Making Men A Bit Less Devilish

by John Mark Reynolds [author, academic]

President Elect Obama has a unique chance to win the war against terrorism by the judicious use of force combined the right ideas sold through his awesome rhetorical skills. He has a clean slate and the attention of much of the world. Picking the right ideas to argue is essential to victory.

If your neighbor has bad ideas, then he is likely to do bad things. Laws and might may force him to behave, but the neighborhood will remain in danger. If your neighbor can be converted to better ideas, then force will not be necessary and peace will cost nothing.

In the same way, terrorists motivated by false religious beliefs must not just lose on the battlefield, but intellectually. We must fight, but the battle should contain intellectual and moral components as well as military force.

Millions of humans are open to lies, because they view the alternatives as worse. This does nothing to justify terrorism or extremism, but does suggest what will have to be done to make terrorism and the extreme ideologies that support it unpalatable to the millions of people who would otherwise be likely to accept it.

There will always be extremists in any large group of people, but normally their ideas will have little appeal to most fellow citizens. Extremists are attractive to many, in part, because they think the alternatives are cultural decay, libertine values, and greed.

President Elect Obama is smart enough to recognize that the problem with terrorists’ beliefs is not that they are religious, but that they are false and wicked. Terrorists must be opposed intellectually and morally, but Obama must pick the right arguments.

Secularism will not be useful intellectually or culturally. It is the wrong message to send.

Much of the world’s population associates secularism with features of American culture they understandably reject, such as our consumerism and broken families. Second, right or not the vast majority of the world views Western secularism as intellectually wrong and personally unappealing. They rightly reject the indefensible idea that they should compartmentalize their religious beliefs from the rest of their lives.

What are the right arguments for President Obama to make?

First, terrorism demeans religious faith. It is the product of fear and not love. It is the strategy of the fearful and not those secure in the righteousness of their cause. Terrorism concedes the intellectual battle is lost and so insults the religion it purports to defend.

The terrorist is arrogant in his individualism. He refuses the virtue of prudence and patience. He refuses to submit to God’s will and tries to wrest history into his own control.

Terrorism, therefore, is doomed to failure.

Second, terrorism is inconsistent with the moral teachings of the great monotheistic faiths. Terrorism, which intentionally targets noncombatants, lacks the virtues of the warrior: courage and the defense of a just society using just means.

Third, terrorist groups are intellectually unserious. They have no plan for victory or a plausible alternative society. Where extremists have gained power, such as in Iran, they have proven incapable of ruling well and have done nothing to provide a plausible alternative to Western secularism.

Finally, political liberty is not the same as libertine morality. A free market is not a justification for greed and exploitation. Law is necessary because men and women are imperfect, but the ideal is liberty. If the state makes me be good, much of the value of the act is lost. The chance to freely choose virtue, instead of having charity coerced by the state, is a chance for real virtue.

Personal liberty and economic freedom are opportunities for holy living. The fact that some Western people misuse their freedom should surprise nobody, but they do not represent our best ideals or ambitions as a people.

Because we make an action legal does not mean we like it.

President Elect Obama is religious like most of the world. He has shown global appeal and might be able to persuade many to take another look at the United States and our values.

This is not an idle hope.

People are created in God’s image and each heart contains memories of that nature. We are broken enough that intellectual and passionate appeals to better oneself do not always work. That is why war will be with us this side of paradise. Persuasive words from a President can never fundamentally fix our problems . . . that is not government’s job.

As Lincoln and Reagan demonstrated, however, the right arguments can make a difference. People do not have to be perfect to make tolerable neighbors. As Theodore Roosevelt pointed out, a strong American fleet and the magnificent pulpit of the White House can help.

President Elect Obama cannot make men angels, but he might persuade more of us not to be devils. ExileStreet

copyright 2008 John Mark Reynolds

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Biola University.His personal website can be found at and his blog can be found at

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