neo-conservative" (really, neo-Wilsonian) camp on foreign policy, I don't think he was that interested in foreign policy, either. Perhaps it would be fair to say that he was firmly agnostic about issues of foreign policy and economics, but very committed to what is now known as "conservatism" in social issues, and therefore thought there was no good reason to vote for the pro-choice party against the pro-life one. You might say he was a single-issue voter -- and one of the most eloquent voices for that position.

Before criticizing part of his argument, let me say that there is much to be said for this calculus. I am a convinced free-market economic conservative, but I must admit: the cultural issues are much more black and white. And we might say that making cultural issues (especially life and marriage) our "single issue" is not about dismissing the importance of other issues so much as dismissing the clarity of them. A politician who holds tight to murky economic and foreign-policy theories -- Keynsianism, pacificism, Wilsonianism, or whatever -- but can't see the gross injustice of murdering the unborn . . . well, I would not entrust that moral compass with babysitting my children, let alone running my country. Whatever may be going on in Ted Kennedy's heart . . . gosh, do you really want someone that screwed up to run your country? So I'm with Fr. Neuhaus so far.

But here's the critique. Fr. Neuhaus always (and frequently!) described the pro-life movement as just the next-step in civil rights. 1960's liberalism, he claimed, was about "expanding the circle of inclusion." First we recognize that blacks are people too, and deserve full respect, then we recognize that even the tiny unborn are people, and we extend the protection of law to include them, too. As Fr. Neuhaus sees it -- and I think a lot of other people see it this way too, even stripes of conservative Catholics who don't generally like Fr. Neuhaus -- opposing abortion is just about extending legal protection to ever broader circles of human persons.

A Critique
The first tip-off to what's wrong with this approach is historical. The civil rights movement was about universal suffrage, the right to vote. That idea was only dimly conceived even at the founding of the United States. Even the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, passed in 1868 to enforce the gains of the Civil War, did not demand that blacks be allowed to vote. It guarantees that due process of law will proceed any deprivation of "life, liberty, or property" (which are, by the way, called "privileges," not "rights"); it guarantees "the equal protection of the laws" -- but when it comes to voting, it just says that if a State deprives any class ("of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens" ) of "the right to vote," then the State will proportionately lose representation in Congress.

Another amendment, number Fifteen, was required to give suffrage to all (male citizens of the right age), regardless of race "or color." (Apparently the two words did not have the same meaning.) This was in the revolutionary fervor of 1870. But it is remarkable that, for all the power of the Fourteenth Amendment, it clearly did not extend universal suffrage.

Abortion, on the other hand, has been considered grossly immoral since the beginning of Christian civilization, including documents from the first and second centuries. (I can speak, perhaps, as the world expert on an issue of particular interest: Joe Biden noted some peculiarities in Thomas Aquinas's embryology, and on the technical question of why exactly abortion is wrong -- but Thomas nonetheless held that early abortion was "lustful cruelty or cruel lust;" those who commit very early abortions "directly will the death of their own child, even before it lives;" and thus they are rightly called, among other things, fornicators, prostitutes, or adulterers. And that is only for very early abortions: about forty days in -- not half way through the first trimester -- abortion becomes full blown murder, says St. Thomas. Sorry Mr. Vice President, not a partial-birth pro-choice ally.)

So here's the problem for Fr. Neuhaus's narrative: Christians have always, from the very beginning, opposed abortion, but the notion of univeral suffrage, civil rights of any kind, or even the wrongness of slavery are distinctly modern -- in some sense, even post-Christian, and certainly do not originate in the Catholic Church. All to say, we don't need to talk about "expanding the circle of inclusion" in order to explain why abortion is wrong.

If we believe (as Catholics do, though many Protestants don't) that the most important moral issues are included in the Deposit of Faith, given once for all by Our Lord himself, and maintained always by his Church, we have to conclude that abortion -- and, yes, marriage, and the right of parents to educate their own children -- are issues of a wholly different order, far more black-and-white than anything (except lynching) in the Civil Rights movement.

Similarly if we believe (as the Greeks did, and most of the Christian tradition), that moral truth is discovered by the insight of upright people, not by any kind of progressive "science," then there's no reason to think that new moral issues would be discovered only in the 20th century. Good people have always known right and wrong; Civil Rights is just a different kind of issue.

