Interview with Walter Russell Mead
Thinking in Public
September 19, 2011
This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline
theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your
host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Mohler: Over the last several years American Christians have learned to talk in terms of worldview and world picture. Every single thinker has a world picture of basic understanding of the way the world is; and every thinker, every brain, also operates on the basis of a worldview, those basic assumptions that make the world plausible to us. But the problem for many American Christians is that our worldview actually is based upon, well, an insufficient understanding of the world and that is where we need help in conversations with people, such as my guest today, Walter Russell Mead.
Walter Russell Mead is the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College; he also serves as Editor-at-Large at The American Interest. For several years he was a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations serving as the Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy from 2003 to 2010. WRM is one of American’s leading intellectuals, not only in looking at the world in terms of foreign policy and to a politics, but at the United States as well.
Professor Mead, welcome to Thinking in Public.
Mead: Well, thanks for having me.
Mohler: I have followed your writings for quite a long time and when I think of those who are interpreting the world for us, especially in the thought class, I get the distinction, which I don’t always want to make, it just seems hard not to make, between those who think that there is something important about, well, belief in God and those who do not. Just even in terms of the way that one looks at the world. You seem to have a very keen belief that it does make a difference in terms of worldview.
Mead: Well, it makes a difference to me and my worldview. I can’t necessarily speak to other people about that, but for me I find that Christian doctrine, Christian ideas, and Christian faith, help me to make sense of the world and to that I find that my intellect and my faith are always engaged as I try to make sense of the news and figure out where this world is headed.
Mohler: Yes, I guess what I was trying to get at is that there are a lot of people trying to look at the world and figure out what matters. And there are those who are trying to do it purely from a secular viewpoint which appears to me to be increasingly difficult here in the 21st century, given the fact that so many of the issues that we are debating, or considering, are actually inescapably theological.
Mead: Yeah, I think that history really entered a new phase after 1945, because that was the year when two things really happened. One is with the liberation of Nazi extermination camps, people had a vision of what you would have to call biblical-evil, right here in our own times, and right in the middle of historically the most civilized and modern country in Europe. So you have absolute evil flagrantly manifest at the same time in 1945 you have the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And so what happened then is I think that from then on we’ve been in an age that you’d have to call apocalyptic, not that I’m making any predictions about what’s happening tomorrow, next month or the next 50 years. But it’s just where questions of the ultimate meaning of life an ultimate direction of meaning of history, aren’t abstractions and they aren’t debated mythologically, but the presence of the concepts of the end of the world like the destruction of mankind, the struggle against absolute evil which might ultimately bring about an end of civilization or of life. Those are now realities which for people 100, 200, 300 years ago where sort of mythological concepts, or very abstract. Politics now increasingly deals with the absolutes.
Mohler: How does the intellectual class in the United States deal with that? I think that those historical markers are very, very important. But did that change the way that American intellectuals, for instance, conceived foreign policy?
Mead: Well, what I think it’s done in general American thought, I would argue, is structurally, though not religiously, Calvinist. That is, Calvin’s idea of history as the working out of a predestined plan, and down to every last detail, in sort of a force that is not human-willed drives everything in history. Modern intellectuals in the United States have kept that Calvinistic concept of determination, but they have dropped idea of God. And so we have this enormous need to find laws of history which are driving it to a predetermined conclusion and the form that characteristically takes in America is this idea that historical progress leads to moral progress to democratic progress. So we have all of these ideas about how development leads to democracy, democracy leads to peace, so the world is inexorably traveling down this road.
There are certainly serious intellectual arguments you can make for that, but in the absence of any supernatural faith, or grounding in some kind of hope, it becomes almost psychologically necessary, I think, to hold on to that kind of belief. So an irrational, unacknowledged faith enters into the intellectual discourse, and its part of the reason that so many people become so incredibly angry when progressive ideas or queue history ideas are challenged in some way because you are not just challenging any intellectual idea or even a political program. You are really challenging the anchor that allows someone to hope in a very frightened time.
Mohler: I was fascinated by the expression that you deployed in one of your recent essays, when you described American intellectuals as Puritans without God. I think that that says something about the lingering influence of the Christian worldview, even among those who are certainly not professing Christians of any sort. So that’s the kind of category you just don’t see acknowledged, I think, in the American intellectual class.
