October 1, 2006  

Essay: A question of faith

Conflicts driven by religion can be long and bitter

Do we yet understand the nature of the “Long War” for the future of the Middle East?

President Bush thinks he does. Speaking to the Military Officers Association in early September, he described a struggle against tyranny, seeing a common threat both from Sunni extremism of the al-Qaida kind and Shiite extremism of the sort embodied in the Iranian regime.

“They draw inspiration from different sources,” the president said, “but both seek to impose a dark vision of violent Islamic radicalism across the Middle East. They oppose the advance of freedom, and they want to gain control of weapons of mass destruction.” Bush sees the essential conflict as ideological, one war with many fronts.

Democrats do not see these connections but, instead, see each problem separately. To Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a former Marine, the Iraq war in particular is a “diversion.” U.S. policy, he argues, needs to “change direction” toward diplomacy and away from a “military solution.” Indeed, the common Democratic view is that the war — that is, anything beyond the al-Qaida manhunt — is “unwinnable.” Murtha wants to see U.S. forces “redeployed to the periphery” — by which he means Guam — and “if something [in Iraq] affects U.S. national security, we can go back in.”

Are these differences simply a matter of two parties wrangling for domestic political advantage, or is there some deeper failure of understanding? Speaking at the Armed Forces Journal conference in May, Ralph Peters made, as is often the case, a point that sticks in the brain: The war, he said, is not really a war of ideas but a war of ideas against faith, a quite different sort of ideological struggle. The point was that Americans and Western societies more generally have separated politics and religion (or, for Europeans, lost the habit of faith entirely), truth and faith. By contrast, for radical Islamists, faith is truth, and politics sit squarely in the realm of religion. Political structures — like everything else — are what God has revealed them to be, not what men work them out to be.

The West has had little experience of religious war since the Thirty Years’ War. The major Western wars of the past three centuries have been driven either by nationalism or secular political ideology, or some combination thereof. In the history books, the Thirty Years’ War lasted from 1618 until the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. But the larger war that destroyed the medieval order of Europe as a loose but unified Catholic empire, divided and devastated Germany, subsumed a military revolution and spawned a recognizable modern state structure, lasted for more than a century. This struggle was, as Bruce Porter has written, a contest for European hegemony fought at a time of profound technological change — but at its heart an “acute ideological conflict, namely the intellectual, social and political tensions unleashed by the Protestant Reformation.”

Burning for faith

Modern attitudes, especially American ones, too often take the Reformation as a kind of precursor to the Enlightenment, as a link between medieval superstition and modern, scientific rationality (itself hardly a nonviolent development). But the collapse of the old order in Europe and the revolutionary struggles to create something new — something driven by fundamentally new relationships between man, God and the state — was a politically transformative event. It was a time when people burned with, and burned for, their religious faith.

Germans once celebrated Oct. 31 as Reformation Day, the date on which, in 1517, Martin Luther is supposed to have nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church doors in Wittenberg. They were an attack on the corruption and authority of the Catholic church, especially the practice of selling indulgences and thus salvation; by extension it was an attack on civil authority, as well, and in particular the rising Habsburg dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire. Luther’s central contention, that God’s grace is free to all, was the good news of the gospels. The spirit of evangelism was not only a religious revolution but soon also a political revolution. In 1524, the new excitement and bitterness against established authority sparked the so-called Peasants’ War in southern Germany, which historian Diarmid MacCullough has described as “Europe’s greatest rebellion,” provoking violence in the style and on the scale of the French Revolution. It also provoked a furious imperial response and the slaughter of 100,000 Germans.

The Habsburg emperor, Charles V, was a devout Catholic driven to suppress Protestantism and equally to establish his hegemony across the continent. His failures and abdication in some ways made things worse; the house of Habsburg was split into Spanish and Austrian halves. His successors, Philip II in Madrid and Ferdinand I in Vienna, retained his fervor but lacked his means. Their ambitions began a slow but steady pattern of escalation that eventually engulfed all of Europe and climaxed in what contemporaries described as The Great War, the Thirty Years’ War. As Porter aptly puts it, “[I]t was the closest thing to total war Europe ever experienced.”

The conflict was as much sporadic as continuous; indeed, the indecisive nature of the struggle exacerbated the destruction. For Germany, writes Geoffrey Parker, “The loss of people was proportionally greater than in World War II; the displacement of people and the material devastation caused were almost as great; the cultural and economic dislocation persisted for substantially longer.” A party of English diplomats traveling in Germany passed through one village that had been pillaged 18 times in two years, including twice in one day.

