From the Publisher: The War of Ideas

One of my priest friends hates the phrase “war of ideas.” St. Paul didn’t — and neither did Erasmus. To the very depths of one’s mind and heart, they thought, a Christian does combat against “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” and true Christian faith is constantly attacked from all sides. Today, moreover, some groups within the Catholic Church believe that the “class struggle” is a fact, and that from that fact in places such as El Salvador and Nicaragua springs an actual shooting war. John Berryman observes in Liberation Theology that the Sandinistas recruited their cadres from the Christian “base communities” and student organizations at the Catholic university. Other Christians resist them.

In El Salvador, four armed persons broke into a private home in San Salvador and shot an eighty-year-old paterfamilias in the knees, even as he was seated in a wheel chair. One of the intruders, who was shot before exiting, was an East German woman; others were identified as former students at the Jesuit university. “With us,” the older man’s son said, “the war is not fought only with ideas.”

In a world of universal communications, moreover, there is bound to be — and quite properly — a constant struggle for liberty and justice. This often entails struggle among competing ideas (some prefer to say ideologies) concerning how to design a free and just system. Even within free systems, there are also powerful arguments for and against various sets of priorities, programs, and methods for reaching agreed-upon goals.

Ideas matter. Ideas have consequences. And various groups mobilize behind ideas to which they are attracted and attached. Factions, our Framers taught us here in the United States, are to liberty as air to fire. Insofar as liberty entails choice among alternatives, a free republic is bound to engender civic arguments concerning the next course of action.

Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas observed that civilization (as opposed to barbarism) is constituted by civil argument in which citizens, convinced of each other’s capacity for understanding and free will, attempt to influence one another’s judgments and to forge public choices by rational persuasion, never by coercion.

In this respect, atheists have long argued that religious peoples are peculiarly unfit for social didcourse, precisely because they too often demonize those who oppose them and theocratize their own purposes. Such a fault, when it occurs, they call “theological imperialism,” insofar as its very premises disrupt the possibility of civil argument.

The opposite fault, of course, occurs when persons of one horizon (the horizon of faith, for example) fail to speak from within that horizon, and instead conform their thought and speech to some lesser “common denominator.” In such cases, they fail to speak in their own voice. They leave the public square empty of their own particular witness.

Both these faults, visible often enough in our society, indicate that the “war of ideas” properly demands a special civil etiquette. Religious “progressives” quite rightly hate it when conservative fundamentalists accuse them of immorality, heresy, lack of patriotism, and treason to basic principles. Religious “conservatives” quite rightly hate it when progressive fundamentalists (often these days also Bible-thumping) accuse them of immorality, heresy, etc.

Indeed, curiously enough these days, where a person aligns herself politically often brings down upon her a more passionate and quasi-religious condemnation than her religious alignment does. Worse still, the more extreme progressive Catholics have as little as possible to do with conservative Catholics, and vice versa. Progressives from diverse churches meet comfortably together, often to join in denouncing political conservatives. Conservatives from diverse churches do the same to progressives. Sadly, the ecumenical movement seems far less split along religious than along political lines.

Thus, the most desperately needed ecumenical movement today may be across political lines. This new ecumenical movement will require study, prayer, self-discipline — and tons of patience. While theological passions simmer, and political passions boil, we have all learned to surround religious differences with respect and dignity. We have not yet learned to do so regarding political differences.

Properly conducted, a war of ideas must obey the rules of ideas, not those of war. Immensely serious temporal matters are at stake. Yet these matters are by no means transcendental. They are not subject to luminous certainty. They are matters thoroughly permeated with contingency, dubiety, irony, tragedy — and, yes, with a need for practical wisdom: close to experience, subject to falsifiability, and open to changes of mind in accord with fresh evidence.

The transcendent dimensions of Jewish and Christian faith, in particular, ought to make those locked in merely political disagreements especially willing to cherish the opinions of those who radically disagree with them. Political passion may tempt us to regard those who disagree with us as enemies. Yet even here, believers are pulled up short by the injunction: “Love your enemies.” Those who most radically disagree with us — who in practical matters work against the very projects we work for — are the very ones to whom we ought to draw closer, to discern the wisdom hidden in what they say. They are never wholly wrong.

In matters certain, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty to disagree; and in matters of political disagreement especially, charity.

Therefore, to take the edges off political passion is no mean vocation in our world today. To delight in conversation with passionate enemies — to respect important differences, and to continue in opposition, but in a sisterly-brotherly spirit — is a good way to pursue the truth in contingent, disputed, and preeminently doubtful matters. In human experience, life among brothers is seldom peaceful; on the contrary! Yet brothers we remain.

Finally, it is far better to believe in the war of ideas than in economic (or other) determinism. In our age, political conversions occur frequently. Absolute faith in politics is diminishing all around the world, not least in Marxist countries. (Not in politics are human beings saved.) In any case, the first battleground of the war of ideas lies within our own individual minds, not between us and others. It is in our own judgments that rival inspirations clash and inner certainties rise and fall. The ground of the possibility of political conversion lies here: in the drama of conflicting stories, ideas, and concrete projects at war in our own hearts.

In such an arena, the human spirit is superior to the ideas that at one time or another grip it. It tests them. It outlives them. Therefore, to become perfect is to learn from experience and — to borrow from Cardinal Newman — to have changed often. In this struggle, our political foes at any one time provide for us an immense service to truth: To the degree we pay them the compliment of serious listening, they oblige us to reconsider.

In turning down the heat of political passion, moreover, we turn up the frequency of flashes of quiet light.

From all this a moral: Take a political “enemy” to lunch. Better yet: Spend as many long evenings as you can bringing down the level of a bottle of brandy in his company. (Carrot juice, if he prefers). To locate exactly the points of disagreement between you, and the reasons for them, is a very high art, whose difficult learning requires well-spent time.

We hope these pages more and more reflect the disagreements among good people in our time, civilly addressed. We advise our readers, further, that sipping brandy as they read will evoke the proper quiet spirit.


Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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