Mead: Well, again, I think, some of this is the absence of religious faith. Peter Burger says that the most religious country in the world is India, the least religious country in the world is Sweden, America is a country of Indians governed by Swedes; and the difference between sort of elite class and the rest of society and religion. But I think there are other factors too, which is that for example, historically America was an overwhelmingly Protestant country. But with the mass immigration from Europe in the late 19th century, you get a very, very large Catholic minority and a significant Jewish group and part of what was done I think was that in order to have a national conversation that is something about politics, you would have to separate the traditional protestant categories of thought and analysis and find a secular common ground where Catholics, and Jews and Protestant Christians can all talk. It was a very natural step for America because if you think about the earliest days of the country you had Congregationalists, New England, and Anglican South, back country, that was sort of Methodists, and beginning to be Baptists in those days and you had the Quakers in the middle. So you had state politics that were often very much rooted in the vocabulary and the ideas of a specific religious movement. And then you had to develop a different national conversation that was different that was different from that home state conversation.
Mohler: Yeah. It’s very interesting that you mention Peter Berger; I had a fascinating conversation with him in the first year of this program. And one of things that we talked about was how the theory of secularization did and didn’t work; how it did and did not play out in history. As he said, you know the grand theory of secularization didn’t go as had been predicted. Modernity, it turns out, does not mean pure secularity, he pointed out what it did end up meaning, just in terms of pluralization. But I’ll never forget what he said, he said that there are two places that the secularization actually did work, and it followed almost precisely the plan that the early sociological theorist had predicted; and he said those two places are western Europe and the American university campus. He said those two places had worked pretty much according to plan.
Mead: Well, I think that’s by-and-large right. Although I must say that students and actually younger faculty today, it seems to me today, are more interested in religion sometimes than the older generation.
Mohler: Yeah, that’s clear even in many of the Ivy League campuses. You wrote an article entitled French Secularism Dies in the Middle East. By the way, I don’t know if there is any borrowing here, on the part of Barnard Lewis, but I just picked up his new book entitled The Death of History in the Middle East. And what we have here in the Arab spring and in all the things we have going on here, especially the Islamic revolutions and Islamizisation across so much of that part of the world, well here’s another representation of secularization. And you’ve , very interestingly, detailed four different models of secularism that have developed over the last three centuries. You identified them as the British, the German, the American, and the French models. I haven’t seen anyone do it like that, but I thought it was a brilliant way of setting it out. Can you just kind of lay that out for us?
Mead: Sure, well the British model of secularism is not really very secular. By law the Queen of England, the Head of State, has to be a member of the Anglican Church, and is the head of the Anglican Church. And the Anglican Church is supported by taxpayer funds. And parliament is really the ultimate responsible party in the Anglican Church. But at the same time you have a church that Henry VIII might have recognized, but what Henry VIII wouldn’t have recognized, or wouldn’t have accepted is that if you are not a member of the Anglican Church, there are no civil disabilities, other than I suppose you can’t marry a prince, if you are a Catholic. And so everyone has freedom to express their own religion, and so on and so on. But there is a special place for the Anglicans.
In Germany it is a little different. There what happens is that if you register as a member of one of the leading protestant churches, or the Catholic church, the government takes a little bit of your salary, withholds it from your pay and passes it on to the church you are a member of, so that in that sense the German churches receive revenue from the government in proportion to their membership in society; and by the way it makes German churches quite wealthy. And German churches have a great deal of influence around the world and actually do a lot of good because of it.
Then you have the American system, where the government just doesn’t play a specific role in religion, generally speaking. The fact that religious contributions are tax-deductible means that there is kind of an implicit support for religion, but not any particular religion. There’s no religious test, you don’t have to have a particular religion to be President as long as you get people to vote for you. But the government does have the belief, I think, in our country that, not everybody does, but in general the government kind of thinks that religion on the whole is a good thing and the government is comfortable with the idea that there are lots of churches, lots of synagogues, lots of temples, mosques and thinks that a religious population is likely to be a more civically minded and virtuous population.
The French idea was very different because when you have the French Revolution the Catholic Church was overwhelmingly the largest church in France and it was tied, joined at the hip with the monarchy. And the French bishops and abbots were nobles who owned large, beautiful properties on behalf of the church. The church had serfs. Plus the French church was linked to the European church linked to the Pope and everywhere through Europe the church was linked to ruling families. So when the struggle between the Revolution and its political enemies, the Church ended up being among its political enemies and so the Jacobins, the French Revolutionaries felt that they had to crush the church to save the Revolution.
