Two Civilizations in Conflict?

 By Michael Kirke


Samuel Huntington died on Christmas Eve at the age of 81. His death was reported right across the globe for he was one of the most famous political scientists on the planet. Had he died 15 years earlier, however, his death would probably have been reported in academic circles in the US, and perhaps in similar circles the English-speaking world – but little beyond that.

The fall of the Iron Curtain and end of the Cold War sent political scientists scurrying back to their drawing boards to reconfigure the geo-political map of the world. Two of these became academic celebrities overnight as a result of the two readings they offered on the new world order which followed the momentous events of 1989-91. One was Francis Fukuyama – who had in fact been a student of Huntington’s. He gave us his take in 1992 with The End of History and the Last Man. Huntington himself followed in 1993 with an article in the journal, Foreign Affairs, entitled The Clash of Civilizations? Huntington’s article, according to the editors of Foreign Affairs, stirred up more discussion in the three years that followed its publication than anything else they had published since the 1940s.

Of the two theses, that of Fukuyama was probably more misunderstood – for his title invited misunderstanding by the bucketful. Huntington’s was also controversial but although the multiplicity of clashes he foresaw  was for some people too much, the events in New York on the morning of September 11, 2001, turned him into a kind of prophet. In 2002 he expanded his thesis and published a detailed analysis of what he saw as the evolution of global politics in the 21st century. By and large he was wrong but he had nevertheless identified a factor that was now going to be the dominant one replacing territory and national borders as a defining element in political conflict: cultural and religious identities.

Leaving aside the global dimensions of Huntington’s thesis – where a number of holes can be picked in his argument – we might look at a national American dimension which he highlighted. Huntington poses the question as to whether or not America itself is to become what he calls “a cleft society”.  As he saw it, the cleavage in American society was one generated by the new wave of immigration flowing across its southern border with Mexico. For him it was a threat to the American way of life. Identifying a similar cleavage in mainland Europe he stated that “the issue is not whether Europe will be Islamicized or the United States Hispanicised. It is whether Europe and America will become cleft societies encompassing two distinct and largely separate communities from two different civilizations. For Huntington, of course, Hispanic was also Catholic and full-blooded Catholicism was also a threat to what he saw as the true American spirit rooted in the protestant ethic.

Looking at the changing of the guard which has just now taken place in the United Sates one might wonder if an important phase of the clash is about to come into play. Wonderful and all as the symbolism and the reality of an African-American in the White House is, it is quite clear that there is much more to Barack Obama than his ethnic origin. He has all the hallmarks of a full-blooded liberal protestant, with a paid-up subscription to the kind of American club Huntington feared might be under threat from the forces of another civilization sweeping across the Rio Grande. Indeed, the US Catholic Bishops’ Conference has felt it necessary to spell out some principles of a genuinely Christian civilization to clearly position itself for the inevitable conflict looming on the horizon and signalled by the agenda already pencilled in for the US by the new White House regime.

President Obama’s declared family policy agenda – which includes removal of government marriage penalties, support for civil unions that give same-sex couples all the legal rights and privileges of married couples, adoption rights for same-sex couples and the repeal of the Defence of Marriage Act  – was the first sign of things to come. The Defence of Marriage Act – signed into las by George W. Bush – prevents same-sex couples who have entered a civil union in one state from then having it recognised in court if they move to another state.

For their part the bishop’s counter-blast points out categorically that God established the family as the basic cell of human society. “Therefore, we must strive to make the needs and concerns of families a central national priority. Marriage must be protected as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman and our laws should reflect this principle.”

“Marriage, as God intended, provides the basic foundation for family life and the common good. It must be supported in the face of the many pressures working to undermine it. Policies related to the definition of marriage, taxes, the workplace, divorce, and welfare must be designed to help families stay together and to reward responsibility and sacrifice for children.”

On the issue of stem cell research using – and then destroying – living human embryos, the new President is reversing the ban on government funding for this which President Bush put in place. On the issue of direct abortion he says he “understands that abortion is a divisive issue” – no marks for stating the obvious. Of course he “respects those who disagree with him”. That can be little consolation for the victims of abortion. But the White House website entry is quite categorical: President Obama will “make preserving women’s rights under Roe v. Wade a priority in his Administration”. From this and other declared intentions it is clear that the practice of abortion is going to become even more firmly entrenched in American society.

The bishops’ position is equally clear: “Human life is a gift from God, sacred and inviolable. Because every human person is created in the image and likeness of God, we have a duty to defend human life from conception until natural death and in every condition.
“Our world does not lack for threats to human life. We face a new and insidious mentality that denies the dignity of some vulnerable human lives and treats killing as a personal choice and social good. As we wrote in Living the Gospel of Life, ‘Abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human life and dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental good and the condition for all others’.

“Abortion, the deliberate killing of a human being before birth, is never morally acceptable. The destruction of human embryos as objects of research is wrong. This wrong is compounded when human life is created by cloning or other means only to be destroyed. The purposeful taking of human life by assisted suicide and euthanasia is never an act of mercy. It is an unjustifiable assault on human life.”
President Obama’s programme of legislation on these issues are in such stark contrast to the programme being urged by the leaders of the Catholic Church in America that it is hard to feel that we have anything here other than an impending clash of two civilizations – the one representing rampant individualism, the other representing true and authentic Christian principles.

“We urge Catholics and others”, the bishops write, “to promote laws and social policies that protect human life and promote human dignity to the maximum degree possible. Laws that legitimize abortion, assisted suicide, and euthanasia are profoundly unjust and immoral. We support constitutional protection for unborn human life, as well as legislative efforts to end abortion and euthanasia. We encourage the passage of laws and programs that promote childbirth and adoption over abortion and assist pregnant women and children. We support aid to those who are sick and dying by encouraging health care coverage for all as well as effective palliative care. We call on government and medical researchers to base their decisions regarding biotechnology and human experimentation on respect for the inherent dignity and inviolability of human life from its very beginning, regardless of the circumstances of its origin.”

I don’t know where Samuel Huntington stood specifically on any of these issues – and out of respect and affection for him I am loath to check it out. However, I hope that from where he is now he has a clearer view of how things should be and whose victory to cheer for in this impending clash of civilisations.

Michael Kirke, formerly of The Irish Press, is now a freelance writer. His views can be responded to at  Other writing can be found at


One thought on “Two Civilizations in Conflict?

  1. Pingback: Popular People » Blog Archive » Text Me, Facebook Me, Email Me: He’S Just Not That Into You « Kerisma

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