After 9/11: Ups and Downs in the Public Square

"One Nation Under God" faculty panel, Westmont College, January 19, 2002

Our popular press is very fond of talking about how a particular event creates "winners" and "losers." A vivid example of this is an old Newsweek feature, "Conventional Wisdom Watch," that put little up-arrows and down-arrows next to household names. Last week, after the demise of Enron, such a chart would have a down-arrow next to "Bush Administration," and an up-arrow next to "Congressional Democrats." This week, there would be little sideways arrows next to both.

Now that's a pretty crass way to see the world, as just a big matrix of ups and downs, winners and losers. (And doing it weekly is just plain silly. A week is a blip, not a trend.) Furthermore, as a professor I'm supposed to be above all this. And as an untenured professor, I'm not supposed to touch it with a ten foot pole!

Yet I still think "conventional wisdom" is a helpful way to think about what I believe is an intellectual sea-change in our broader culture since September. I'm uncomfortable with talk of "winners" and "losers" after 9/11. September 11 has no winners. Instead, I want to assign arrows: Down-arrows to two ways of thinking that are weaker in the months after 9/11, and an up-arrow to a way of thinking that has emerged stronger.

The up-arrow goes to American-style democratic pluralism. "The American way" is stronger, more confident, and has racked up truly impressive successes at home and abroad. All those American flags symbolize a worldview that's on a roll. Caught in the updraft are pragmatism, interventionism, Enlightenment modernism, ethnic inclusivism, and libertarianism.

Down-arrow #1 goes to radical moral relativism. This didn't have the resources to respond persuasively, and sometimes even coherently, to the challenge. Suffering by association are anti-globalism, liberal pacifism (Tom Lehrer's "Folk Song Army"), postmodernism, and multiculturalism. Their sponsoring institutions have suffered too: Universities and colleges, advocacy groups, pessimistic editorial staffs, the United Nations, and so on.

Nevertheless, not suffering by association is what you might call moderate or pragmatic moral relativism. Instead, this is on the rise! To quote a release by the Barna Research Group:

People were asked if they believed that "there are moral truths that are absolute, meaning that those moral truths or principles do not change according to the circumstances" or that " moral truth always depends upon the situation, meaning that a person's moral and ethical decisions depend upon the circumstances." At the start of 2000, almost four out of ten adults (38%) said that there are absolute moral truths that do not change according to the circumstances. When the same question was asked [after the attacks], the result was that just two out of ten adults (22%) claimed to believe in the existence of absolute moral truth.1

I find that an astounding result. But when you think about it, it is consistent. What this means is that September 11's morality is being judged through the lens of American pragmatism rather than some other ethic (such as "You shall not murder"). The attacks are so counterproductive that they present little challenge to pragmatists. They look wrong even from the conviction that all moral truths (not just some) are situational. (Remember, Americans rely on pragmatism to justify Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and today's doctrine of nuclear deterrence. Pragmatism comes in handy in wartime.)

Down-arrow #2 goes to religious fundamentalism. This is usually considered directly responsible for the attacks themselves. Suffering by association are traditional Islam, Zionism, and conservative Christianity – any tradition that hasn't made its peace with pragmatic liberal pluralism. Americans have been shocked and repulsed by the popularity of militant Islamism, the depth of Muslim anti-Judaism, and the opportunism of Indian-Hindu, Israeli-Jewish, and American-Christian responses to militant Islam. These all looked too much like the attackers to be attractive. The public has gone out of its way to protect the rights of fundamentalists, but this hasn't translated into respect for fundamentalist ideas.

Other totalizing ideologies like Marxism would probably be guilty by association too, if anyone cared about them anymore.

Now lest I come across as smug, I want to remind you that I am a rather postmodern professor of Christian theology at what the public considers a fundamentalist Christian college. (The fact that insiders don't consider us fundamentalists is to outsiders hair-splitting.) On top of that, I have a past career in my family business, journalism. I am an object of many of these criticisms. If I didn't also have a politically conservative and libertarian streak, I'd be vulnerable from all sides!

So, is there a broader pattern here? The most widely persuasive response to 9/11 has come from the American center. The center-left and the center-right have both done well, because both affirm modern American democratic pluralism. By contrast, America's left and right wings have been clipped.

After 9/11, all these camps tried to reassert their ideologies. They offered the world their worldviews. And the West took one look at Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, at Noam Chomsky and Barbara Kingsolver and Ted Rall, and roundly refused their offers. Several publications and pundits began "idiocy watches" to ridicule the stupidest claims that were arising after 9/11. They featured material from across the political spectrum, often without comment, letting them discredit themselves.

