American Timidity?

America’s founding documents — the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist Papers — are, when read, potentially lethal. Debates about American exceptionalism abound. Writing in the Wall Street Journal before the bombings in Libya, Daniel Henninger brought these currents together in the context of present Arab world turmoil as they relate to Chinese power. The reason why the world may not eventually fall to Islam, Henninger suggests, concerns China’s power, not the strength of democracy. “Is U.S. Democracy Just Talk?” Henninger asks, to remind us that a third way exists to respond to both.

“Is it just talk?” is the question. Behind democracy stands the history of regime changes from Aristotle to the French and American revolutions. Ecclesiastical sources constantly echo Pope Paul VI’s phrase, “No More Wars Ever Again!” This approach, like diplomacy itself, often appears as an apology for the status quo, a tacit approval of existing regimes, even despotisms. The only justification for anything is “humanitarian,” the only mode is “dialogue.”

When President Barack Obama came to power, amid much talk, he assured us that he knew the Arab world. When the Arab world erupted, he was quiet — at least up to Libya, where he apparently followed President Bill Clinton’s model of bombing Bosnia.

President George W. Bush was accused of trying to change things that did not want to be, or could not be, changed. The turmoil in the Arab world, however, was aroused by the appeal to better forms of government launched by this much-criticized president. American founding documents were called to the attention of the world. Something universal was found in them. The main problem with this path is whether, in the name of democracy, radical Islam will come to power democratically.

In George Weigel’s second book on Pope John Paul II, The End and the Beginning, he notes the resistance in the Vatican Secretariat of State to John Paul’s efforts to revolutionize the Marxist world. Neither diplomats nor scholars thought that it was wise to do anything. President Ronald Reagan was given the same treatment: Nothing could be changed. The pope and president thought otherwise.

Henninger’s argument is similar. When the opportunity arose to change things in Islam, our leaders were not ready. The stakes are high, Henninger warns: The next half century will be concerned primarily with Islam and China. America seems to be withdrawing into itself. Europeans are too few and too old. At the moment, the pivotal point is the Islamic world. To some degree, it has already invaded the West in mind and territory.


To the degree that the United States renounces any active effort to reorient oppressive governments, the people of the world will gradually adjust to Chinese dominance. The United States seems to be a democracy that just talks. Islam has no real military power: Its terrorism won’t work against the Chinese.

“If U.S. timidity is seen as U.S. acquiescence to a system of ‘reformed’ Middle East autocracies, the debate between the American and the Chinese models is over,” Henninger writes. Many in the present administration think that we should rid ourselves of the rhetoric of our founding. At home, to have a “government of the people, for the people, and by the people” is fine. But spread too far afield, it only causes trouble. Besides, Islam has little sympathy for self-government, the thinking goes. The people in the streets will only end up founding multiple Iranian and Saudi-type regimes while piously calling them “democracies.” We need the oil; best let the despots sit on top of their unemployed youth. These states have no idea about a modern economy. They prosper because the rest of the world industrialized without them.

The increasing persecution of Christians that goes on in many Islamic states is barely noticed. No one wants to face the ambitions of Islam itself to subject the world to Allah. It sounds preposterous. Nor does a forum exist in which the truth of Islamic doctrinal sources can be examined without fear of retaliation. It goes against “respect” for another’s point of view. Yet this examination is the immediate issue of our time.

Is it just talk? Henninger’s query separates brave from timid men, statesmen from dilettantes lacking insight into the forces that move our time. When oppressed peoples call out in our own words, we barely hear. It would risk changing the world we cannot police. Timidity does seem to be the right word. But the founders did not just talk.

Yet the same founders warned about entangling foreign wars and plots. Moreover, democracy today is based not on a Christian and classical view of man, but on individualist autonomy, unrelated to any transcendence. Is this what the world really needs? Is the world really “safe” with such an understanding of democracy? The root of U.S. timidity may well be rooted in a forgetfulness of its own teachings about what sort of regime it is.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent book is Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017).

  • Steve P

    There is perhaps an insurmountable obstacle to supporting democracy in the Islamic world. Whether in terms of concrete aid (arming those who oppose despots, for example), or even supporting them in terms of rhetoric and principle. The fact is that Western notions of self-determination as espoused in our founding documents are inextricably linked to Christian anthropology, at least as expressed over the last few centuries.

    So the obstacle is whether these worldviews can be reconciled– can devout Muslims embrace the messy implications of a society that could decide it is better off without Allah? And if that is the direction the political winds blow, what is the devout Muslim to do in response?

    We already know that the Christian response is not to coerce others into our religious practice, but is Islam capable of the critical self-examination that has led Christians to this conclusion? Until that can be demonstrated, one will have a hard time seeing the resemblance between an “Islamic democracy” and its historically Western counterparts.

    By the way, don’t count out places like India in these considerations, with an enormous population under a constitutionally democratic (Western-influenced) government, mixed in with a very different religious culture and a powerful developing economy.

  • Michael PS

    I spend a good deal of my time in France and there I have been struck by the way that many Muslims, and especially Muslim women, are manifesting their confidence in the Republic and proclaiming their adherence to its values.

    The president of the Muslim women

  • Tim H

    any of what you are saying Fr Schall.

    Maybe I am missing something but you seem to be saying that democracy in America has to mean some kind of heavy handed interventionist foreign policy.

    I get a part of what you are saying – that is we don’t have a heavy handed foreign policy China will take that approach more actively and more productively, but that is no more than speculation.

    Why do we have to have a foreign policy only through threat of force? We can talk with Libya, limit there choices, refrain from giving money or being seen as doing business with it’s leader, in other words, do a lot of stuff wihtout actually bombing the country.

    Moreover, why does our government itself have to have such huge foreign policy exertions. Isn’t the point of foreign interaction to get the peoples of each country to interact and not the governments. I know this seems very individualistic but I simply don’t know that it’s possible for the government to do much of anything positive in this realm other than smooth the way for the wheels of interaction (commerce, visits, etc).

  • stosh

    It is all in the language, especially with this President, who was elected because he spoke well. Words and phrases like “Democracy” and “Values We Hold” are purposely being blurred in order to infer that we are all the same, want the same, etc.

    While I am not optimistic (individual autonomy will probably win out over truth…it is just too seductive), I do sense just enough resistance to the “invasion of mind”. Resisting Imam Rauf who thought he had conquered modern English jargon just enough to portray NY Mosque as a symbol of multiculturalism and peace. (Anyone who uses the word “peace” in every other sentence has to be suspect)

  • CPMH

    I don’t really follow . . . any of what you are saying Fr Schall.

    I believe Father Schall has been trying to alert Catholics and the Church hierarchy to grave risks we have refused to face, even at this late hour. In this essay he paints the battle lines between the U.S. and Islam. But that is only because, unlike the middle ages, Catholics no longer command an army and the United States is the most militarily powerful Christian nation on the planet. I believe Father Schall believes that religion ultimately drives political structure and is quite concerned that we are losing ours while Islam is intact.

    The underlying battle line that I believe he sees is one about truth and falsehood which began with the birth of what Hilaire Belloc (who he extensively quotes) defined as the heresy of Christianity which began with Islam in the sixth century. To better understand his position you may want to read the following two articles Father Schall also authored:


    “Islam Will Not Be the Loser”

  • Carl

    Timidity, the pursuit of a life of ease and decadence history has shown gets you eaten every time! Just ask the first two little pigs who built their houses out of straw and sticks!

    The third pig little pig with planning and a solid foundation had the wolf for supper!

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