National Catholic Register

Commentary

Truth, Freedom and the Taliban Way

What do Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama all have in common?

BY Kevin Hasson

November 11-17, 2001 Issue | Posted 11/11/01 at 1:00 PM

 

According to Andrew Sullivan, they all are or were dangerous fundamentalists.

Writing in the New York Times Sunday Magazine of October 7, Sullivan says we should all stop pussy-footing around and admit that the war with the Al Qaeda terrorist network really is a religious war. It's just not a conventional religious war of, say, Christianity or Judaism versus Islam.

Rather, says Sullivan, “it is a war of fundamentalism against faiths of all kind that are at peace with freedom and modernity.”

And just who are these menacing fundamentalists who are so valiantly opposed by freedom-loving moderns?

In a spectacular exercise in throwing the baby out with the bathwater, Sullivan announces that the enemy is not just a splinter group of Islamic extremists. No, anyone who really believes in a truth greater than himself is a fundamentalist and, thus, a potential enemy.

You see, says Sullivan, if you “believe that there is an eternal afterlife and that endless indescribable torture awaits those who disobey God's law, then it requires no huge stretch of imagination to make sure that you not only conform to each diktat but that you also encourage and, if necessary, coerce others to do the same.” This, he says, is necessarily true of all fundamentalists, whether Muslim, Christian or other (Sullivan conveniently finds room in fundamentalism for Nazis and Soviets, lest he have to concede that militant atheists have wreaked far more death and destruction on civilization than militant believers have.)

Enlightened freedom-loving moderns and post-moderns, evidently, know better than to take eternity too seriously.

In short, anyone who really believes in a higher truth is a fundamentalist who is presumed to be armed and dangerous. Why? Because anybody who serves truth must be an enemy of freedom.

That is, of course, the case with the Taliban, one of whose many errors is to quash freedom in order to serve truth. But Andrew Sullivan makes a similar mistake himself. For Sullivan, as for the Taliban, one cannot have both truth and freedom. It's just that, for Sullivan, freedom is more important than truth, while, for the Taliban, truth is more important than freedom.

What neither Sullivan nor the Taliban understands is that freedom is oriented toward truth and truth guarantees freedom. Not only are the two not opposed to one another, they are inseparable.

We have a right to search for God and to live out the results of our search free from coercion.

This is hardly a new idea. It is, as Jesus himself said, the truth that makes us free.

Moreover, the inseparability of freedom and truth is at the very heart of the Second Vatican Council and its Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.

Now the Taliban may, perhaps, be forgiven for not having read Vatican II. Andrew Sullivan, who is a Catholic, may not. Religious freedom is one of the most important developments in Church teaching of the past century and Pope John Paul II has shouted it from the housetops. Indeed, the relationship of truth to freedom is the central theme not only of his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, but, many think, of his entire papacy.

On the 30th anniversary of Dignitatis Humanae, for example, the Pope stressed that, in “defending religious freedom, the Church … is defending the truth about the human person.”

That truth, according to the Holy Father, is that we “are religious by nature,” because we are “gifted by the Creator with intelligence and will.” So, in the “depths of our being, we yearn for God and struggle to find him. … It is the integrity and legitimacy of that dialogue between the human heart and mind and the Creator that we defend when we defend the inalienable right to religious freedom.”

In other words, according to Dignitatis Humanae, the truth about man is that we all come with a built-in thirst for the truth, who is God. We naturally seek him and are required by our nature, upon finding him, to obey him.

That part of our nature is so profound that it gives us the right to search for God and to live out the results of our search free from coercion by anyone else. In fact, we cannot be coerced even to believe the truth — or, for that matter, even to begin to search for it if we refuse.

Of course, there are limits. No one has the religious freedom to harm another, much less to commit murder and mayhem. Nevertheless, as wrong as the members of the Taliban are — and they are monstrously wrong — one of their errors is not theirs alone, but is shared by none other than Andrew Sullivan.

Freedom and truth are not competing values. Rather, it is the truth itself that guarantees our freedom to search for it.

Kevin Hasson is president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C.