That's not to say, of course, that I oppose giving blacks the vote. I am very much in favor! Just to say, these are not part of the same story. The pro-life "movement" does not take its origin in the march to civil rights.

Indeed, the greater problem here is the very notion of a "march," or progress.

It is often noted -- especially by people like Fr. Neuhaus -- that the word "liberalism" has gone through at least three very distinct, seemingly contradictory phases. In the nineteenth century (and still, in some Eur0pean discourses) "liberalism" went with what we now call the Free Market. Liberals were laissez-faire in economics.

But by the time of Presidents Wilson and FDR, the word was reappropriated (apparently) by the very opposite movement: liberalism came to mean economic progressivism, government entering in to redistribute wealth and protect the poor through vigorous regulation.

And then about the time Nixon was clobbering George McGovern, in 1972, liberalism "suddenly" stopped being interested in the intense moralism of the FDR-LBJ years, and suddenly latched on to Woodstock, sexual libertinism, and all that.

How confusing! Fr. Neuhaus showed little interest in the 19th century incarnation, but was quite chagrined that the great social concern of mid-20th century liberalism had given way to the libertinism of late-20th century Democrat politics. Can't we just resurrect LBJ, and his march of individual rights?

Well, what Fr. Neuhaus's narrative fails to see is the driving coherence of liberalism through all three stages. Liberalism originally -- and still -- fundamentally means Progress, "liberty" from ancient prejudice. Conservatism is a very good name for the opposite of liberalism -- whatever it is that conservatives want to conserve (and that's a story for another day), they "stand athwart history yelling stop!" in the famous opening slogan of National Review. The fundamental disagreement is whether human history is fundamentally about progress or . . . not.

19th-century liberals originally thought that the free economy would be the best way to subvert the traditional order, disengage from traditional morality, and religion, and aesthetics, and move on to the New Age. That's ironic, because in the late-18th century Adam Smith and Edmund Burke had already been arguing precisely the opposite -- but this is a post about liberalism, not conservatism. In any case, late in the 19th century, the liberals -- that is, those who wanted to overthrow the old order -- shifted from the free market to the State economy. They could do this because liberalism was never about economics. It was about social change. That included some things we find good -- like the abolition of slavery, maybe universal suffrage (I'll discuss that another time), etc. -- but it also included the race to contraception and abortion (from early on!), the elimination of Christianity, etc.

Of course, many Christians came along for the ride. I know nothing about the thinking of Woodrow Wilson and FDR as men, though reliable sources claim they would be appalled at the crazies surrounding George McGovern. But look at the role of the Catholic Church. When the New Deal came along, the Church saw it as a way of caring for the poor. In that sense, it was not "liberal" at all: the Church has always believed in the obligation for the rich to take care of the poor.

For a couple decades -- roughly 1952-1968? -- liberalism's primary aim was "racial" justice: more social than economic. The Church's embrace of this movement involved idealism, to be sure: the Church has always taught that human nature is independent of skin color. In fact, for Thomas Aquinas, skin color, black or white, is one of his favorite examples of something "accidental," something that doesn't touch one's essential nature. He used it, not because skin color was a big issue in his day, but because it wasn't: medievals wouldn't think of depriving someone of the protection of law on account of skin color. It just wouldn't occur to them.

(The race issue did appear in the 16th century, when Spanish colonists debated whether American Indians had souls. But it is important to note that this debate pitted Thomists and the papacy, who were both militant defenders of the humanity of the Indians, against the nationalist and economic goals of the Spanish crown: tradition stood on the side of the Indians. Which is why even Foucault could say that racism is a distinctly modern phenomenon, only really taking off in the 19th century.)

So the Church's horse in the Civil Rights Movement was not liberal but conservative: they were fighting for a return to Christian civilization. And thus they sided with the liberals, who had distinctly different goals. But we have to be clear: very few people outside the Catholic Church -- and, honestly, not even that many people within the Catholic Church -- viewed this as tradition against modernity. For the majority, Civil Rights was about progress: liberalism.

(The states rights issue is distinct, but I can't get into that here.)

And, it really has to be said, Church leaders have always played Realpolitik, usually badly. There was idealism in Catholic support for the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movement -- but there was also cynicism. Catholics supported economic justice: but in this country, they also took the side of the poor because they were poor. In the 1930s, Catholics were still a distinctly foreign, lower-class, labor population. And like many, they sided with the New Deal not just because they thought it was Right, but because they thought it was good for Number One. (I just heard a lecture about the biography of Fr. John Ryan, Catholic chaplain of the New Deal. Not exactly objective.)

