Islam & American Civil Religion
Chesterton describes the feeling of a Catholic entering a mosque as that of “the presence of absence.” Having been in a number of mosques myself, I know exactly what he means. There is much about their very structure that seems familiarly Eastern Christian, and the sight of many sincere people fervently praying within them can easily remind a believer of the scene at a Christian pilgrimage site. Nevertheless, the central substantive element of Catholic worship—the tabernacle of the living God—is missing. What speaks to us from the place which should be occupied by the Word Incarnate comes only from the mouth of the Moslem preacher and prayer leader.
At first hearing, the words that he speaks might appear to express simplicity itself, making their acceptance and conversion to Islam a very easy matter for almost anyone. After all, the religion really has only a single doctrine: the reality of the one, omnipotent Creator God, and the need to obey His commands. But this surface simplicity is deceptive. For one actually gets a lot more “bang for the buck” from the simple surface teaching of Islam, and there are three crucial reasons for this.
The Emergence of Islam
The first of these is due to the fact that Islam, like Christianity, emerged at a certain “fullness of time.” It came out of an Arabia which had become a dumping ground for wandering Jews, Christian missionaries (orthodox and heretical), Gnostics, Zoroastrians, grumpy pagans, avaricious merchants, and holy men of every conceivable persuasion and shade of honesty. Islam poured the ideas and expectations of all of these opposing elements into its peculiar religious cocktail. Their “real presence” can readily be uncovered by studying the different pillars of Moslem teaching and practice: the suras, or chapters of the Koran; the hadith or so-called “sayings of the Prophet”; the shari’a, or law, itself commented upon by the ulama, the manifold juridical authorities arising from the various legal schools active throughout the Islamic World; and the Sufi mystic traditions nurtured at centers of prayer, study, action, and pilgrimage built through the work of a rich diversity of charismatic figures.
A second Moslem bang for the buck can be attributed to political opportunism. Islam really took formal shape after 622 when Mohammed, fleeing from Mecca, founded in Yathrib (the future Medina) the joint religious and political community referred to as the umma. Since the faithful were taught that God willed the survival of the Islamic community, they also grew to accept the idea that He would bless whatever actions the changing circumstances of daily life dictated to assure its success. The actions in question began with attacks on caravans to Mecca and expanded to involve the overrunning of the Persian and Roman Empires due to the manpower provided by Bedouin converts.
Unfortunately, such conquests brought a plethora of ethnic, cultural, and administrative problems in their train, all of them presenting profound questions regarding how to guarantee the success of the umma, leading to many actions which Catholic moralists would deem to be quite improper. Intra-Islamic battles ensued, out of which emerged the basic Sunnite and Shi’ite division, the latter spiced with further exotic and disruptive speculations regarding the whereabouts of the descendants of Mohammed’s nephew Ali, whose leadership they deemed essential to the umma. Both these camps were also torn apart by the speculations of contrasting legal and Sufi mystical schools, many of them presiding over fiercely loyal sub-communities for whose basic material needs they also often provided. Leaders of all these differing groups and sub-groups, from caliphs to imams to Sufi masters, firmly tied their widely dissimilar positions back to the politically charged question of the needs of God’s umma and ensuring its maintenance and success.
Islam and Fideism
That brings us to the third factor transforming an easy convert’s support for Islam’s seemingly simple message into commitment to something quite different than he might have first expected: the religion’s fideism. For Islam founds acceptance of its single doctrine upon an obedience to the inscrutable will of a God whose commands cannot ultimately rationally be explicated but merely asserted in the ritual, pious slogan taught by the Founder: “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His (last and greatest) Prophet.” By this point we have come full circle. Commitment to “simple” Islam actually entails blind commitment on the part of what may well be honest believers with sincere religious aspirations and a thirst for godliness to “whatever works” for the success of the umma.
Once again, the recipe for that “success” can be provided in varied ways by the varied willful forces competing for the guidance of God’s umma and seeking to protect their interpretations from investigation with reference to their being the inscrutable will of the omnipotent God Himself. With no official Magisterium to decide among them, surface Islamic simplicity, community needs, and doctrinal mantra backing up the whole project ends by masquerading an endless diversity of “infallible,” “unquestionable” “Islams”: philosophically alive internally despite the underlying fideism or totally brain dead; morally secularist or magical and superstitious; libertine or puritanical; teetotaling or bottle-friendly; militant or peaceful; Arabic and Wahabi; Persian and Shi’ite; Indian, Southeast Asian and exotically syncretist in character. Give me the locally strongest force and I will show the will of the Moslem God.
Many contemporary American Catholics are terrified by the menace of a violent, Pan-Islamic conspiracy. This I think is a misguided preoccupation. The Islamic World today remains the divided umma that it has always been. Yes, it is true that numerous militant groups with terrorist intent are among those divisions, and vigorously active among us. Such violent militants still emerge from the predictable legal-mystical-cultural centers that have regularly engendered them throughout Moslem History. No Catholic can view these circles with anything other than hostility. Everyone should be grateful for their unmasking and defanging.
