October 14, 2001

The God of a Diverse People

October 14, 2001

BOSTON "These events have split the whole world into two camps: the camp of belief and the camp of disbelief," Osama bin Laden said in his speech televised on the day America started bombing Afghanistan. And he left no doubt about the beliefs to which those in the first camp must adhere. "There is only one God," Mr. bin Laden told his listeners. "And I declare that there is no prophet but Muhammad."

Osama bin Laden's words are chilling, not only because they threaten further terrorism, but also because they echo themes that have run through America's own religious history. At the same time, his rant is oddly reassuring, for the contrast between his zealotry and our measured response reminds us of how far we have come since the days when Protestant triumphalism reigned in this country.

The Puritans who landed in Massachusetts, fleeing from religious intolerance, were anything but tolerant themselves. They saw infidels all around them, even among other Christians who did not share all of their theological convictions. As the Salem witchcraft trials showed, the Puritans could be as unbending and cruel in their interpretation of what the Lord required as any Taliban court.

Because it stressed the notion of a covenant, Puritanism eventually made its peace with individualism. And because, unlike Islam in so many contemporary settings, Puritanism had to accommodate to a democratic society, it lost its harshness in the quest for popularity. Still, the notion that Americans were destined by their faith in a specifically Protestant God to fill their own land and to exercise their influence abroad lasted throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

"Christianity is the only possible religion for the American people, and with Christianity are bound up all our hopes for the future," the German-born scholar Philip Schaff told the American Historical Association in 1888. Josiah Strong's influential book "Our Country," published three years before Schaff's speech, asked the United States to carry out its duty to "Christianize" the world. And the Christianity they had in mind was Protestant Christianity. The first war to come along after their pronouncements, the Spanish- American War, was justified by many Protestant leaders because it was fought against Catholic Spain.

Even after Catholics and Jews were accepted into American life, our political leaders still invoked religious language that Protestants could interpret as their own. An American as liberal as Henry Wallace could say, in his 1944 book "Faith of Our Fighters," that democracy was "the only form of government which harmonizes fully with the principles of the Bible."

America remains a decidedly religious society, but it is now religious in a very different way. To be sure, religious fundamentalists have prominent political presence even now. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, for example, are not averse to invoking a language of crusade in the political arena.

But neither Mr. Falwell nor Mr. Robertson is president; George W. Bush is. And Mr. Bush has done a brilliant job of not permitting Osama bin Laden to define the terms of the conflict. The more we think that what is at stake is a clash of civilizations, the more like our enemy we become. By insisting that we are not at war with Islam, Mr. Bush deprives Mr. bin Laden of the religious battle he so intensely desires.

It is not only President Bush who has kept his viewpoint balanced; it is also the American people. A country whose single largest religious denomination is Catholicism can no longer feel comfortable fighting for Protestant principles. Indeed America is no longer Judeo-Christian, the term of art we developed, after the Holocaust, to include Jews. Even "Abrahamic," a term invented to include Muslims along with Christians and Jews, excludes Buddhists and Sikhs. There is no single God for whom this ever more diverse society could enter a war.

And it is not just our religious diversity that makes our religious experience different from our Puritan past; whatever their particular beliefs, Americans tend to practice their faith in distinctly modern ways. Many Americans, including many evangelical Christians, strongly support the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. (Conservative opposition to President Bush's faith-based initiative shows that this support is not just a liberal position.)

Our cultural temperament may also help inoculate us against a stringent religious fundamentalism. We are too optimistic in our beliefs to find Satan lurking behind every rock. There are, of course, American believers who evangelize, persuaded that those who do not believe as they do are destined for hell. Yet there are far more who believe that whatever their own path to God, other people will choose different paths that deserve respect.

Surveys routinely show that more than 90 percent of Americans believe in God. Our culture celebrates religious belief and provides it enormous freedom in the private sphere. But our constitutional system of government by separating belief from politics tempers this impulse when it interferes with governance and the making of laws. The Taliban and Osama bin Laden wage war against us because they embrace religious governance in the political sphere while allowing individuals no religious choice. That use of religion has resulted in a totalitarian society that cannot countenance any deviation.

The war now going on between Americans and the forces of Osama bin Laden is not between belief and nonbelief. It is instead about two different ways of believing, only one of which allows for individual conscience and freedom. The refusal of the other to make that allowance is what makes terrorism against nonbelievers possible.

Alan Wolfe is professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company