Not the catchiest of titles, but I use it for a reason. The historian Will Durant spent nearly 50 years writing The Story of Civilization. It put him in the company of such ambitious personal historians as Edward Gibbon and Winston Churchill. Like Churchill, Durant was able to stamp history with a well-reasoned, narrative style. Unlike Gibbon, who at times showed an antagonism to religion, Durant saw it as one of the major forces in history—and he was able to appreciate the best of the religious impulse. His method he called "integral history." For him, no force (such as religion), no person, no country, could be understood apart from the full context of history. He looked at the entire fabric of human events.
Of late it seems that the very fabric of world civilization is at the ripping point. Of late it seems that religion is out of control. Of late it seems that the structures of commerce and investment, so long taken for granted, are about to pancake down into mayhem. We don't hear as much from futurists as we used to; and there is a startlingly flat-earth mentality in the fulminations of those who would go back to a mythical past.
Only two decades on from Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man we know that his view of finished social development was naive. We seem loath to accept fully Samuel Huntington's premise in The Clash of Civilizations that "the fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future." Of course much of his premise is somewhat self-evident. Where many fear to go is his rather detailed analysis of the obvious and worsening conflict between Islam and Christianity. It is too unthinkably an existential conflict for most to even acknowledge.
Huntington looked at some of the factors leading to conflict between Christianity and Islam. Both are missionary religions that seek to grow by conversion. Both believe that only their faith is the correct one. And both hold that their values and beliefs relate to the purpose of human existence. Generally these points are valid—and have been so for centuries, of course.
Yes, I think it only too obvious that behind the "war on terrorism," behind the religious violence in both the Middle East and the middle West, is a historic retesting of faith communities.
And in some ways most of the world is in the process of regrouping into faith communities. The old isms and ideologies are passing into denatured irrelevance. Imperialism passed on early in the twentieth century. Communism essentially expired as the century came to an end. Democracy has had superficial success, but shown itself incapable of resisting popular mandates for extremism and despotism. Pure capitalism is not held in high esteem, especially after September 2008, and exists most strongly in hybridized forms like that found in China. Nationalism in the West has declined since World War II; died in the Middle East with Nasser; and lives on elsewhere in the rump form of North Korea and Myanmar. What we are left with is a rapidly coalescing world clumping of peoples defined by common "tribe" or religion markers. That does not bode well for religious harmony, but it is not quite the clash of civilizations. In some ways it is rather the redefining of civilizations.
Given that religion is more and more a default setting, we need to keep it in mind. We cannot presume to wage a war on terrorism and pretend that we are dealing with a few bad apples and that religion generally is not at play here. We cannot imagine that extremist stirrings in the desert of the Middle East are somehow a different thing than Christian militias organizing to take back America. And on the plus side, we should know that spiritual revitalization in Latin America and Africa is empowering people to live more humane lives, cope with the rapid changes of the twenty-first century, and build toward community.
In short, we need to see current trends and religious development in particular within the matrix of "integral developments" (to borrow from Will Durant). There are a myriad powerful forces working to push our world on to change and crisis—a myriad interconnecting tendrils of "future shock." We need to recognize that many of them are working in synchronicity.
We in the religious liberty field know that there have been innumerable moments of testing in the past. In fact, there are constant legal tests to even the most settled legal assumptions underlying our liberties. It is not lightly said that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. However, in the present global flux, religious liberty threats can approach quite near under cover of another issue entirely until it is almost too late.
Europe is wrestling with the demographic shock of mass people movements. This invokes a tribal defense. But many of the newcomers have a different faith as well, and aggressive religious intolerance breaks out on both fronts.
The Middle East is stirred by political aggression and an unwelcome modernity that seems to threaten the very cultural identity of the peoples in the region. It is no accident that the jihad from an age of religious expansion by the sword appeals to this cultural frustration. Religious self-determinism itself is threatened and internal religious feuds reignited.
The United States is itself suffering severe religious angst. There is an admirable attempt to maintain the constitutional mandate of religious freedom for all and a separation of church and state, or at least government neutrality toward religious powers. But that is hard to maintain on every front. Protestant America too easily sidles up to the church-state power that is the Vatican in a fight against the secularism that troubles all true believers—especially those who cherish the misconception that the United States was founded as some sort of religious colony. The net effect of this is a sea-change of thinking among people of faith toward any separation of church and state. And each public debate over things such as mosques in Nashville or prayer in schools or right to life only accelerates the move toward a religious formulation of what it means to be a true American. It may ultimately mean the repudiation of all the constitutional protections of religion other than those defined as "American." It does not at all seem legislatively imminent, but the "integral development" of events worldwide argues that it might be unless we specifically guard against it.
In the preface to Volume VI of his history entitled The Reformation, Will Durant wrote, "We begin by considering religion in general, its functions in the soul and the group and the conditions and problems of the Roman Catholic Church in the two centuries before Luther. . . . And, as we proceed, we shall note how social revolution, with communistic aspirations, marched hand-in-hand with religious revolt. We shall weakly echo Gibbon's chapter on the fall of Constantinople and shall perceive how the advance of the Turks to the gates of Vienna made it possible for one man to defy at once an emperor and a pope. We shall consider sympathetically the efforts of Erasmus for the peaceful self-return of the church. We shall study Germany on the eve of Luther and may thereby come to understand how inevitable he was when he came."
History has patterns, even if they do not exactly replicate. We are facing a similar dynamic, and may see a similar inevitability to sea changes in attitudes toward religious freedom—even in a land in which it has been enshrined in culture and law.
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."