Jim Skillen talks with Bob Sweetman about the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001.
"...almost the only rallying point for national unity is defense of the nation, defense of freedom..."
Bob Sweetman: What does 9/11 and its significance look like 10 years down the road?
Jim Skillen: An event like that – the amount of destruction, the symbolism of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon under attack, and so forth – was something that would not easily be forgotten by any country. So on a 10th anniversary, to stop, remember and reflect on its significance, is certainly worthwhile and an expression of legitimate patriotism.
However, if you compare 9/11 with the significance of Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into World War II, or with World War I, the Civil War or Vietnam, it doesn’t compare. And therefore one can anticipate that such a time of national remembrance of 9/11 will lose its potency in another decade or two.
Part of my reason for thinking this is that I believe the U.S. made a mistake in rushing quickly to declare war against terrorism. The attacks themselves were committed by terrorists – international criminals. They stole planes and used box cutters as weapons. There was no military attack; there was no invading military force of another country backing the criminals.
And yet, for the most part, we in the U.S. interpreted the attacks from the viewpoint of what I would call an underlying civil religion: "America is God’s chosen nation and is being attacked unjustly on its own territory, so something very serious must be happening, something of cosmic proportion." Insofar as American citizens view their country as the lead nation in the world, anything that threatens America can be seen as the equivalent of a threat to true progress in history and must, therefore, be stopped. Quickly, 9/11 was hyped to the point where the people who died in the World Trade Center were thought of as war heroes who had sacrificed their lives for the sake of this righteous nation and its divinely appointed mission in the world.
Bob: Why was that?
Jim: I believe 9/11 occurred at a time of great crisis in the country – a crisis of many decades, at the root of the American civil religion. The 9/11 event and the "wars" that have followed have been caught up in a larger domestic political battle over the meaning of America and over who may legitimately lead the country. Is this still God’s chosen nation, the exceptional nation? What then is its mission? Does the future of democracy, freedom and prosperity depend ultimately on America’s preeminence in the world? The identity and chief purposes of the country have been called into question in recent decades, especially since Vietnam. And the battle has been fueled by the end of the Cold War and the most recent economic crises.
By the early 1990s, when it appeared democracy and freedom had triumphed over communism, a vacuum was created. What should America do now? It seems to me 9/11 partially filled the vacuum. Terrorism became the new communism. Sometimes it is easier to call a nation to stand against a great threat than it is to rally the people to achieve constructive purposes that not everyone agrees to. Yet in my view, the band of terrorizing criminals should not have been elevated to the level of a world-threatening, demonic force. Instead, the U.S. should have called for and initiated a major international co-operative effort in policing and intelligence gathering. We should have treated those who committed the devastating attacks as unworthy of recognition and treatment as a dominant history-making movement in the world.
The American "war" response to the attackers has not stopped terrorism but it has caused considerable confusion and uncertainty in the world (as well as in the U.S.) with regard to the criteria of justifiable defense and the legitimacy of America’s anti-imperial imperialism (as Niall Ferguson calls it). In such circumstances and with many other irresolvable problems at hand, a 10th-anniversary event to memorialize 9/11 is designed and used by some to try to keep the fire of civil-religious nationalism burning. But that will be increasingly difficult to do because the reality is not what the hype cracks it up to be. Joblessness, deepening poverty and continuing economic paralysis now appear to be of far greater concern to Americans than the "war" on terrorism.
Bob: Is the sort of religious coloration of the meaning of this attack one that would really have entered into the councils of the government per se? Or do your comments reflect a broader societal discussion in the U.S. that public officials should take into account but perhaps do not?
Jim: There is a problem today with talk of civil religion. An American president is not likely to say (though George W. Bush came very close to saying), "it’s our religious mission now to take on these terrorists," or "in order to maintain my fealty to the American civil religion, I must now do this or that." Many citizens no longer like the phrase civil religion. Robert Bellah and others have examined the American civil religion carefully, but most commentators today say they don’t know what it means. And of course there are many people in the U.S. who by their own definition are not religious, and they are not concerned that the republic was birthed in the new-Israel myth. It is just a secular nation now.
