One of my favourite verses in the Bible is St Paul’s statement that “the letter brings death but the spirit brings life”. It is difficult to think of a pithier summary of the essence of the Christian religion, the central drama in Christ’s life obviously having been His fight to the death with the high priests and Pharisees.
Ever since, the word “Pharisaical” has been rightly used to denote an unhealthy and even evil attachment to the letter of the law: Christianity, by contrast, is precisely not (as many people erroneously say) a religion based on a book or on rules, like Judaism and Islam, but instead a religion based upon a real person and upon the injunction to imitate Him.
These words of St Paul, abundantly prefigured in the Old Testament, are essential for Catholics trying to understand their rightful role in what Tariq Ali has called “the clash of fundamentalisms” which is being played out in the world today. Catholic bishops in Britain may have rushed to meet Muslim imams in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks, but in fact it is Catholic truth itself which provides the answer to the world’s current predicament, not the dilution of that truth through interfaith dialogue.
Catholics are now sandwiched between two enemies: on the one hand, we have Muslim fundamentalism, with whose evils were are now unfortunately well acquainted; on the other hand, we have a radical American project to bring universal democracy to the whole planet, by the force of bombs if necessary, and whose motivations are also largely religious. To be sure, it would be quite wrong to obscure the political motivations behind both camps: there is a special danger that frequent reference to Muslim fundamentalism will prevent people from understanding the political grievances of Arabs. But the theological similarity between the world’s two big enemy camps remains arresting.
Bush made the religious roots of his politics explicit in his first inaugural speech after his election in 2001. He quoted a letter to Thomas Jefferson, in which John Page said that the unfolding drama of American history was “a storm” directed by “an angel in the whirlwind”. Bush himself concluded his speech with the words, “This story goes on. And an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm.” Few of his listeners will have understood that he was referring to Rach’iel, the “Angel of the Secret Regions and of the Supreme Mysteries”, who, according to apocalyptic theory, was the author of a book in which all celestial and earthly knowledge was set down, and in which the 1,500 keys of the universe were revealed. Bush was clearly implying that his own election was part of a divine plan.
He has repeated this claim on many subsequent occasions: he has said that the “liberty” which he wishes to spread across the world is part of God’s plan; he has said that American values are God-given and valid for the whole of humanity; and he has said that America’s role in the world is no less than “to rid the world of evil”. His supporters also lace their political manifestos with Manichean, religious and highly moralistic vocabulary: Richard Perle co-authored with David Frum (the inventor of the phrase “the axis of evil”) a book whose title called uncompromisingly for An End to Evil. What a goal!
Such language has a long tradition in American political history. When President Woodrow Wilson was trying to get the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, he said that, “Nothing less depends on this decision... than the liberation and salvation of the world.” America, by clear implication, was an instrument for that salvation. Such extreme ideas come directly from the Pilgrim Fathers’ belief that their creation of “a shining city on a hill” was itself part of a divine plan. Such millenarianism is an inevitable component of a fundamentalist Protestantism which rejects the continuing presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and the idea that the Universal Church is Christ’s mystical body on earth, because this rejection is tantamount to saying that the historical events which founded Christianity, namely Christ’s life and death, are of little eschatological importance now. Protestants think the reign of Christ is something abstract and in the future, whereas Catholics believe that salvation is real and present. Consequently, both fundamentalist Protestants and Muslims tend to think that politics is the arena in which the great conflict between good and evil, and hence the drama of human salvation, is played out. This is where the currents of apocalyptic millenarianism come from which are so popular in America – and it is also the source of political fanaticism, because it assumes that politics is a forum for the highest morality.
Extremism is also fostered by the specific role of the clergy in these religions. Because both Islam and Protestantism attribute no or few sacramental powers to their ministers, their conception of the inter-relationship between the divine and the political is radically different from that of Catholics. Whereas Catholics believe that their Church is endowed with a unique right to teach dogma, Protestantism and Islam are both profoundly “democratic” religions. Individual believers are largely free to interpret scripture as they wish, and dogma depends on which imam or pastor you talk to. Paradoxically, this makes these religions more clerical than Catholicism: the role of the minister is greater, and his preaching more central to the act of worship. Cut loose from the anchor of tradition, and from that body which links the natural and the supernatural, such preachings easily degenerate into extremism as the preacher seeks to invent a personal profile for himself. The truth quickly fragments into a thousand pieces – there are literally thousands of Protestant sects, just as Islam has many different schools – and people start to believe anything.
Catholicism, by contrast – which teaches that that salvation is going on every day, and that politics can never provide either peace on earth or an end to evil – is immune to political fundamentalism. Politics is simply not important enough. Of course there can be individual Catholic fanatics, just as there can be Catholic murderers and child abusers, but the body of Catholic teaching can never fall prey to extremism because it is rooted simultaneously in human reality and in eternal truth. The Catholic Church embodies that interpenetration of the supernatural and the real which is the hallmark of our religion: neither is complete without the other.
The different religions’ aesthetics illustrate this point. Both Protestants and Muslims find Catholicism’s physicality repugnant: all those pious ladies clacking their beads in front of bloody images of saints, or of Our Lady with swords sticking out of her chest. They prefer to push the divine into an abstract realm: just as Islam forbids pictorial representation of human figures in mosques, so fundamentalist Protestantism similarly discourages human images, including even the crucified Christ.
The problem, in other words, is not, as liberal agnostics claim, that religions believe that they possess the truth: all religions believe that, especially Catholicism. It is instead that some religions believe that truth is all in the mind. Catholics believe, radically, that divine truth penetrates even now into the very fibre of human existence – rather like a sword in the heart, in fact.
John Laughland is a writer for The Spectator and The Guardian