Mohler: Yeah, you have a line in this article, if I may interrupt you, you really explain that. You say, hand-in-hand with this vision, “there’s the vision of the Jacobins, there is the belief that religion is a backward looking, anti-enlightenment, anti-modernizing force. The Republic must curb the church in order to fulfill the task of economically and politically modernizing the country.” I cite that because I think it’s not only some French, in terms of a French style of secularism with which that is characteristic. But there’s a certain form of secularist thought in the United States that pretty much holds to the same understanding.
Mead: That’s right. Well, that French Revolutionary view has been about as influential around the world as in other French Revolutionary creations. The metric system that is almost everywhere in the world, in the sort of developed world and much of the developing world. That French vision makes sense. You go to Mexico, you go to Brazil, you go to Italy, you go all kinds of places and you go to Turkey, you go to most of the Arab world, that’s what people mean when they talk about secularist.
Mohler: And yet you say that it is dying in the sands of the Middle East?
Mead: That’s correct because there were two types of French secularists in the Middle East. One was Ataturk and the Kemalists in Turkey who tried to keep religion at bay while they modernized and westernized Turkey and they more or less succeeded. But in the rest of Arab world you had people like Nasser and Saddam Hussein, you had the elder Assad, you had Jema in Pakistan, they wanted to modernize like that and they all failed. So in Turkey what you’re having is a quiet, peaceful revolution against Kemalism as Turkey has become more prosperous and democratic and so on. The more pious people in Turkey say, hey we should be able to vote too, we should be able to express our ideas. So in that sense Turkey is, they would argue, Turkey is growing out of the secular. But a lot of the Arab world the secularists said, we’re going to crush religion in order to modernize and build powerful countries. Hey, religion was set to one side, the countries have tried but failed to modernize, people are poor, they keep losing wars to Israel, they keep being interfered with by other parts of the world, so in the Arab world secularism on that French model seems to be a total failure and people are now looking for alternatives.
Mohler: Careful thinking requires the categories and the vocabulary. We need to take big issues and break them down into manageable units of thought. That’s where the analysis offered by someone like Walter Russell Mead becomes invaluable to us. He looks at the picture and says secularism isn’t one thing. There are actually different variants. You break those variants down, and they have historical roots, but they also have political, geo-political, ideological and economic and political consequences. That’s why when you say something is this, well it might be that, but a careful look may reveal that there are other ways of looking at that as well.
The great fact or phenomenon of the last couple of centuries has often been reduced to one word and that is modernization. With modernization comes certain assumptions. One of those assumptions is that democracy reaches a point of stability such that two democracies will not go to war against each other. Some have called this the McDonalds Peace Theory. Walter Russell Mead says it may be good in theory, but it actually doesn’t work in practice.
Mohler: Professor Mead, when you look at the world right now, just look at that very issue, you know, the idea that modernization would produce democracy and democracy would produce peace, what went wrong with that theory?
Mead: Well, I think that there are a lot of problems with it, maybe the biggest one is that the other thing that modernization produces is nationalism. Now if you look at the world a hundred and fifty years ago, if you crossed the Rhine River going east in Europe and you looked at Europe and the Middle East from there, almost all of it was run by four great multinational empires. The Ottoman Empire ruled almost the entire Middle East, the Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled the Balkans and a lot of Southern, Central Europe, the German Empire which included a lot of modern Poland, and you had the Russian Empire which included pretty much what the Soviet Union had. These were multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-religious states. Since then those four empires have broken up into something like fifty or sixty countries based on nationality, people speaking the same language, people having the same religion. Hundreds of millions of deaths and refugees were created. Maybe a hundred and fifty million people I think, killed or made refugees during this process of transformation. Now that, you know, democracy and nationalism were and remain today linked cause. So it looks to me as if modernization has two children and that war is a natural product of modernization. As I look at, you know you can still see it happening in parts of the Middle East today, the Kurdish question, the Israel-Palestine issue is one of the last of these old conflicts. But you’ll find if you look in a lot of Africa you can see where many of these countries modernized, the tribal conflicts are likely to become deeper. It has a lot to do, by the way with when you have a modern society you need a much stronger and more intrusive state. People could tolerate the sort of weak state the Ottoman Empire was in eighteen hundred, the Sultan in theory, he was absolute, but he looked a long way away and you could always bribe the local officials and sort of, there was an informal way to make things work. But as the state become stronger, taxes, more expense, more hires, more people, you want a state that reflects your own individual, personal values, speaks your language. You want it to give your kid a job and not those Armenians next door. So I’m afraid that modernization is actually, you know, a bloody, bloody, bloody historical process. It’s not, you know, nothing like this sort of peaceful, pleasant apotheosis of human progress that people like to imagine it as.
