It is important for any people to understand the reasons for its wars, and the nature of its enemies. For Americans, the question of why we fight always raises issues as old as our Republic. It requires reference to principles which are the very foundation of that Republic.
The war against terrorism is not a war against Islam. It is not a war against an extreme and fanatical interpretation of Islam. We are not fighting, and must never fight, a religious war. We are in fact a nation founded in the hope and promise of being a bulwark against religious warfare. The peaceful and ordered liberty of America is deeply, specifically rooted in our universal respect for the rights of conscience, and in our exercise of religious freedom. Our principle of religious liberty is a standing inspiration to the world to abandon religious warfare everywhere.
Bin Laden has declared religious war on America, but we are not fighting a religious war against him. We are not bombing terrorists because of their beliefs about God. We are seeking to destroy an association of men who have taken violent, evil action against the innocent in our country. Our actions are in response not to sectarian ideas about God, but to actions which shocked every decent human conscience, regardless of religion.
This distinction – between sectarian ideas about God and the notion of “decent human conscience” – is what makes the combination of liberty and moral order possible. And, in modified form, it guides our relations with the rest of the world as well.
The Declaration principles on which America stands were proposed by our founders to the world as “self-evident.” The most important of these principles is the equal dignity of all men has been established by a power beyond human will, and no political order can be truly legitimate except in the measure it acknowledges, if only implicitly, the equal dignity of all.
The principle of human equality carries with it the corollary requirement that government receive the consent of the governed. Paradoxically, this can mean at times more enlightened citizens must show great patience in awaiting the consent of the governed to measures necessary for the political order more perfectly to embody the principle of equality. As Lincoln’s life taught us, such patience can be a supreme virtue of the American statesman.
The implementation of the Declaration’s self-evident principles can be complicated and long-delayed, even within a regime explicitly dedicated to their fulfillment. It should be no surprise, then, that American foreign and security policy must deal with a world of people and nations for whom effective respect for the dignity of all men is often much more remote. America is, at its best, a patient statesman for the community of nations, seeking to evoke by the authentic consent of those nations a respect for the universal principles of human dignity and self-government which cannot be imposed from without.
What does patience of this sort have to do with avoiding religious war? Religious profession and practice are the source of the most profound commitments to morality, to respect for the laws of nature and of nature’s God. Religion is, accordingly, essential to the possibility of a people’s effort to build a political order which respects human dignity under God. But religion is also, at least in this life, the source of ineradicable disagreements over the specific forms and methods by which the morally good life is to be lived. Religion thus appears both necessary and deadly to the peace of ordered liberty.
The American solution to this dilemma is to acknowledge religion as a principal source of moral goodness, while recognizing the danger of religious sectarianism only and precisely insofar as it appears in the form of actions which are immoral regardless of motive. The ruthless destruction of innocent human life, however it may cloak itself in a false language of theology or religiosity, is always and everywhere evil because it is the most manifest repudiation possible of the principle of human equality. This is one reason our founders listed life first among the rights with which our Creator endowed us.
The American political order exists to advance the attempt of self-governing free people to secure the rights with which the Creator endows them. Those, at home or abroad, who assault those rights by violent action have declared war on the first principles of American life, and must be opposed accordingly.
In calling on the world to assist in the war on terror, we depend upon the fact that the first principles of American life are, implicitly, the first principles of decent conscience in any man. We depend upon the self-evident truth that disregard for the life of the innocent is evil, whatever its motive. And that is why we summon the world to join us in a war not of religion, but of the universal order of natural justice which America has, from the beginning, sought to exemplify to the world.