A similar thing happened in the Civil Rights Movement. There was idealism, to be sure. But there was also positioning. On the one hand, Catholics weren't particularly conservative when it came to the United States. Although I think we've come to realize how good the US model is for the Catholic Church, the country has anti-Catholicism deep in its roots, from the religious establishments of the 18th century to the Know Nothings and public-school movements of the 19th century to the anti-immigration push throughout the 20th century. Subverting the old order seemed like a good thing -- kind of like President Bush ousted Saddam Hussein, figuring we must be able to do better than that guy. This kind of Catholic "liberalism" wasn't exactly idealistic: it just hoped it would come out ahead.

On the other hand, Catholics were also trying to become mainstream, and the Civil Rights Movement seemed like a good horse to ride into town. In 1928, Catholic Presidential candidate Al Smith was treated to burning crosses and electoral disaster. In 1960, JFK eked out a victory. World War II had provided a great way for Catholics to show that they were good Americans, too -- so after the war, Catholic leaders jumped on any bandwagon they could find, hoping to gain cultural tolerance. Again, this isn't exactly idealistic. It's more parallel to all the times in the middle ages when the Church sided with one king against another because they hoped to advance their own cause -- or to the Church's Ostpolitik in the mid-20th century, which agreed to be quiet about the evils of Communism, not out of any philosophical seriousness, but because they feared a Reagan/John Paul kind of opposition would result in reprisals. (It didn't.)

Of course, Father Neuhaus wasn't a Catholic when he was marching alongside Martin Luther King. But there was probably something of the same thinking. On the one hand, he honestly believed that racism was contrary to the Bible -- and thus, however poorly Fr. Neuhaus may describe his own thinking, it was conservative, not liberal, pushing for a restoration of ancient values, not "progress." And on the other hand, he wanted to hook Christianity's wagon to the best horse, and he thought this was a good way to make Christianity popular. More on that in a minute.

But we shouldn't be surprised that liberalism turned on us. Church Realpolitik is perennially unsuccessful. (In Catholic doctrine, infallibity extends only to faith and morals -- not to politics.) Marching alongside Fr. Neuhaus and other Christian Civil Rights folk were people who saw this as the latest battle in the March of History, the newest progress, yet another way to overthrow the Ancien Regime. When you look at it, I think it's intuitively obvious: LBJ's "Great Society" was not about perennial values, it was about progress. The youth of the '60s rose, not to work with their parents, but to overthrow them. They yearned for a new age. For Richard John Neuhaus and some people like him, Selma and Woodstock were polar opposites -- but for an awful lot of people, it was all part of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

It was all part of liberalism: a belief in unbridled progress, a belief that history moves from darkness to light. And in that project, the fact that marriage, parenthood, and the sanctity of life are ancient values is precisely an argument against them. To a true liberal, calling monogamous marriage "traditional" is argument enough for its abolition. Forward to a new age! At the very least, people infected with liberalism see no reason for deference to what is old.

Today's Pro-Life Movement
Today, the pro-life movement is crippled by the same mistakes as the mid-century Church. Fr. Neuhaus claims that opposing abortion is part of the march for Civil Rights, expanding the circle of inclusion. And the pro-life movement has swallowed that argument, hook, line, and sinker. We speak of abortion as a matter of individual rights.

This is, of course, utterly untraditional language -- because the tradition has never viewed persons primarily as Individuals, nor does it speak of people primarily in terms of "rights." Rights is a category of modern political discourse. It has a place in highly technical documents like the US Constitution. But traditional morality is about obligations, debts -- and relationships, not Individuals.

To speak of abortion as a matter of individual rights is also (I hate to say it) absurd -- because motherhood is not an individual thing. As long as the baby is in utero, those two individuals are inseparable; you can't pit one "person's" rights against the other's. "Leave that baby alone" is a ridiculous thing to say to the person whose womb it is inhabiting.

