The theocratic wing of the Republican party, embraced by the incoming Trump administration, constantly reinforces the narrative that America is a nation founded on Judeo-Christian values and that the more it opens itself to cultural influences outside of this construct, the more it risks either losing divine protection or incurring divine wrath. This withdrawal of divine protection or imposition of divine wrath, depending on what religious authorities one consults, might manifest in the form of terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or other seemingly high collateral damage smitings.
One need only read the Bible to understand the rationale behind such interpretations of global events. This is how God exercises his authority in the world.
Most fundamentalist Christians (i.e., those who interpret the Bible literally) reflect on much of the Old Testament in allegorical terms, extracting lessons applicable to the modern day. Their leaders, for example, may interpret the genocide described in the Book of Joshua (let’s be honest, that’s what it was) in symbolic terms in order to exhort their followers on the spiritual importance of living a pure life uncontaminated by the sinful practices of the nonbelievers surrounding them. Yet they also won’t deny their belief that those campaigns of territorial conquest are historically accurate and were divinely sanctioned, to include the slaughter of women and children.
Some fundamentalist Christian apologists have developed tortured rationalizations to justify what was recorded in biblical books, arguing, for example, that those slaughtered in Joshua practiced barbaric rituals, including child sacrifice. Yet, even entertaining the idea of military intervention partly motivated by humanitarian concerns, how is it possible to justify killing even children and infants? Could they not simply have been reeducated and assimilated into the more civilized ancient Israelite culture?
Whatever one’s views, the point is that Judeo-Christian values have evolved over the centuries and the most unseemly aspects of those values are politely skipped over. The fact that they are still part of the canon is nevertheless disconcerting, and if the United States were ever forced to endure the severe socioeconomic and political stresses of the Middle East, it’s not difficult to imagine how a deeply traumatized, humiliated, and religiously fundamentalist American populace might find justification for horrific acts of violence in these verses.
It’s also important to note that for many Christian fundamentalists, the territorial covenant God is supposed to have established with the Jews, as recorded in the Bible, still applies—thereby justifying modern Israel’s territorial expansion and forcible displacement of the Palestinians. US policymakers’ support for or acquiesce to this, a result of intense lobbying by organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and Christians United for Israel (CUFI), is provoking the ire of the Muslim world against the United States and will continue to have security consequences for Americans at home and abroad. President-elect Donald Trump’s pledge to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which Vice President-elect Mike Pence has described as “the eternal, undivided capital of the Jewish state,” as well as Trump’s nomination of a staunch opponent of the two-state solution as US ambassador to Israel, will undoubtedly have serious national security repercussions.
The Muslim world is currently engaged in its own debate on how the Koran and Hadiths, containing the core of Islamic jurisprudence, should be applied in the modern world. It is impossible to predict how this debate will evolve, on what timeline, or whether it will lead to a more peaceful Middle East—the interdependent ideological, economic, and geopolitical variables are too complex—but the United States has an important role in the debate.
That role is to support Muslim advocates of moderation and separation of religion and state. Americans can best do so by demonstrating religious moderation themselves; maintaining a wise separation between religion and state, which have a historical tendency to combust when combined; and not allowing fear to lead them to alienate the United States’ own Muslim population.
Islamist terrorist organizations are indeed attempting to recruit from and inspire this population to conduct terrorist attacks in the US, and Americans must be vigilant against their efforts, including through improved immigration screening, cyber surveillance, and human intelligence.
Former CIA Director Michael Morell has written that the former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center is a Muslim. Such patriots regard the protection of their fellow Americans as an important expression of their faith. (For those concerned about infiltration, it is an inherent and manageable risk that counterintelligence officers are trained to safeguard against.) Indeed, Muslims are critical to the fight against Islamist terrorism. It’s also important to remember that in many places around the world they’re the targets of Islamist terrorism because the terrorists don’t consider them ideologically pure enough. The leaders of Muslim countries such as Jordan, moreover, have been critical partners in the fight against Islamist extremists.
For these fanatics, the idea of peaceful Judeo-Christian-Islamic coexistence is anathema. This is exactly what Americans must promote through a spirit of inclusivity as established in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which protects both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. If Americans are vigilant enough to preserve this principle, the superiority of the United States’ political model will continue to serve as an inspiration to reformers throughout the Muslim world who are struggling to liberate themselves from theocracy.
These reformers will also need greater material support from the West to prevail. This support should principally take the form of more assertive promotion of secular and democratic values—balanced with strategic considerations—including increased federal budgetary resources for organizations falling under the umbrella of the National Endowment for Democracy and associated NGOs. It should also include increased resources for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, specifically for improving efforts to investigate and establish public accountability for foreign governments responsible for repressing secular and democratic rights activists—including naming and shaming individual foreign government officials.
Promotion of secular and democratic governance around the world should be prioritized to a much greater degree than it has been to date relative to the US’s defense and intelligence budgets.
Our first priority, however, must be to put our own political house back in order. Unfortunately, many Americans are allowing their fear to trump the historical lesson that however wise the merging of religious and political leadership may sound in theory, in practice it inevitably leads to manipulation and exploitation by a morally compromised, corrupt elite that becomes all the more difficult to unseat from power because of the psychological control it’s able to exert through its mystifying charisma.
This is why political leaders throughout history have found religion such a useful instrument. Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, who the former has expressed admiration for undoubtedly in part because of his skillful manipulation of the naive Russian masses through the Russian Orthodox Church, are no exceptions. Americans should not allow themselves to be similarly duped by such a demagogue or those who have courted him in indulgence of their own lust for power.
The fight is not between Christians and Jews on one side and Muslims on the other, but against radicals within each religious community whose destructive self-righteousness and ultra-narcissism will lead us further down the path toward an intractable clash of civilizations if we do not challenge this self-fulfilling prophecy.