A Global Gospel of Freedom

Book cover
The Universal Hunger for Libertyby By Michael NovakBasic Books. 281p $26

I do not often agree with Michael Novak, but the subtitle of his new book attracted me; anyone willing to show that Samuel Huntington’s dramatic prediction of a clash of civilizations is wrong is someone I want very much to read.

Unfortunately, Novak mentions Huntington only in passing and never directly engages his thesis. Indeed Islam itself, with the exception of a short introduction to the ideas of its golden age and a somewhat cursory review of some contemporary theological ideas, makes all too few appearances in The Universal Hunger for Liberty. There is much here about why secularists are misguided, how capitalism can be an engine of social justice and where Americans went wrong in their quest for personal liberation. There is even, without any explanation offered for its inclusion, an odd detour into the work of the conservative economist Thomas Sowell. But when it comes to the concrete steps the world might take to bring the three faiths of the book closer together, Novak confesses that, as an outsider to Islam, all he can do is ask questions in the hopes that someone in the Muslim world will try to answer them.


Those questions, moreover, are marked by an ambivalence that Novak never fully resolves. The thesis of his book is that the desire for liberty is universal to all human beings, whatever their faith. Yet he also recognizes that each religion has truths particular to itself. If we insist that Muslims share the same universal hunger for liberty manifested by Christians and Jews, we risk imposing beliefs on Muslims that they may not hold. But if we treat Islam as a specific faith with its own theology, we undermine the case for universal values.

Both horns of this dilemma appear in those few places in Novak’s book where he directly compares Islam with Judaism and Christianity. On the one hand, he writes, Muslims typically do not claim that humans are made in the image of Godthat would strike most as blasphemy. In addition, Muslims rarely talk about human freedom or about what in the philosophical tradition are called secondary causes’ or secondary agents.’ God, as most Muslims understand God, is too great, and human beings are too insignificant, for there to emerge a point of view roughly like that of St. Augustine, for whom the greatness of human beings was testimony to the greatness of the God who created them.

As if to recognize that going further along this road would lead to the conclusion that there is a clash of civilizations after all, Novak finds an Augustinian dimension to Islam: Any religion that promises reward or punishment for actions performed during life, as Islam does, embodies a theory of liberty, even if that liberty is tacit and undeveloped. Scratch beneath the surface, and Muslims hunger for liberty like everyone else.

This is an uplifting and optimistic conclusion, and I, for one, would like to believe it is true. When he tries to persuade his readers that it might be, however, Novak leaves them believing it is not. Globalization, he insists, is bringing about a universal culture of mutual respect, a set of underlying core convictions that can bring together people of all faiths. Yet when Novak outlines the key principles of what he calls Caritapolis, they are all, as the Latinized name suggests, rooted in Western religion. Madison is mentioned, Kant is cited, Leo XIII and John Paul II are invoked; but no Muslim thinkers, by Novak’s account, contributed to the moral ecology that makes global capitalism possible. Indeed a Muslim who reads that the impact for globalization began with the Great Commission might conclude that Novak’s universal hunger for liberty is part of an evangelical mission to impose Christian values on Muslim nations.

Even if we assume that Muslims could somehow participate in a universal conversation, to which they have not made much of a contribution since the Middle Ages, the question of how best to bring out the universal hunger for liberty remains open. Clearly many in the Islamic world do not view America at the moment as their friend; our presence in Iraq is taken as occupation, not liberation, and our strong support for Israel is denounced as one-sided. Novak evinces few worries about such views. Neither Saddam Hussein, a secularist, nor terrorists, who pervert Islam, are part of this conversation. In that Novak may be correct, but one would think that an advocate for liberty in the Islamic world would want to address the question of whether the United States bungled the cause by its response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Novak never does this.

Although a clash between religions need not be a clash of civilizations, Novak concludes that there is one between religion and non-religion. Not especially attracted to Muslim theology, yet admiring Muslims because they believe in God, he hopes that a conversation can emerge among Muslims, Jews and Christians that would unite them in their common opposition to secularism, the real cause of the world’s descent into irrationality.

It does not seem to occur to Novak that his attack on secularism stands in sharp contradiction to the general thesis of his book. Religion, he believes, is fundamental to the grounding of liberty, while secular ideas are as influential as they are devoid of significance. Yet if secularism is all around us, and if secular ideas, unlike religious ones, lead to absence of freedom, there can be no universal hunger for liberty at all.

To advance liberty, we ought to welcome to the cause all those who believe in it, whether or not they believe in God, and we ought to denounce tyrants, whether their states are created as secular dictatorships or theological ones. Novak is too busy fighting old struggles to engage in the new ones posed by the events of Sept. 11 and the American response to them.


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