In moments like these, you see the depth grammar of a culture. You see how people really think. You see which positions people really embrace, and which they merely tolerate. You see which ideology really dominates. And it turns out that America has basically retained its old, eighteenth-nineteenth-twentieth century philosophical identity. The revolutions of the last few decades (sixties revisionism, seventies narcissism, eighties revivalism, nineties nihilism) have influenced it, but they haven't overturned it.

Radical upheavals were tolerated, but the most extreme ideologies never truly integrated into American political ideology. In the face of Al-Qaeda's challenge, the parts that have strayed far enough from America's political traditions to challenge those traditions have been cut off. They're still tolerated, but now contemptuously, when they aren't ignored outright.

Where does this leave the evangelical (Westmont) community? It has handed us a new and pressing problem. In America's "public theology" after 9/11, like America's public theology during World War II, religion is most acceptable when it's at the service of patriotism. Now, as then, the "God" who's appreciated in the mainstream American political tradition isn't a God who ever challenges the mainstream American political tradition. This puts today's evangelicals in the position of yesterday's liberals.

Here is what I mean by that: During World War II the mainline denominations (Episcopals, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, American Baptists, Disciples, Lutherans) were well integrated into American public life. Their agendas fit the broader public agenda. Their ethics were pragmatic. By contrast, by World War II fundamentalism had been driven underground (willingly) for decades. Fundamentalists pursued conversions, missions, and biblical traditionalism out of the public spotlight. Their agendas didn't fit the broader public agenda. Their ethics came more thoroughly from their own traditions. This had its problems – social isolationalism, for instance – but it had the benefit of keeping fundamentalism from being absorbed into Americanism. (It was not until W.R. Hearst puffed Billy Graham in 1949 that these movements began to regain national prominence.)

Times have changed! Since about 1975, the activist Christian right has been fighting a political culture-war. Politically interested evangelicals have adopted a stance of patriotism, yet have used it to fight the prevailing shape of American public life. Their agenda has centered on three issues: advocacy of school prayer, opposition to abortion, and opposition to gay rights. (By picking lost causes, it has guaranteed itself a long life.)

After 9/11, these causes look more lost than ever. To other Americans, they look too much like the political agenda of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Therefore, the social pressure is greater than ever for evangelical patriots to drop their culture war and conform to the more urgent need of coming together into an all-American coalition to fight the Al-Qaeda threat.

Falwell's and Robertson's interpretation of 9/11 as God withholding protection of an America that tolerates gays and feminists really made non-evangelicals shake the fundamentalist dust off their feet, and pressured evangelicals to prove our "good" public intentions. Those who persist in pushing these issues will be either ignored or vilified. (As the Firesign Theater put it in the seventies, "I thought we were fighting fascism!")

My fear here is not that the Christian right's lost causes will succeed or fail. My worry is that evangelical conformity to post-9/11 Americanism will weaken our commitment to our more basic evangelical heritage. This heritage includes an uncompromising witness to Christ alone as the savior of the world, a commitment to missions and evangelism even when they are dangerous and politically embarrassing, a high respect for Scripture. They too suffer by association, and I worry that we will judge them guilty by association.

(By the way, I think Catholics could tell much the same story as evangelicals. Their theological exclusivism, authoritarian hierarchy, and categorical ethics suffer by association too, and no number of papal apologies for the crusades will change that. Anti-patriotic Christians have a different problem, which I will not address here.)

When some time ago Chandra Mallampalli spoke on campus and articulated the definition of "fundamentalism" that is being used for a major University of Chicago project to study (and really to construct) the phenomenon, I realized (with some satisfaction) that I fell under the definition! This morning Ron Enroth spoke on "extremist religion" and "cultic behavior." We Westmont Warriors need to understand that many Americans think we are the extremists and cultists. In fact, I think a growing contingent of Westmont students, under pressure from pluralism, are thinking the same thing.

On the one hand, we need to resist the pressure to relax these features of our faith. The American public longs for us religious zealots to quit fighting, get along, accept each other as equally valid options for respectable citizens, and join together in something we can all agree on: the project of defending and strengthening American democratic capitalism. Instead, and despite my appreciation for American democratic capitalism, I think we need to insist more than ever upon Christ alone, faith alone, Scripture alone.

On the other hand, we now face a public that associates exclusive claims with totalitarianism, evangelism with cultural invasion and revolution, and biblical authority with anti-intellectualism. So even when we do continue our witness to the Good News, we're going to have to do it in a new way, which doesn't evoke images of Wahhabi Islam, the Taliban, bin Laden, John Walker, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson. Otherwise, our audiences won't be able to hear what we're actually saying.

That's a tall order. We're going to have to earn our up-arrow.

1. Barna Research Group, "How America's Faith Has Changed Since 9-11," November 26, 2001 (