Liberalism represents an effort to manage conflict; it is a method for resolving disputes but is not, in itself, a resolution. President George W. Bush’s call for a “crusade,” for example, echoed Dwight Eisenhower’s call for a “Great Crusade” against European Fascism, yet was accompanied by strong expressions of respect for religion and, in particular, for Islam. For the president, and within liberalism, these statements were not contradictory. Outward–looking and altruistic idealism—crusading with a small “c”—and tolerance have always coexisted in the liberal tradition.
This tradition developed in the aftermath of the 17th century struggles among Western European states that ended in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. The treaties determined that political toleration for the three great European religious communities of the time—Roman Catholic, Lutheran Christian, and Calvinist Christian—would henceforth be the norm. Indeed, toleration of religious difference—among Christians and even for other religious faiths—was said to be itself a Christian idea. This view was famously expressed by the English philosopher John Locke in his “Letter on Toleration” of 1689:
I esteem that toleration to be the chief characteristic mark of the true Church. For whatsoever some people boast of the antiquity of places and names, or of the pomp of their outward worship; others, of the reformation of their discipline; all, of the orthodoxy of their faith—for everyone is orthodox to himself—these things, and all others of this nature, are much rather marks of men striving for power and empire over one another than of the Church of Christ. Let anyone have never so true a claim to all these things, yet if he be destitute of charity, meekness, and good–will in general towards all mankind, even to those that are not Christians, he is certainly yet short of being a true Christian himself.4
Whether Locke was right about the “true Church,” the idea of toleration, “even to those that are not Christians,” became a basic component of Western liberalism.
The Peace of Westphalia, from which Westerners date the birth of the modern state and the international state system, was an acknowledgment that living together in peace required a formal disinterest on the part of the authorities in what would soon be defined as private matters—notably, religious faith. It also required noninterference in how other rulers ran their own states. From this set of protocols, the formally secular state, the rights of citizens to civil and political freedoms, and other elements of Western liberalism have developed.
These liberal principles have not been fully honored. Persecution of religious minorities never fully ended in Europe, and today there are signs of increased anti–Muslim and anti–Semitic activity in Europe as well as institutionalized suspicion of Muslims in Europe and the United States. Nonetheless, the necessity of accommodation between church and state, of common toleration, and of preserving a bias toward individual freedom has remained characteristic of Western life.
The modern West, then, is both Christian and deliberately, carefully not Christian. This distinct balance came only after ages of religious conflict both between Christian Europe and outsiders and, much more importantly, among Christians themselves. Ever since, Westerners have debated how to balance religious affiliation and state liberalism in public life, as the differing approaches to headscarves in schools in France and the United States suggest.
As an immigrant society, the United States has generally respected private belief more than Europe and insisted less on public conformity. By contrast, European Christianity’s experience of other faiths, Islam in particular, is colored by a history in which conflict played a significant part, leaving in European collective memory a distinct sense of threat. Unlike American religion, European churches have a strong sense of rootedness in place, culture, and local history. This explains why the question of the place of Christianity in the creation of Europe and particularly the supranational European Union is much more “loaded” than comparable debates in the United States. Vaclav Havel argued in 1994 that the “European Union is based on a large set of values, with roots in antiquity and in Christianity.”5 This European sense of a Christian tradition reappeared over the next decade both in the politics of immigration and assimilation and in debates over the nature of the European Union. Former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s assertion that admitting Turkey would be “the end of the European Union” reflected this conviction, as did the remark of Silvio Berlusconi regarding the West and Islam. The debate over whether God or Christian heritage should be mentioned in the European Union’s new constitution is another example of how the West struggles with the appropriate expression of religious affiliation in public life.6 For many Europeans, the exclusion of Christianity from the constitution seemed to deny the importance of the faith in bringing Europeans to where they are today and, perhaps, where they are headed in the future. For others, to acknowledge a particular religion in a document like a constitution would be to introduce a force that has always proved divisive into a process that aims at unity.
These debates make the European response to the Islamic world very different from the American, which focuses largely on issues of geopolitics and foreign policy, with special reference to the Middle East. While the Middle East is still vital from the European point of view, many European politicians now consider Islam a domestic issue, played out in the suburbs of Antwerp and Paris, or the underground of London, while by and large Americans have just started to confront the significance of their own indigenous Muslim communities. Indeed, from the era of Malcolm X until September 11, most Americans associated American Islam with the struggle for civil rights for African Americans rather than with the growing immigrant community.
The situation in the United States is different in another sense, as well. American respect for the religious impulse—of whatever type—has always been high. Unlike that of Europe, American popular culture has generated religious sects and enthusiasms with unmatched fecundity, from Jehovah’s Witnesses to new forms of Buddhism to Scientology and the heterodox Nation of Islam.7 What is incomprehensible to American believers is not other beliefs but unbelief, which was the charge against “atheistic” or “Godless” Communism during the cold war. The United States’ enlistment of religious Muslim allies against atheist Communist parties in the Muslim world sprang, in part, from this moral vision of the anti–Communist struggle.
The administration of George W. Bush came into office advocating a greater presence for religion in public life. This was not necessarily intolerant; the “faith–based charities” that the administration sought to support, for example, included Muslim charities, not least because Islam is the fastest–growing religion in America and is especially strong among the black urban poor.8 However, the administration was itself unusually Christian in its outlook and willing to use Christian faith as a political tool in advancing certain social policies, such as promoting the traditional family and discouraging abortion.
Yet since September 11, the avowedly Christian element in the Bush administration has gone some distance to make it clear that Christianity as such—of any type—is not the basis of Americanism.9 This is true as well for American public opinion; a poll conducted by the respected Pew Research Center following the September 11 attacks captures the ambiguities of the situation:
Favorable views of Muslim–Americans have risen from 45% in March to 59% today, even though 40% of the public think the terrorists were motivated at least in part by religion when they carried out the Sept. 11 attacks. The survey finds clear evidence that Americans are heeding President Bush’s call for tolerance toward Muslims, and the President’s own core constituents—conservative Republicans—have shown by far the biggest turnaround. Nearly two–thirds of conservative Republicans (64%) feel favorably toward Muslims in this country, up 29 percentage points since March.10