Why does the pro-life movement insist that abortion is a matter of individual rights? Perhaps because, like the mid-century Church, it thinks it can jump on the bandwagon of liberalism and seem less old fashioned. Oddly enough, we could criticize those old ladies holding up pictures of aborted fetuses for trying too hard to be liked. Opposing abortion is not like sticking up for the Tibetans -- or marching at Selma. It's not a matter of sticking up for the voiceless and powerless against the mean and powerful. (Though the abortion industry is mean and powerful.)

Because, above all, opposing abortion is not about the forward march of individual rights. It is, quite the contrary, a matter of standing athwart history yelling "stop!" It is a matter of voicing the timeless truth -- timeless, because written in Nature itself -- that mothers are inseparable from their babies, women inseparable from their motherhood, the person inseparable from her body. Abortion is violence against women.

Does it match liberal rhetoric to say we should prevent people from doing themselves harm? No. Is it dashingly modern to say that women should be bound by childbearing? No. Is it cutting edge to say that some things are just wrong? Of course not.

But what the pro-life movement has to realize -- what the Church has to realize -- is that we're not liberals. We're not about progress. There are places for progress: sewage, transportation, communication. But morality is not a place for progress: because human nature is always the same; because moderns are no more moral than the ancients; because the Deposit of Faith is once for all.

And we have to realize that we have something worth buying. What is ancient, traditional, perennial, and eternal is actually pretty attractive. We stand on the street corners shouting that we're the next great thing in Liberal Progress and Individual Rights, and we might even convince ourselves (as I think Fr. Neuhaus did), but ultimately, the reason people are pro-life is because they realize that abortion is not a matter of one person against another, but that it's just plain wrong, contrary to Nature, contrary to a woman's nature. It's not woman vs. baby. It's the abortionist against both.

And you know, I think people are interested in hearing perennial truths. Nature is actually a pretty attractive idea. We don't need to be liberals to win elections, or hearts.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Islam and Enlightenment

The history of Islam's relationship to scholarship is an odd one -- with something to teach us about the West.

Islam and Scholarship: A Brief History
The oddity is this. In the middle ages, the Islamic world was a fountain of scholarship. Indeed, the great European renaissance of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, indeed, the birth of the university, though supported by numerous cultural and economic developments in Europe, took almost all of its intellectual inspiration from the reconquest of Muslim Spain. In Spain they found the works of the great philosophers Averroes (the Latinized form of ibn-Rushd, d. 1198) and Avicenna (ibn-Sina, d. 1037), who had kept alive the philosophy of Aristotle when he was totally lost to Europe. In fact, the first texts of Aristotle to reach medieval Europe -- the original stimulus for all subsequent intellectual development in the West -- were translated not from Greek but from Arabic.

Averroes and Avicenna, along with other greats like al-Ghazali (d. 1111), al-Farabi (d. 951), and many more, were the greatest philosophers of their time. And they came from the far reaches of the Muslim Empire: Avicenna, al-Ghazali, and al-Farabi were in Persia (modern-day Iran), while Averroes was in Cordoba (modern-day Spain). This period of the Muslim Empire also oversaw some great non-Muslim scholars, most notably the Jewish philosopher Maimonides (d. 1204), who was born in Cordoba, died in Egypt, and contributed enormously to the progress of philosophy throughout the Western world.

Yet within a few centuries, Muslim scholarship was dead. By the time of the 15th- and 16th-century Renaissance in Europe, scholars were fleeing the Islamic world; indeed, Muslim immigrants to Europe were a great stimulus to that flowering of letters and culture. Since that time, Europe has pulled far ahead of Islam, at least in political philosophy, economics, science, and technology, and arguably in art, literature, and philosophy.

The standard explanation for this decline in Muslim scholarship is that the religious authorities clamped down on philosophers when the philosophers started discussing political things, because Islam demands total control of the political realm. I think we can take that a step further.

The Nature of Islam
Theologically, Islam is defined above all by a radical monotheism, undergirded by a vigorous denial of any "association" with God. God is to be totally separated from creation, totally exalted. Islam rejects the Trinity as a kind of polytheism; they also reject the Incarnation as bringing God into too much contact with the world. God is not to be "associated" in any way with worldly things.

Thus the first pillar of Islam is the simple confession, "there is no God but God," and Islamic art, beautiful as it is, is confined to only calligraphy: no images, lest we associate anything with God. (Protestantism, of course, took up this same kind of anti-image anti-associationism; but Judaism and pre-1517 Christianity insisted, to the contrary, on God's connection to earthly realities, proclaimed specifically through the proper use of cultic materials, sacred spaces, and imagery.)

