PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
WHY THEY BELIEVE THE BIG LIE
One Big Lie deserves another. One Big Lie says that the U.S. is fundamentally different from the evil "terrorists." They intentionally kill civilians, as they try to take away our freedom. We would never do anything like that, because we are so good.
This Big Lie is so appealing because it revives the comforting old belief in American innocence. We are "the American Adam and Eve," living in a uniquely blessed paradise, incapable of sin. Such naïve faith in America began to die a slow death during the Vietnam War. Now millions of Americans grab at every opportunity to make it seem believable again.
A second Big Lie, entwined with the first, is the claim that the current war is really about ending terrorism. To unmask that one, just consider the slogans. Every war has its slogans: "Remember the Maine," "Beat the Huns," "Unconditional Surrender." Most war slogans speak of the enemy’s evil and how the good guys will defeat that evil.
This war’s slogans are different: "United We Stand"; "God Bless America." These slogans say nothing about defeating an enemy beyond our shores. They tell us that the goal of this war is to make our own society better. War will unite us with each other and give us some special relationship with God.
Nothing unites people like a common enemy. If unity is the problem, war is the most obvious solution. If religious faith is the problem, a war of virtue against absolute evil is the most obvious solution. It hardly matters just who the enemy is, or exactly why they attack us.
Nor does it matter, ultimately, whether or not we defeat enemy. If the purpose of the war is not to win but to reform our society from within, as the two popular slogans indicate, it may be better to keep the enemy alive. The longer the war goes on, the longer the revival of unity and faith can continue.
Endless war is just what the government has in mind. From September 11 on, we were warned that this war will go on for many years. Indeed, Vice-President Cheney and Secretary of War Rumsfeld both said, early on, that terrorism would never end. Yet that did nothing to weaken support for the war. The popular slogans still surround us.
These slogans don’t seem to have been orchestrated by government propagandists. They just caught the popular imagination, because they respond to a very deep need. When The Big Lie is used to justify the big bombs, it is tempting to put all the blame on the government. But the Big Lie works only if enough people believe it.
Those of us who want peace so desperately can easily forget that many of our neighbors want national unity and God’s blessing just as desperately. They believe that they saw faith in God undermined and unity, along with innocence, disappear during the Vietnam era. They will do almost anything to get these values back—even turn off their independent judgment and eagerly swallow The Big Lie.
The Big Lie keeps rolling on as long as "we" seem to be winning. Victories are taken as proof of our goodness, innocence, and unity—proof that God has indeed blessed America. The Vietnam war did not undermine all these popular beliefs until it became obvious that we were losing. The "war on terrorism" could easily drag on, like the cold war, until we run into another Vietnam.
The last time around, the resulting social crack-up brought us Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes. We all have a stake in keeping some degree of national unity. We just have to find a way to get it without war.
If we want unity and peace, it is not enough just to denounce The Big Lie and the horrors of war. We must give our neighbors, who long for unity and divine blessing, some understanding. Not that we must agree with them. But we must respect their emotional needs and religious beliefs.
We must reassure our neighbors that we are not out to tear the nation apart, as many of them fear. They doubt that peace activists share their goal of building our society on a firm foundation of lasting, shared values. As we vigorously oppose their views on war and peace issues, we must also show them how much we have in common. We do share many of their values. We too, want a society that works together for the good of all because everyone feels connected. To build a successful peace movement, we have to keep that in mind and make it part of our message.
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