Philip J. Palin reviews Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism, by George Weigel. A Catholic scholar argues for reason as a weapon in the current struggle. The reviewer wonders about American culture’s readiness to deploy reason or faith and asks Weigel to give us more.

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Suggested Citation

Palin, Philip. “George Kennan’s Ghost: Faith Reason, and the War Against Jihadism by George Weigel.” Homeland Security Affairs 4, Article 7 (June 2008). https://www.hsaj.org/articles/594

George Kennan’s ghost haunts the halls of Washington, faculty offices across the land, and embassies around the world. As author of the “Long Telegram from Moscow” and the pseudonymous “X” of The Sources of Soviet Conduct, Kennan articulated the core character of America’s adversary at the beginning of the Cold War. Moreover he described the adversary with such clarity that when he set out strategies for securing U.S. interests it seems – at least in retrospect – as if the Red Sea parted and we merely walked across on dry ground.

Where is our “Long Email from Baghdad?” Our Sources of Terrorist Conduct? Where is our wise and persuasive statement of fundamental policy? Where is our Kennan? Our Moses?

When “X” appeared in a 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs, Kennan’s policy leadership seemed preeminent. Barely three years later Kennan had lost much of his influence and expressed frustration as Paul Nitze misapplied Kennan’s strategy in NSC-68. 1 To some it seemed the nuanced insight of Moses was succeeded by an aggressive campaign of latter day Joshuas.

In his valuable new book George Weigel writes:

The United States needs the equivalent of an NSC-68 for the twenty-first century struggle against jihadism, an alternative conception of the human future carried by a messianic creed and advanced by ruthless means. Which, come to think of it, was precisely what Dean Acheson and Paul Nitze were facing in 1950. If they could see clearly and plan prudently then, there is no reason why we cannot do the same now. (Page 94)

Weigel tells us what he sees. It is clear to Weigel that jihadism is an irrational worldview rooted in a fundamentally non-rational – perhaps anti-rational – theological framework. Just as Kennan pointed toward the Soviet Union’s dismissal of objective truth as a key to understanding it – or as Nitze wrote of the Soviet will to absolute power – Weigel argues that we must fully recognize the irrational nature of our present adversary.

In previous works, especially American Interests, American Purpose: Moral Reasoning and U.S. Foreign Policy (Praeger, 1989), Weigel has critiqued ideologues of both left and right as simplistic and, ultimately, destined for failure. In Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism he once again points to a rigorous application of reason as the principal means for advancing the Good. He writes:

Understanding the inevitable irony, pathos, and tragedy of history; being alert to the dangers of unintended consequences; maintaining a robust skepticism about schemes of human perfection (especially when politics is the chosen instrument of salvation); cherishing democracy without worshiping it…remain essential intellectual grounding for anyone thinking seriously about U.S. foreign policy in the war against jihadism. (Page 77)

As befits a distinguished Catholic theologian, Weigel organizes his text around fifteen lessons, or what Thomas Aquinas might have called propositions. These include:

Lesson 1: The great human questions, including the great questions of public life, are ultimately theological.

Lesson 8: Genuine realism in foreign policy takes wickedness seriously, yet avoids premature closure in its thinking about the possibilities of positive change in world politics.

Lesson 11: Cultural self-confidence is indispensable to victory in the long-term struggle against jihadism.

In his Summa, Aquinas engaged a proposition by acknowledging the principal objections to the statement. Then he dealt with the objections and argued a demonstrable proof. Weigel is not attempting a Summa. His subtitle is a Call to Action and his aim is to rally rather more than carefully explicate.

But I worry how accurately Weigel will be read, especially by the most action-oriented. For example, he begins Lesson 1 with, “How men and women think about God – or don’t think about God – has a great deal to do with how they envision a just society, and how they determine the appropriate means by which to build that society.” (Page 13) I happen to agree. But it strikes me as treacherous to assume most readers will fully accept the statement, much less perceive the related second-order implications on which much of Weigel’s book depends.

He may be worried as well. A bit later Weigel writes, “Tone deafness to the fact that for the overwhelming majority of humanity, religious conviction provides the (Weigel’s italics) story line through which life’s meaning is read is, in one sense, a by-product of a disinclination to acknowledge the truth of what has become something of a cliché: that ‘ideas have consequences.’” (Page 14) It is also true that ideas can have complicated pedigrees, surprising relationships, and unintended – even counter-intuitive – consequences. The vast majority of Americans are self-confessed religious believers. But a religious person may have difficulty – may actively resist – empathizing with the religious imagination of their adversary.