Mohler: In one sense it’s almost hard to believe that that confidence in inevitable human progress, it still has such tenacious holding power. You go back to the beginnings of the twentieth century and there in Germany you had theologians such as Karl Barth repudiating the protestant liberalism out of which they had come because of its easy alliance with the nationalist aims of the Kaiser. Then you have, of course as you mentioned earlier in our conversation the devastating realities of both the Hitlerian genocide and the Holocaust and the reality of human power and technology at the scale of mega-death pointing not only to Auschwitz but to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Mead: On the other hand, if you speak English and live in places like America and Australia, you know life has actually been getting better for the last three quarter of years. So, you know what, there’s a tension between a kind of micro-view tells you that things are getting better. I mean I get better computers every couple of years, and all kinds of nice things are happening. And then there is the kind of mega-picture of, you know, this tension that is out there in the world and so one.
Mohler: But that’s where it gets really…
Mead: It’s very unstable but optimism has really strong roots in protestant theology. I mean, as you know, sort of a post millennial vision of the apocalypse eschatology was the dominant American tradition until well into the twentieth century.
Mohler: And found now only among French groups because, history…
Mead: Well, in the mainline churches.
Mohler: Yeah, but when you look , for instance, at the tenth anniversary of 9/11, something seared into the American conscience, you know, there still is a debate a decade later as to the nature of the world in which we live. American intellectuals are not unified in understanding the very nature of the world we live in and then comes, even in the European context something as horrific as what took place in Norway. And I thought that when you looked at that and wrote about it you had some amazing insights and looking at that and saying, you know Norway itself isn’t as modern as it might think it is. You talked about the resurgence of ancient hatreds as came out in that murderous rampage.
Mead: Well, you know, the human heart seems not to change very much from generation to generation so.
Mohler: And Christians have a good vocabulary and understanding and reason for that.
Mead: That’s it. It’s also living with the kind of radical uncertainty where, you know, you look around you and you can see grounds for hope that the world is getting better and you also have a sense that as a good person you want to side with the movement of ending human rights abuses, of making life better for the poor, all those kinds of things. And at the same time you can see terrible threats. Maybe they will be ecological devastation, maybe nuclear war, maybe terrorism, all kinds of horrible things out there, and somehow be able to keep your head in the midst of that, keep your balance on the tightrope. It’s much easier to do that if you have a grounding in some kind of spiritual understanding in which all of these different things make sense in which you both believe that there is a benign providence behind it all even if that providence is sometimes rather inscrutable.
Mohler: If you had the opportunity to speak as you are now to American Evangelicals who are asking some of the biggest questions about global responsibility, about the state of the world. What would you say that American Evangelicals could and should contribute to this discussion. And what should we be reading and what should we be learning?
Mead: Well, in one sense what you should be doing, what anyone should be doing is just getting a good general education in world history, world philosophy, know the United States, know the World, study economics. And Evangelicals do have a long history of, you know, the missionary movement in the US was a very optimistic movement, you know. And most of the nineteenth century missionaries who were out there really saw the process of spreading the gospel internationally as part of the process of gradual amelioration. You know, the light of Christianity of Christ would spread through the world and gradually things would just get better. There is still a sense in which I think Evangelicals often do a lot of the things that religious people from many traditions do when they get in. They sort of think there is a magic religion elixir and that their job as religious people is to put a couple of drops of religion into the mix and calm things down. How many times have I heard religious people say, you know we’re the peacemakers and our ability to dialogue and our understanding is going to help things? That’s not really, as I look at some of these conflicts and talk to people caught up in them, the Serbs and the Bosnians weren’t fighting because they didn’t have enough humane facilitators who could listen to both sides. Their conflicts were deeper and more tragic. So I think religious people need to be the most sophisticated people in the room when it comes to politics, economics, the brute facts of history.
Mohler: No, that makes sense.
