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Faith, Freedom, and September 11

How many times in the past months have we been struck by the expansive scope and seemingly endless depth of evil? In the midst of something so heinous, so diabolical, can the hand of the One whose finger is said to write straight with crooked lines be detected?

As the stories of the orphans and their grief are told and retold, whether in our national media or in our kitchens, there is lurking in each telling and retelling the ominous question underneath it all: Why?

Not that a simple and straightforward declaration from heaven itself would heal the wounds that we bear; yet the question of why evil exists is one that weighs heavy on many hearts these days.

No full answer, in the form of a sentence or a proposition, could ever satisfy the question, even if it were to drop from the sky. For the ultimate answer, which does come to us from heaven itself, comes not in the form of words, but of a Word, and more specifically, the Word that was made flesh. That final answer is not a proposition but a Person, and the embrace of One whose comfort is beyond our present understanding. The ultimate answer, then, is a mystery: the mystery of encounter and embrace.

But maintaining that the ultimate answer is a mystery does not mean that there are no proximate answers. Among the proximate answers is the fact that human freedom, so highly prized by all people, is also at the heart of evil. In a world whose history is frequently acquainted with totalitarian experiments, one would be tempted to think that freedom, standing alone, is its own good. Yet to see the heart of darkness as the world saw it on September 11, is to understand that mere men, for certain twisted reasons, chose to exercise their free will to destroy the freedom and lives of others.

Thus, freedom, as indispensable as it is, is not sufficient for constructing the quality of society and culture appropriate to man, his dignity, and his capacity. It must be freedom oriented to something beyond itself. As we have said so many times, freedom must be oriented to truth: the truth of man's origin, nature, and destiny.

That is why the Acton Institute was founded, and why its mission is to study and promote both the transcendental reality of man and his necessary freedom—or, as we put it, “religion and liberty” and “the free and virtuous society.” A clear understanding of the proper relation between religion and society has never been as needed in our world as it is today.

The Love of Freedom, The Embrace of Faith

The events of September 11 have revealed a dimension about American society that some have attempted to shield from our view. We have discovered that, at its core, America is a profoundly religious nation and that faith is not a source of division between Americans but, rather, the foundation of our unity on shared principles.

In addition, Americans have discovered that when all of us, political leaders included, speak openly about our faith, it does not violate anyone's conscience, much less shred the Constitution, as so many pressure groups have argued in the past. Rather, such speech gives rise to reflection on America's highest and noblest aspirations. We have found that love of freedom and the embrace of faith are not incompatible; instead, they are bound up with one another, each reinforcing the other in harmony.

To that extent, we can hope that the last few months represent a sea change in how our society views the place of religion. There was not a public figure who addressed the attack on the United States without a plea for prayer for the victims. Many referred to the religious roots of the Western idea of human rights, one of the things so antithetical to the terrorists' concept of society. Many public spokesmen, including the president, sought God's blessing on our people and the aspirations of our nation. Prayer vigils have been continuous. Indeed, we cannot even imagine dealing with a crisis on this scale without our faith.

In a moving meditation days after the attack, President Bush expressed a vigorous faith: “As we've been assured: Neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, or height, nor depth can separate us from God's love. May he bless the souls of the departed, may he comfort our own, and may he always guide our country.”

But I wonder. Had the president made these remarks one week earlier, would there have been an outcry, such as there was during the election when he shared his faith experience with some prayer groups? Might he have been called a theocrat, or worse? As it is, his unabashed faith, relentless during the presidential campaign, is now seen as a great sign of leadership. Indeed it is.

How tragic that it took a calamity on the scale of what we saw on September 11 to impart this message and reveal religious truth beneath secular pretensions. But there is even more going on here. As a nation, we have always grounded our belief in human rights in a fundamentally religious idea: Human life is sacred because it has an origin in the eternity of God's grace as well as a destiny in his love. It is because human beings are created in the image of God that we know that heinous acts of diabolical fanatics are crimes of such magnitude.

From the Declaration of Independence through the Civil Rights movement, faith has been at the core of every event of any magnitude. Usually, that faith is invoked in defense of the sanctity and dignity of the human person and against those who would violate it. This is as it should be.

The Challenge of a Life of Faith

As for those who hate modern life, a way of life made possible by this vision of the human person, the choice of the World Trade Center, symbol of global free markets, was no accident. If one hates human life, one also hates the products of human creativity; hence, what better target could have been selected? And yet these terrorist attacks differ merely in kind and degree, not in principle, from the violent demonstrations and riots against globalization that we have witnessed in Seattle, Washington D.C., Montreal, and Geneva.

These are the irrational cries of the forces of repression and bondage that hate and fear liberty, human enterprise, modernity, and, ultimately, human life itself. Thankfully, such forces are doomed to failure because the logic of their culture of death leads to self-immolation and destruction, whereas the logic of a rich and healthy culture of life leads to replenishment, creativity, and growth.

This, then, becomes the challenge of the post–September 11 world: Will we come to see our prosperity, creativity, and liberty as means to a higher end? Will the awareness of our transcendent reality form our day-to-day decisions and our path as a nation? And from the perspective of the Acton Institute—concerned as we are about cultivating a religious leadership that comprehends the moral potential of human liberty and enterprise—the critical question becomes, Are our clergy prepared to speak in such an intelligent, bold, and confident manner that they will invite our society to the spiritual and moral renaissance for which it so desperately yearns?

It is a commonly held view that faith is somehow not necessary in times of peace, prosperity, and security, that living in a society of plenty diminishes the longing for spiritual solace.

We know from our own experience that we are more likely to turn to God in difficult times than in easy ones. C. S. Lewis wrote that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” It is when we reach the end of the rope, not when we feel ourselves to be masters of the universe, that we are most likely to fall on our knees in supplication. My pastoral experience suggests that a personal trial is a prime motivating source to seek spiritual comfort and the forgiveness of sins.

At the same time, it is an error—perhaps the fundamental error of the terrorists—to believe that faith and prosperity are always inversely related. Part of the challenge of living a life of faith is to maintain a certain spiritual equilibrium in good times as well as bad and not to be tossed about by the winds of circumstance, not flitting between bouts of depravity and sanctity but seeking devotion as a daily practice.

One can hope that there is no going back on our newfound tolerance for open expressions of faith. Let us hope that the abiding smirk has been permanently wiped off the faces of those cynical of faith and freedom, who have too long occupied a central place in our culture.

May we continue to regard faith as a source of strength, comfort, and blessing to us as individuals and as a nation, the source and summit of our freedom, its barometer and compass, even once our sense of security returns.