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Faith and Force: Mixing religion, politics incompatible with liberty

Op-Ed by Peter Schwartz


America’s war on terrorism is being undercut by the Republican administration’s efforts to inject religion into politics. Our national enemy is the ideology of Islamic totalitarianism, which holds that one’s life is to be lived entirely in service to Allah, that the dictates of the mullahs must be unquestioningly obeyed, and that jihad must be waged against all who refuse. Islamic totalitarianism, which pervades Muslim societies, is a sweeping repudiation of reason in favor of faith and of freedom in favor of force. These make it America’s deadly enemy.


When reason is categorically abandoned, people can deal with one another only by force. People who accept reason as their sole means of knowledge can settle differences by persuasion; the one with facts and logic on his side will prevail. But if faith—i.e., the embrace of beliefs contrary to reason—is one’s ruling principle, there is no peaceful way to resolve conflicts. There can be no appeal to facts, no logic, no rational arguments. There can be only the insistence that some non-provable belief be accepted. And what could back up that insistence other than fists or guns, or airplanes smashing into buildings?

Politically, if religious faith dominates, freedom will not be permitted. If the basic political goal is the secular one of defending individual rights, then each person has sovereignty over his life and is left free by the state to think for himself and to pursue his own values. But if the basic goal is to implement the will of some unfathomable deity, then the citizen cannot be allowed to exercise his own judgment and to challenge divine authority.

The religionist believes there is no difference between the crime of, say, murder, and the uttering of some religious heresy. Both acts defy God’s commandments and so must be punished. The demand for blind faith does not acknowledge the inviolability of man’s rational mind.

This clash between faith and freedom is not confined to Islam. When medieval Christianity ruled the West, it allowed no dissent from ecclesiastic doctrine. The Crusades and the Inquisition were part of the Church’s attempts to quell its infidels. However, this despotism ended when the Enlightenment—which did not penetrate the Muslim world—demonstrated the power and the glory of the human mind, and established reason over faith.

This philosophy led ultimately to the founding of the first free nation: America. At the time, religion had long been an integral part of government throughout the world, with monarchs reigning by divine right. Enlightenment thinkers realized that a nation based on individual liberty had to also be free of religion’s power, so they established the principle—the secular principle—of separation between church and state.

Obviously, there can be secular forms of unreason, which also lead to tyranny (such as Marxism, with its view that “tools of production” control the content of one’s mind). Secularism is not a sufficient condition for freedom but a necessary one. A proper rational government is limited by the imperative not to violate individual rights. But the government envisioned by religionists—the one for which the Bush administration is laying the groundwork—has unlimited power that will be exercised whenever officials care to claim to be following divine instructions.

Today’s religionists want government to discourage research on embryonic stem cells. They want it to promote the Biblical account of life’s origins. They want it to urge schoolchildren to pray. Why? Not because these are logically defensible, but because they supposedly represent God’s will. The religionists want us to revert to a pre-Enlightenment age, when faith and force ruled—the twin tools of Osama bin Laden and his fellow jihadists.

Before the Bush administration, in traditional America, unlike most of the Muslim world, most religious persons retained some respect for reason. They generally understood that religion should be a private matter and that church and state should be separate. They would oppose, say, making the Bible America’s official Constitution, as the Koran is officially Saudi Arabia’s; they would oppose sentencing apostates to death, as Iran’s criminal code demands. The extent to which reason prevails over faith is the extent to which freedom prevails over tyranny.

The recent presidential election should be taken as a mandate for defeating Islamic totalitarianism: destroying its practitioners, eliminating its state sponsors, and renouncing its ideology of imposing religion by force. But if the election is taken as a mandate to bring faith into politics, America will be cultivating at home the very evil it is supposed to be fighting abroad.

Peter Schwartz is chairman of the board of directors of the Ayn Rand Institute. Address comments to




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