05/26/2007 04:24 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

What's An American of Faith to Do?

At a conference at Yale Divinity School earlier this month, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne quoted one of his Georgetown University students to good effect. "In the West," the student had said, "we feel obligated to justify our religious goals in secular terms. In many Islamic societies, secular goals must be justified in religious terms."

True up to a point. For some Islamic societies, that is. And true up to a point for us. When we go to war in the name of democracy, aren't we really hiding a crusade for our way of life and our values, for a vision of American civil religion that we would really like to export? If we were successful in exporting our ways, we would have a world marked by lip-service to religion that is successfully insulated from actually having any real impact on political practice.

Of course this means our "religious" goals aren't all that religious. The Yale conference was on "Faith and Citizenship." Can you really have both, west or (middle) east? In "some Islamic societies" a healthy citizenship might put the brakes on too much faith, when faith is an unhistorical reading of the Qu'ran. But in the U.S. some religious faith might well be important to restrain the potential totalitarianism of citizenship language. We've all heard the call to patriotism or nationalism as at least sometimes oppressive to the very freedoms we cherish. The Patriot Act is a case in point.

The thing about "faith" is that it doesn't recognize the essentially limited demands of citizenship. It's not politically correct. "Faith" sees no distinction between the American citizen and the Iraqi citizen. In fact, it's not citizenship that counts, but human solidarity. And there are no limits to solidarity, because it looks to the common good, and that doesn't stop at our borders or those of anyone else. In a way, faith is incompatible with the natural tendencies of the nation-state, which are towards national self-interest at best. Smaller nations rapidly figure out, of course, that their self-interest is intimately linked to that of others, and they are at least on their way to a concept of human solidarity and interdependence. But big nations--and boy, are we big!--don't have to learn that lesson, at least not for a while.

So if there's a political pragmatics of short-term satisfactions and a religious logic of the long-term good of humanity, what's an American of faith to do? Oppose the war, of course. But especially encourage anything that puts political muscle behind imagining an interdependent world. One more reason to canonize Al Gore? Maybe. A call to consider the heroism of conscientious objector status? Perhaps. Above all, to reconsider what it means to be a good citizen, to recognize that "citizen of the world" trumps "citizen of the United States" every single time. Then we all might have a future.