The word Islam (and its participial form, Muslim) means "submission" -- but this is only a correlate to the doctrine of God's absolute supremacy. The Muslim accepts and bows before God's absolute sovereignty. The other four "pillars" of Sunni Islam (only slightly modified in Shi'a Islam) are all aspects of submission. First, the five times of prayer, defined not by what is prayed but by the obligation to affirm God's sovereignty at each hinge of the day. Second, "alms-giving." Insofar as this is about giving to the poor, it is simply an affirmation of God's sovereignty over our material resources. But it is also an affirmation of the Muslim community, and is given for the spread of the religion as much as for the care of the poor. It is a sign that the Muslim is part of a political body -- more on that in a moment. Third, fasting. Unlike Christian fasting, which is fundamentally about the training of desires, this is simply a proclamation of Allah's lordship: thus it is accompanied by wild feasting after sunset. And fourth, the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, made once in a lifetime, to proclaim one's fidelity to the religion.

What is notable about these pillars is their externality. There are no Beatitudes in Islam (though there are small pockets of mystics). There is no virtuous transformation, no personal relationship with God. Islam is about God's sovereignty, not about friendship. And thus heaven is not a Beatific Vision, not an embrace with God, but simply acceptance into a happy place, marked by worldly delights: costly robes, bracelets, perfumes, exquisite banquets, strong drink (prohibited in this life), and yes, for men, carnal delights with untouched virgins.

Islam touches life in a different way from how Christianity and Judaism touch life. There is, of course, Sharia. But this governs public interactions, mostly relating to sex, politics, and property. It's not about personal transformation.

The Spread of Islam
Now, I think we can account for the rise and fall of Muslim scholarship based on the nature of Islam. Islam spread as it did -- conquering everything from France to India within a hundred years of the Prophet's death -- in part because it doesn't demand any internal transformation.

The Qur'an can never be translated: it is, in Muslim thinking, inherently an Arabic document. I think that's a good metaphor for Islam as a whole. Christianity demands inculturation -- translation -- and so Christianity conquered Rome from the inside out. Christianity brings every aspect of culture into contact with faith.

This makes it hard for Christians to raise armies. Though there certainly have been Christian armies, and various sorts of Crusades, they always run up against moral qualms. Within the bounds of Sharia, Islam has no fundamental problem with slaughter, rapine, etc. Christians have committed these crimes, but our religion prohibits them. Although most Muslims are not terrorists, it really isn't beyond the pale of Islamic theology to say that you can commit a horrible deed and then go to your eternal reward. That makes armies easier.

It also makes conquest easier. Christianity has to consolidate its gains, bring real conversion, of morals and manners and customs and ways of thinking. But once Islam has gained the upper hand, it can keep moving. The rejection of "association" fundamentally means that Islam doesn't care how people think, as long as they submit to the rule of Allah. It's an easy religion to convert to.

This explains the rapid spread of Islam, I think -- but it also explains the initial success of philosophers. In the first few centuries of Islam, philosophy flourished precisely because the religious authorities didn't care. Averroes, Avicenna, al-Farabi, al-Ghazali were able to pursue truth unfettered by religious demands, internal or external: their religion didn't really affect the way they thought, and the religious authorities didn't really care. This explains, also, the success of Maimonides: it really didn't bother the religious authorities if Maimonides wanted to pursue his quest for knowledge, so long as he paid his taxes and didn't cause revolution. Early Islam was a kind of paradise for philosophers, a place where they could be left alone to do their work.

But while Islam didn't threaten the philosophers, it also didn't support them. It's noteworthy that the great thinkers came from the borderlands: Cordoba (Spain) and Persia (Iran). On the one hand, these were the frontiers, the places where the authorities were a little less concerned with what the philosophers were doing. From the beginning, the heartland of Islam was a more rigid place, both because the authorities didn't have their attention focused on external concerns and because they were looking for ways to deepen Islam's hold on the local culture. Where Islam had time to consolidate its gains, philosophy suffered.

On the other hand, these were precisely the lands that weren't originally shaped by the Arabic, Muslim way of thinking. Cordoba was ancient Roman territory, thoroughly conquered by Christianity. Indeed, not a century before the Muslims came (711-718), it was home to St. Isidore of Seville (d. 636), one of the greatest scholars of the ancient world. We might say that Muslim philosophy in Spain was "coasting": the perdurance of something that predated the Islamic conquest.

