Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a woman who has fallen victim to some of the worst of religious fundamentalism. At age 5, she experienced the horrors of female genital mutilation, performed at the wishes of a family member in Somalia. At 34, she experienced the brutal death of a friend when a Muslim extremist shot her filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, before pinning a note to his dying body with a knife. It was a note to Hirsi Ali, informing her of her impending execution as an apostate to the Muslim faith.
And yet, for the past two decades, Hirsi Ali has been an advocate for Muslim women, a champion of human rights, and, until recently, an outspoken New Atheist. That final descriptor is why her latest article has created such a fuss online: “Why I Am Now a Christian.”
Is Hirsi Ali Now a Christian?
“The only credible answer [to the decline of the West] . . . lies in our desire to uphold the legacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition,” Hirsi Ali writes in describing her conversion. “My atheist friends failed to see the wood for the trees. The wood is the civilisation built on the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
It’s a moving essay that was probably difficult to write—Hirsi Ali has multiple fatwas against her for her outspoken criticism of Islam and the “prophet” Muhammad, and her conversion to Christianity hardly signals a step away from controversy.
Yet as I read her explanation of her newfound faith, one thing stood out: she only mentions the name of Jesus Christ once. This may explain some skeptical reactions from certain corners of the internet: Washington Post columnist and Islamic scholar Shadi Hamid lambasted Hirsi Ali’s conversion as “completely instrumental,” further asserting that her narrative lacked “the slightest sign of sincere belief.”
More charitably, Rod Dreher saw Hirsi Ali’s conversion as mirroring much of his own imperfect journey into faith. “Very few of us came to faith in a clean, intellectually respectable conversion,” Dreher writes. “She is imperfectly Christian today; she may be more perfectly Christian tomorrow.” Hirsi Ali’s conversion has also elicited speculation from evangelical Christians trying to figure out if the newcomer is a true believer or a pretender.
Let’s be clear: I’m not here to nitpick conversion stories. If there’s one thing I’ve come to understand from talking with fellow Christians, it’s that God uses all types of backgrounds, experiences, and gifts as catalysts to usher people into the light of his truth. If the desire to save Western civilization leads someone into the arms of Jesus, praise God.
Christianity and the West
Yet the question raised by Hirsi Ali’s journey to Christ is far bigger than the story of any singular person, even an intellectual caryatid like her. It’s a question for all of us who lash our Christian faith to the mast of social critique and sail the oft-stormy seas of political life: Are we using Jesus as a tool by which to save Western civilization, or have we looked into the deep pools of Western thought and found Jesus at the bottom?
God uses all types of backgrounds, experiences, and gifts as catalysts to usher people into the light of his truth.
The struggle to reconcile Christian faith with political objectives has challenged many of the West’s greatest thinkers, from Wilberforce to Washington. Achieving social victory with an intact soul is no easy game. Now it’s Hirsi Ali’s turn, and our turn as well.
It’s not impossible. The fundamental objectives of the West aren’t at odds with the message of the Jesus whom I and billions of others claim as Lord and Savior. Championing the freedom of “the least of these,” protecting the human agency highlighted by the free enterprise system, and the full-throated defense of human dignity as a foil against nihilism and rabid expressive individualism—these are the goals of a Christian as much as they’re the goals of Western civilization.
The present multiplicity of threats massing against the West lays out this charge in clear lines: the barbarians are at the gates, in both distant lands and in the walls of American cities. The path forward, whether at home or abroad, involves realizing many of those barbarians see the destruction of Christianity as part and parcel of taking down the West. As attacks on the West mount, attacks on Christianity follow—it should come as no surprise that the current moment is opening evangelistic opportunities with those who see the survival of Western civilization as paramount.
Jesus Is More
But that’s where the divide emerges most profoundly: you can have Christianity without jumping into the war to save the West (though I’d argue you’re not taking the faith to its natural conclusion). But you can’t truly have Christianity without grappling with the person and work of Christ.
The Jesus of the Bible didn’t come to restore the West’s broken social institutions or fight off the ravages of true wokeness and totalitarianism. He came for something far more radical—the release of ordinary people from the power of the sin indwelling our souls. “Christ’s teaching implie[s] not only a circumscribed role for religion as something separate from politics,” Hirsi Ali continues in her conversion narrative. “It also implie[s] compassion for the sinner and humility for the believer.”
The Jesus of the Bible came for something far more radical—the release of ordinary people from the power of the sin indwelling our souls.
I don’t think Hirsi Ali’s lack of focus on Jesus means she doesn’t understand or believe in his primacy to Christianity. A relationship with Jesus is far more complicated to put into earthly words than one’s relationship with Western civilization.
In his 1951 classic Christ and Culture, theologian Richard Niebuhr spoke of “the double movement from world to God and from God to world.” That’s the dichotomy all Christians, even intellectuals like Hirsi Ali, must walk daily in understanding the nature of Christianity. Is Jesus—the One we talk about on Sundays and cite as our reason for being in the political arena at all—merely a Jesus capable of fixing economies, reversing social decay, and confronting the rabid secularism of our day?
As Christians, we’re compelled to believe he’s more: the Son of God demanding allegiance above any civilization and offering life and forgiveness more eternal than that offered by any leader or government. That’s the heartrendingly beautiful part of how Christianity works—and maybe that’s the part we political Christians need to internalize more.
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