Pluralism Stimulating Radical Islamic Growth
Nevertheless, a stimulus to the growth of the “Moslem threat” that is much more dangerous than that posed by any recruitment sergeant for ISIS lies right before our Catholic eyes; one that is active in each and every aspect of our daily lives: Pluralism. This Pluralism, which is at the heart of the American Civil Religion, shares all of the characteristics of Islam, with its sole “doctrine” of offering nothing other than a “practical method” of creating an orderly and successful umma through acceptance of the principle of equal freedom for all ideas and life styles, sending it on its confident hunt for easy converts. But Pluralism offers a complicated bang for the buck in exactly the same manner as Islam does. Why?
For one thing, because Pluralism, enshrined in the American Civil Religion, also emerged in a certain “fullness of time.” It is the heir of centuries of pre-Protestant, Protestant, and Enlightenment heresy and naturalist materialism, with all of the revolutionary political and social clout that these forces pack. All of its supporters carry this enormous mass of creedal baggage with them, shaping in diverse manners what the supposedly simple, non-doctrinal, pragmatic methodology of Pluralism really means.
Moreover, American Pluralism, like Islam, shares a similar openness to a gross opportunism operating in the name of the community it shapes. Supporters of the pluralist umma insist that its primary duty is to make it “succeed,” passing itself off as “the last and best hope” for peace, order, and freedom for mankind. Alas, the heretical and naturalist presuppositions underlying this faith community incarnate varied forms of the basic Protestant teaching on the total depravity of men, for whom “no virtue can be legislated.” These then work together with an interpretation of freedom that allows each individual to wreak his particular choice of materialistic havoc upon his equally free and naturalist neighbors.
But what really happens wherever Pluralism’s writ runs is that the strongest of the passionate, the criminally depraved, and the ideologically and sensually unchained dominate, bend to their will, and define the very nature and boundaries of the community which is supposed to protect the general “freedom” and “materialist success” of all. Hence, it is a self-interested, criminal-friendly, pluralist umma which must be preserved as God’s gift to mankind, and to which every knee and every intellect and every concept of morality is expected to bend forever.
Finally, to complete our analogy, Pluralism’s surface simplicity is complicated by its Moslem-like demand for blind faith in this single truth. It anathematizes any investigation into its purely “practical” teaching as unbearably divisive, and therefore dangerous to the umma’s and the individual’s “success.” Its non-doctrinal doctrine is then associated with the inscrutable will of God, in the form of the “common sense” God of the Moderate Enlightenment, as revealed most fully in the work of the Founding Fathers. The final product is vivified through the ritual phrase that all are expected to recite from gestation to the grave: “There is no hope except through God’s Pluralist System, and the Founders are its last and greatest Prophets.”
The Delusion of Pluralism
It should be no surprise, therefore, that the Pluralist American umma, like that of Islam, is dominated and manipulated by strong, willful men, who, in this case, recite mantras proclaiming such domination to be the absolutely infallible guarantee of godly order, freedom, and “success” for everyone. It is used to being “open” to “new ideas” reflecting still more radical, mind-bending consequences of its Protestant and Enlightenment roots. It will label what is “black” as being “white,” and adore today what it yesterday reviled, so long as the manipulators of the day explain that practical survival and success demand such twists and turns as born in heaven. In our own day, this has meant learning to praise a godly, Founder-friendly, free, successful, social order signifying whatever the local combination of international money-grubbers, drug dealers, neo-conservative madmen, supporters of Greater Israel, and sex maniacs wish such an umma to mean.
Still, what this has produced is another form of the “presence of absence” rightly decried by Chesterton. Here, the “presence” is a promise of godly materialist “success” promoted by institutions that still look historically familiar and use familiar language to confirm the impression of Pluralism’s preservation of traditional “values.” Here, that “presence” is rendered worthless by the total “absence” of any spiritual vision that could shape and give it at least some higher meaning, however twisted, erroneous, and perverse that might be.
Edmund Burke said that one would have expected a thousand French swords to leap spontaneously from their scabbards to avenge the slightest insult offered to the lovely Marie Antoinette. He was shocked that this did not happen. One would have thought that the American Catholic faithful would have leapt as one man to battle against a vision of life which sucks the individual of all that perfects him, leaving the community in which he lives as one stripped of the presence of the transforming Word of God. But, unfortunately, the ruling ethos of the American Catholic world—indeed of the post-conciliar Catholic world in general—is that of the American Pluralist Regime. It prefers the “presence of absence” to the real presence of the Incarnate Word of God and the natural world substantively informed by Him. It is divided in its uniform conversion to the godly and simple teaching of Pluralism only with respect to whether its hidden message of domination by the willful strong is best interpreted by libertine liberals or materialist conservatives.
At the moment, the only force that is truly frightening to American Pluralism and its converts is Islam, and this because of the fact that at least some of its elements retain a substantive belief in something that they refuse to have entirely sucked out of them in the name of purely material success. This is not a happy situation for two reasons: on the one hand, because the ever more rootless and soulless environment of the American Pluralist Regime is precisely the kind of milieu that cannot last for any length of time, and lends itself to easy conversion to anything with some smidgen of “spiritual” value to it; and, on the other hand, because that smidgen of Islamic spiritual value is erroneous and ultimately equally quixotic in its direction. It can serve, for a moment, as the punishing sword of the living God, but it does not represent His Word. Would that Traditionalist Catholics, who do have the “presence” that is absent from both Pluralism and Islam could regain the vigor that could frighten both of them and fend off the common threat they both represent.