The same could be said, of course, of Persia. Persia had been one of the greatest opponents of the Roman Empire -- indeed, the one civilization Rome could not conquer. It was a great crossroads of culture, keeping alive the splendors of ancient Greece, mixing them with those of China, and pursuing its own cultural greatness. Ultimately, the West rediscovered Plato and Aristotle only because they had never died in Persia. Muslim Persian scholarship continued because Islam left it alone -- indeed, it seems that Iran, despite its repressive government, retains one of the richest and most thoughtful cultures in the Islamic world.

But if Islam didn't threaten philosophy, it also didn't cultivate it. When strains of fundamentalism arise -- and they naturally do, for reasons both religious and political -- there is nothing to push back in affirmation of philosophy. Mostly, Islam leaves philosophy alone, but when, for one reason or another, it attacks the philosophers -- for being too politically active, for undermining the faith of the people, for befriending outsiders -- philosophy can only push back through non-Muslim means.

I am no expert on Iran, but I note that Iranian culture is divided among modernists, fundamentalists, and -- ready for this? -- "traditionalist humanists." What that means, I think, is that Iranian humanism, the strand in that society that supports art and culture and philosophy and science, takes its grounding in the long, pre-Muslim, Persian tradition. (Not unlike the 15th-century Renaissance in Italy harkened back to Ancient Rome as the fount of all human accomplishment.) But when Islam takes notice of such things, it is always a force against humanism.

The West
Now, I have written enough of an essay already, but at the end, I would like to add one plot twist, in order to make this say something about the West as well as Islam. I will assert: secularism is the Islam of Europe.

As early as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a battle waged in Europe between the humanists and the fundamentalists. When the texts of Aristotle came to Europe -- from the Muslim lands -- there was a strain of Christianity that was deeply threatened. Indeed, Aristotle's philosophy was condemned over and over at the University of Paris through the thirteenth century. (The repetitions are interesting because they prove that they were ignored: if the first had worked, there wouldn't have been need for a second.) The role of St. Thomas Aquinas -- the inspiration for this blog -- was to argue that Aristotle and Christianity were not opposed. But the battle raged furious between fundamentalists and philosophers.

The battle continued through the 15th- and 16th-century Renaissance. European art took off precisely where the Church lost its hold on culture. But be careful of what this means. In fact, Christianity was the source of culture. That's a big argument, but note that the great artists were depicting Christian scenes; that the vivid naturalism of European art has never been touched by a culture unendowed with Christianity's doctrine of Creation and Incarnation; that the European artistic project, both visual and musical, collapsed precisely as Christianity passed out of our culture. Modern "secular" art is hardly art at all: because it no longer exalts in creation. Johann Sebastian Bach exalted in creation: precisely because of his passionate love for the Creator.

Nonetheless, the Church needed to take its hands off the wheel to let the artists do their thing. Where the Gospel was preached, but art was allowed to flourish on its own terms: there was art. But where Churchmen painted over the works of artists -- and where the Gospel was no longer preached -- art failed.

It happened again with technology, and economics, and political philosophy. The American Constitution owes much to Christian philosophy. Indeed, without the doctrine of "Nature and Nature's God," human equality, which is anything but self-evident, would never -- and indeed, has never -- been given serious consideration. And, only to assert -- because really, I have another essay on my hands here -- the modern world was most creative, both technologically and economically, when creators were allowed to create, but inspired by a greater love.

Secularism is like Islam. It supports philosophy precisely to the extent that it leaves it alone. When Churchmen get too close a handle on things, humanism tends to suffocate. We get more worried about usury than about providing for the poor, more into having moral rules for everything than seeing human flourishing. And so secularism has been a force for good. We might even say that a nation like Victorian England was more "Catholic" than was 18th-century Italy, precisely because it allowed Christians to pursue their loves.

Yet like Islam, secularism turns to an intolerance that cannot handle humanism. It does not support humanism, and gives us only the ugly "art" of the Soviets. It does not support excellence. And at times, in its fundamentalist zeal, it turns on those who are too creative, crushing them under a weight of "equality" and "liberty" (and yes, "fraternity" and "the common good") that ultimately destroys the very things it claims to exalt.

There's something to be learned from the experience of Iran.