Mead: In that sense people who have a commitment to making the world better or ministry in the world because of religious faith, part of it is instead of running around the world with a religious faith and telling everybody how great it is, which is another gift and another ministry, for people who are interested in dealing with the problems of the world, that faith should make you a better student, a more open minded scholar and observer. You put in the extra two hours a day of study and reflection that over ten or twenty years makes a difference in how effective you are able to be.
Mohler: Every genuine conversation is at least in part something you can anticipate, but include aspects that you cannot foresee. The conversation with Walter Russell Mead is one of those conversations that reminds us that perhaps where we need to end in many of these conversations is with our own intellectual responsibility. How is it that we should order our minds and discipline our thinking so that we see things right?
As American Evangelicals, as Christians one of our main responsibilities in terms of the life of the mind is to learn not only what to think, but how to think. And one of the realities that becomes glaringly apparent to us in this particular historical epoch is the fact that if we are going to be careful, thoughtful, faithful thinkers we’re going to have think a great deal about the world. That means we’re going to have to know a great deal, learn a great deal and we’re going to have to invest a lot of intellectual energy into understanding what is going on in the world. But not only the current picture of world affairs, but the historical movements and events that brought these things about. The worldview shifts and the worldview transformations that have lead to the current intellectual climate, the reality of intersections between economics and politics. But we’re always going to be looking at the theological issues as well.
Walter Russell Mead at the very beginning of this conversation said that the reality of evil has been one of the most important issues of the past century or so of modern western thought. Coming to terms with the Holocaust in Germany, coming to terms with the power of human beings to create mega weapons that create mega death. These are the things that have had to shift the intellectual climate here in the United States. But looking at the world pictures, one of the things that I have learned from Walter Russell Mead is to look at what is going on in terms of, well even the headlines of the day and understand what is behind them. Looking at the tragedy in Norway, the murderous rampage that took place there, Professor Mead takes us back to the question of modernization and whether it actually delivered what western intellectuals were sure it would deliver. He says this, however, “modernization is not just more golden arches and more bloggers, it is also about accelerating social change. Capitalism drives technological change and technological change feeds on itself, the more of it we have the more we get. Think of the way advances in computer technology feed the speed of scientific advance as slide rules yield to PCs and as graduate students in third rate universities now have access to computing power and information that university professors at MIT couldn’t get thirty years ago. Technological change, generally speaking, drives increased affluence as humanity masters the natural environment we get more and more stuff with less and less work. So far so good. This is what McDonald’s Peace Theory predicts. But here’s a catch, that technological change also drives social change. Factories move to China, immigrants move to Norway bringing strange ideas. The social welfare states in Europe creak under this train. This accelerating, unpredictable and destabilizing change can cause individuals and social groups to become unhinged, to lose their way in the social confusion and mystery of modern life. Blue collar factory workers lose their jobs by the millions. Some adapt, some endure, a few go postal. The upper middle class feels the earth shake beneath its feet as old certainties are challenged and old ways of making a living cease to work.”
Now what I find fascinating in all of that is that even as he was directing this analysis to Americans trying to understand Norway, this kind of insight actually helps American Evangelicals to understand America. The modernization that is here being traced in terms of Norway’s experience is something that has similar effects here. And if we talk about, “the accelerating, unpredictable and destabilizing changes all around us,” this is not only a challenge for the world at large, this is a challenge for American Evangelicals. This is affecting our world as well and our intellectual responsibility.
I really appreciate the way Walter Russell Mead ended the discussion. I asked him about our responsibility and without flinching he spoke to it. He said we need to know more about the world. We need to have a good historical understanding of the world. We need to invest, as he said, those hours of study to understand the world around us. It’s not enough simply to talk about the world. It’s not enough to point to the world and say that’s our responsibility in some kind of theoretical frame. We have to look at the world as it is and seek to understand it in order that we may be faithful Christians having not only the responsibility to understand the world, but after all, a commission to reach that world with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It think it is very important that here we have a foreign policy expert, one of the leading foreign policy intellectuals in the United States of America say to Evangelicals, you need to know more in order to be more faithful. That is an important thing for us to hear. It’s an even more important truth for us to take to heart.
Many thanks to my guest, Dr. Walter Russell Mead for thinking with me today. You can hear our program on the World Wide Web at Albertmohler.com, through iTunes or also now through Stitcher Smart Radio. Stitcher allows you to listen to Thinking in Public directly from your iPhone, android phone, blackberry or palm phone. Download it today for free at stitcher.com or at the apps store.
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Thanks for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.