It is common to divide the Thirty Years’ War into three phases, all of which combine local conflicts and the larger jockeying for advantage throughout the continent. The first is associated with a 1618 revolt in Bohemia, where the delicate balance between Catholics and Protestants collapsed. The rebels were defeated outside the walls of Prague in 1620, but the effect was to expand the war into a second phase, a wider struggle for power within the empire and Germany. The new emperor, Ferdinand II, enflamed sectarian tensions across the continent when he expelled Protestants — first the more dangerous Calvinists but then the more moderate Lutherans — from Bohemia. This was followed by attacks on Protestant towns and the local, mostly Protestant, nobility. A fierce and ascetic faith propelled the emperor’s policies and strategy; although he kept his clerical and Jesuitical advisers on a short leash, Ferdinand’s motivation was to root out heresy, not simply contain or subordinate it. Even so, it took Ferdinand some time to find his stride. Not until 1628 did he issue the Edict of Resolution, which restored both Catholic lands and church power to enforce conformity while banning Calvinists — in fact, all Protestant sects other than Lutheranism. Habsburg absolutism provoked fear in all corners, from Protestant northern Europe to the Bourbons in France (despite their Catholicism) and to the German Protestant electors of the empire. The war, now entering its third phase, was fully European in scope and still strongly confessional in character.

War atrocities

The later part of the war was marked by the intervention of Sweden, led by Gustavus Adolphus. The great general had introduced military reforms that exploited the revolution in firepower to gain greater tactical flexibility than the cumbersome imperial formations and had exploited French financing — thanks to the wily Cardinal Richelieu — to mobilize and sustain his forces. But he also styled himself, in a way that legitimized his invasion crucially, as a defender of German “liberties,” meaning toleration for Calvinism and restoration of secularized church lands. As Gustavus Adolphus advanced into northern Germany, the Imperialists not only sacked the city of Magdeburg but also massacred the 20,000 residents. The atrocity was widely propagandized in Protestant Europe and ensured that the final phase of war would remain a hard one.

But it was also an agonizingly long one. Between Gustavus Adolphus’ great victory at Breitenburg in September 1631 and the final large but last-gasp battle at Jankow in December 1645, the Habsburgs staved off defeat. Gustavus Adolphus could not exploit his opportunity at Breitenburg and died shortly afterward. The Swedes could not long sustain such a massive effort. Conscription into the army was regarded as a death sentence; whole villages were depopulated of young men.

“The common man wishes himself dead,” wrote one Swedish commentator. “We may indeed say that we have conquered our lands from others, and to that end ruined our own.”

The Thirty Years’ War and the larger century of struggle that framed it are incomprehensible without grasping the importance of religious faith that energized the combatants far beyond the strategies of emperors and kings or the tactics of great captains.

The duration and bitterness of the war weakened all the principal participants. It crippled the Holy Roman Empire even as it divided Germany into disparate principalities that would not be reunited until the time of Bismark. Sweden’s moment of grandeur on the European stage was brief, indeed. Habsburg Spain has been cited almost ever since as the textbook case of “imperial overstretch.” Bourbon France proved the big winner, emerging under Louis XIV both as the leader of Catholic Europe and a great power on the rise, with imperial ambitions that would burn for 150 years. Likewise, the new leading Protestant states, the Dutch Republic and England — once its own civil wars were settled — would pose a global and ideological counterweight to France.

After a century’s devastation, the flames of Reformation and Counter-Reformation faith subsided and war became a tool exclusively of the state. One participant in the Westphalian peace conference reflected that “reason of state is a wonderful beast, for it chases away all other reasons,” but secularized politics emerged from ashes and rubble.

To draw too tidy an analogy from the history of 16th- and 17th-century Europe to the current and future history of the Islamic world is hardly a recipe for strategic clarity, but to reflect upon the conduct of such a war or series of wars — a century in length, continental in scope, where local conflicts attract outside great powers — is a sobering exercise. The struggles were so complex, and involved so many factors, that normal strategy-making, in the sense of formulating and executing a long-term plan, was next to impossible. Every action produced multiple and unpredictable reactions. And the fervor of faith was not something that generals or rulers could neatly control.

A coda: The final echoes of the wars of the Reformation and, in particular, the Calvinist strains of Protestantism, did much to shape the American experience. This especially influenced the phenomenon of “American exceptionalism” reflected in John Winthrop’s notion of Massachusetts as a “city on a hill.” MacCullough concludes his massive 2003 history of the Reformation by reflecting on its continuing echoes in American life and politics, of a North “explosion” of energy, fueled by faith, that helped propel expansionism across the American continent but has also, since the late 19th century, shaped America’s view of its role in the world.

The modern version of this essential evangelical spirit is much more secular than sectarian or, as Peters suggests, a set of ideas open to all rather than an exclusive faith. Yet it is hard to not account for American behavior without understanding the grounding of our ideas in deep faith and also the continuing connections to faith. American faith, although now pretty secular, has its roots in the Reformation, particularly in its Calvinist mode. By contrast, as MacCullough writes, “Europe … has begun to forget what the Reformation meant.” It is no accident that Europe is at a loss to defend itself against enemies who are, if nothing else, zealously faithful. The question in the Long War is whether the broad and tolerant faith of Americans, born of Reformationist zeal and energy, is a match for the more violent faith of Islamist extremists.

tOM dONNELLY is an AFJ contributing editor and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.