Some have argued we should hope for an Islamic Luther or Calvin. Weigel seems to suggest an Islamic Aquinas or Erasmus would be more helpful. More likely too, I would add. Application of God-given reason will expose religiously justified terrorism as unacceptable, even haraam. Weigel argues that faith and reason, together, are crucial tools to apply in dealing with our terrorist adversary. But do we have sufficient understanding of the tools? Weigel is also author of a best selling biography of Pope John Paul II (Witness to Hope) and a long list of serious texts examining the interplay of faith and reason with contemporary issues. I wonder if he over-estimates the religious literacy – and religious self-awareness – of many readers.

Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism is a little book, only 195 pages in an 8×5 inch format reminiscent of a devotional. Short can be good. The “Long Telegram” was about six pages of 10-point type. Even NSC-68 only ran to fifty-eight pages. But both Kennan and Nitze had the advantage of writing for men of similar education and worldview who had shared the common experience of fighting a World War together. That is not our situation.

Weigel recognizes he is writing for a more fractured generation. He describes

[A] culture far more given to self-deprecation than to critical self-affirmation. A culture addicted to self-deprecation is unlikely to be able to defend its commitments to, say, democracy and the rule of law. A culture in which the habit, the virtue, of self-critique and self-correction has deteriorated into self-contempt is a culture that is unlikely to be able to meet the challenge of a self-confident culture in the war of ideas… We will neither deserve victory nor achieve it if we do not deem ourselves and our culture worthy of victory. (Pages 110-111)

Weigel does not give sustained attention to American or Western culture’s complicated attitude toward its own religious foundations. Does our self-deprecation and self-contempt extend to our Judeo-Christian roots?

An answer is implied. Weigel writes, “A West that has airbrushed from its collective memory the contributions of biblical religion to its present freedoms is a West that is in a poor position to meet the challenge of a religiously shaped alternative reading of the past, present, and future.” (Page 117) This is taken from the third and last section of the book entitled “Deserving Victory.” (Part One: Understanding the Enemy, Part Two: Rethinking Realism.) Appropriate for a Call to Action, this section offers several policy prescriptions. But I was left wondering about the cultural, intellectual, and perhaps spiritual preconditions for such policies to be effectively implemented.

Understanding an adversary is advantageous. When we recognize the predisposition of our adversary we can better anticipate its targets and methods. The same understanding will allow us to better target our own defensive and offensive decisions.

In the case of jihadism Weigel is surely correct that we will not understand our adversary unless we engage its religious dimension. He goes on – too quickly, I perceive – to argue that Islam should not be seen as one of three related religions. His second lesson is: “To speak of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the ‘three Abrahamic faiths’… obscures rather than illuminates.” (Page 17) He did not persuade me on this count. But even accepting for argument’s sake that Islam in general and the jihadists in particular are entirely “other” than Jewish or Christian, how might Jews, Christians, or their secular cultural cousins begin to understand the religious other if not through our own religious experience and imagination?

What is the state of faith and reason within our own culture? Do we have sufficient tools of intellect and empathy regarding our own theology (implicit or explicit) to recognize – or differentiate – the religious impulse of our adversary?

I hope Weigel will treat his present “little book” as an annotated outline for his own Summa. Like Thomas Aquinas I hope he will begin with first principles – some long neglected and even forgotten – and remind us of our intellectual and ethical foundations, our whys and therefores, and will make his full case for how faith and reason can be good partners in confronting our critical challenges.

Then I look forward to an equally well-reasoned contra-Weigel emerging in response. These are days when we clearly need our own Plato and Aristotle, our own Thomas Aquinas versus Siger de Brabant, our own Kennan and our own Nitze. It is precisely in the exchange of well-reasoned and divergent thought that we claim the advantage over any adversary who seeks to limit freedom of thought. The adversary Kennan and Nitze faced and the one we face today are radically different. But they share a narrow-minded intolerance for any truth but their own. That is their greatest vulnerability.

Philip J. Palin is a senior fellow with the National Institute for Strategic Preparedness and co-author of Catastrophe Preparation and Prevention (McGraw-Hill, 2008).

  1. NSC-68 or National Security Council Report 68, entitled United States Objectives and Programs for National Security was adopted on April 14, 1950 and remained a pillar of national policy for most of the Cold War.

This review was originally published at the URL https://www.hsaj.org/?fullarticle=4.2.7.

Copyright © 2008 by the author(s). Homeland Security Affairs is an academic journal available free of charge to individuals and institutions. Because the purpose of this publication is the widest possible dissemination of knowledge, copies of this journal and the articles contained herein may be printed or downloaded and redistributed for personal, research or educational purposes free of charge and without permission. Any commercial use of Homeland Security Affairs or the articles published herein is expressly prohibited without the written consent of the copyright holder. The copyright of all articles published in Homeland Security Affairs rests with the author(s) of the article. Homeland Security Affairs is the online journal of the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS). https://www.hsaj.org

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