“9/11’s biggest impact was to make religion even more important for US politics”


There is little doubt that the decade since 11 September 2001 has seen a significant decline in both the reality and the image of American power. To this extent, we may say that the architects of the attacks on New York on that day have to a great extent succeeded in their intent, though not in ways they may have foreseen. By embroiling the US in two costly wars that came out of the events – however avoidable they really were – and thus causing a downward fiscal spiral with larger financial implications, the aftermath of 9/11 has been somewhat astonishing to witness, and we have not yet seen the last of its consequences.

The greatest surprise is that the challenge to the US did not come from the two rival politico-economic systems that seemed to be emerging in the 1990s. China has certainly profited from American decline in the past decade to open the sphere of its influence, above all in Asia, but even in other continents. However, this has been largely opportunistic. On the other hand, the European Union has — ever since the adoption of the euro as its currency in the early 2000s – lurched from one crisis to another, and seems hardly better placed than the US to face the 2010s.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s is frequently attributed to a version of Paul Kennedy’s thesis on “overstretch”. In this view, the Soviet leadership managed to conceal the deep fragility of their economic base, until it was put under severe pressure by the need to compete in an ever more costly arms race. The Soviets here would be compared to other older imperial powers, such as the Spanish Habsburgs in the early seventeenth century, who failed to keep up with competitors because they were attempting too much, over too large a space.

There are elements of overstretch in what has happened to the US as well, but the central problems seem to lie elsewhere. After all, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan can be seen as a major sphere of military operations by comparison to past imperial wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Yet, they have proven too costly for the US to stand up to their burden, perhaps because the US style of war-making now is far too capital-intensive.

Some ten days after the attack on New York, George W. Bush addressed the US Congress and explained that the cause of the attacks was that “they hate our freedoms — our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other”. This was comforting as an attempt to seize the moral high ground, but not quite true.

The attempt here was to make the US appear to be the paragon of secularism and modernity, as if the real enemy that was targeted on 9/11 was an Enlightenment vision of democracy. The reality seems to have been rather that the leadership of Al-Qaeda saw the US as a Christian power, often acting in concert with Israel and with a powerful Jewish community inside the country.

Ironically, the aftermath of 9/11 has made this somewhat self-fulfilling. In the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, while western Europeans pondered the prospect of the increasing secularization of their societies, the US continued to be strongly rooted in Christianity. This remains even more true today. Slightly under half of the population belongs to various Protestant denominations, and over a quarter is Catholic. Besides, a surprisingly large proportion of adults in the US are Christian “converts”, in the sense of belonging to a different Christian denomination than the one into which they were born.

As a consequence, Christianity weighs very heavily on the politics of the country and no politician today who stands for the Presidency – whether Catholic, Protestant or even Mormon – can step away from the religious question as a central aspect of their politics. This was already evident during Barack Obama’s last campaign. Again, Christianity underpins the so-called “Tea Party” movement, which though quite small is disproportionately powerful as an ideological force, and is in many ways an outcome of 9/11.

The obsession with Christianity means that US politics is often fought by giving an enormous importance to issues such as abortion rights or same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court has over time taken to interpreting the American Constitution as if it were doing Biblical exegesis, with the Founding Fathers cast in the role of messianic oracles. Today’s Republican Party is thus a far cry from what the party has at times been in the past. Indeed, Nixon, Goldwater and even Reagan appear to be paragons of secular reason in comparison to the current crop of candidates.

Communitarian Christianity has also gone hand in hand with suspicion of the state, and with the concomitant rejection of even the most obvious welfare programmes: from childcare, to family planning, to socialized medicine more generally, to interest in a strong system of public education. The results are clear. While still boasting some of the most prestigious universities in the world, the standard of middle and high-school education has noticeably deteriorated since the 1960s. Though life-expectancy still rises slowly, so do rates of morbidity, chronic workplace illness, obesity, and related problems. The US political system today is incapable of addressing these purposefully, as the recent near-deadlock over the budget shows.

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One thought on ““9/11’s biggest impact was to make religion even more important for US politics”

  1. Thank you for posting.

    Understanding the events of the last ten years including 9/11 is much easier if we do not approach it as if starting our read from somewhere in the middle of a book.

    Please see my latest post: “Ten Years After: Remembering 9/11.”

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