Moreover, there were other factors involved in President Bush’s declaration of war so soon after the 9/11 attacks. One of those factors is the federal structure of the political system. A president only has maximum room to maneuver when he’s functioning as Commander in Chief of the armed forces at war. There were many such pragmatic reasons for deciding to centralize all efforts against terrorism in the office of the Commander in Chief, in a perpetual war.
Most people, including most public officials, I suspect, are unconscious of the fact that when they think of the nation and its actions, they are thinking from out of a deep-rooted civil religion. For most American Christians, Christ is Savior of souls for eternity and the church is the institution that embodies that narrative of salvation. But in their minds, that narrative does not seem at odds with the one about God choosing America as a new Israel to guide the world to its true end of democracy, freedom and prosperity in this age. Yet these are very different religious stories and do not fit together the way so many think they do. From a biblical point of view, I would argue, the American civil-religious narrative (and any such civil-religious narrative) is heresy that contradicts the Bible’s narrative of God’s covenants with Israel and the nations through Israel’s Messiah.
So I think there are two parallel salvation stories held by American Christians. One is the story of salvation from sin for eternal life through Jesus Christ, but in today’s world that is considered a privately held religion, a parochial religion. The public salvation story of God blessing America for a new-Israel mission has to do with earthly history. In the telling of this story the name of Jesus Christ is not acknowledged, because the god of America is the American god, the god of all Americans.
There is yet another factor I want to mention. In the U.S. you will hear repeated expressions of the love of the nation but of distrust of government. The nation is played off against government. Ronald Regan ran for president with the theme of saving the nation by getting government off the backs of the American people. Part of the ideal of the nation is its freedom from the British monarchy, freedom from a strong central government. In fact, according to the founding liberal ideology of government, it would be best that we didn’t have government at all. Free persons are not by nature political creatures.
Against this backdrop, I’ve concluded after many years of talking with people that Americans do not generally associate the military with government but rather with the nation. The military defends the nation and its free citizens from attack and oppression. The military is not part of the government bureaucracy that many, particularly on the right, deride as wasteful, as an instrument of misguided interference in individual and market freedoms. With the political process and government in Washington facing ever greater crises of confidence and paralysis, it is all the more clear that almost the only rallying point for national unity is defense of the nation, defense of freedom, against a threatening outside enemy.
Bob: One of the things that I’ve certainly been struck by in Christian interventions in politics in other parts of the world is Truth and Reconciliation processes, like in South Africa and so on. Is there any kind of broadening of American reflection on the West’s relationship to Islam, for example, that would have the kind of character represented by Truth and Reconciliation efforts?
Jim: Yes, there is quite a bit of that, but it is conducted almost entirely at the non-government level – churches and other groups working to promote conflict resolution, Christian-Muslim dialogue, and overcoming racial prejudice and profiling. At the government level things are different. It’s been a rule of thumb, for example, that any politician, certainly a president, who addresses matters associated with Islam should state Islam is a religion of peace. Islam is not the problem; only the terrorists are our enemies. But even the best efforts of government dedicated to fighting racism, religious bigotry and fear of foreigners, are a long way from Truth and Reconciliation commissions that try to deal with the kinds of public wrongs done on both sides against prisoners of war, the killing of civilians, mistaken arrests of suspected terrorists and more.
These are but a few of my reflections on 9/11 and its aftermath, Bob. Thank you for interviewing me.
Jim Skillen is the former president of the Center for Public Justice (U.S.) and author of With or Against the World? America’s Role Among the Nations (Rowman and Littlefield, 2005)
Bob Sweetman is the H. Evan Runner Chair in the History of Philosophy at ICS
October 2011 >