Gellman: Religious Freedom, Captain America and '300'

The great spiritual questions of our time concern the use of power to secure freedom. The world of Islam has never faced the jarring revolution of the Enlightenment, which severed Christianity’s ties between faith and power, and, lacking a Muslim Voltaire, some segments of Islam still pine for a restored caliphate in which the sword is wielded by mullahs and the line between religion and the state is obliterated. In the West, this melding of faith and secular power was rejected 400 years ago. Rendering worldly power unto Caesar left faith free to focus on the promise of personal salvation.

One crushing obstacle to personalized religion always remained, however, and that was the threat to freedom. Religion can choose to live outside of what Marx called “the noisy din of world history” only as long as that din does not become a deafening roar. Fascism, communism, and now jihadist terrorism compel religions to ask whether faith can truly survive without freedom.

If faith is truly transcendent, then it does not matter who rules our broken world because this world does not matter. If, on the other hand, God wants us to be free not only of sin and death but also from oppression and tyranny, then faith must encourage its believers to take up arms against the oppressors. This question is tearing religious people apart. One can easily carry a protest sign reading NO WAR FOR OIL, but can one carry a sign reading NO WAR FOR FREEDOM without doing damage to one’s soul?

This same conflict lies behind the comic-book death of Captain America and the cinematic death of Leonides in the movie “300.” The Spartan Greeks, led by Leonides, could have chosen to live under the rule of Xerxes and the Persian Empire. They could have traded their imperiled freedom for a secure life of slavery. The choice of Leonides and the 300 Spartans to die in a doomed but heroic battle is the clear choice of those who believe that nothing—no faith, no material wealth, nothing—justifies the surrender of freedom to tyranny.

Captain America was created by Joe Simon in 1941 as a fictional ally in the war against Hitler and Nazi fascism. In the most recent issue, Cap was gunned down in New York City after 65 years of fighting for freedom and the American way of life. Pop culture mavens said that Cap's death symbolized the death of the American passion for freedom and of the kind of heroes who give their lives in its defense.

Neither Leonides nor Captain America were religious, but both of them stood for that part of the religious world that believes in a God who fights for freedom. They both stood for the proposition that freedom is the foundation of all meaningful life. Religiously speaking, this is the belief that God gave freedom to all people made in His image, and that those who oppose freedom must be prepared to fight God. Leonides and Cap were echoing Moses' message to Pharaoh.

It’s obvious to me that movies and comic books can make this case better than any subtle novel and more authentically than any spin-tested political speech. Comic books, and the graphic novels that evolved from them, are about the struggle of good against evil. Other art forms can make the claim that everything is gray, nothing is true, and nothing eternal. Of course these latter claims may be right, but if they are, then the age of heroes is over and both Cap and Leonides are really dead.

Embracing the need to spiritually justify the fight for world freedom carries its own perils. Chief among these dangers is what we now see in the world of Islamic fascism: the use of religion to extol death and tyranny. The biblical name for this is idolatry, and the seductions of idolatry are hard for some to resist. In the end, though, the spiritual truth of freedom's cause is eventually clear to all.

Leonides and Captain America were heroes not because they entered the field of battle with a shield of Vibranium or were in possession of abs of steel, but because they entered battle with a spiritually authentic idea: that God is free and we are made in God's image to be free as well. We were not placed on planet earth to avoid death. We were placed here so that we could avoid surrendering our God-given freedom to tyrants.

Remember Cap.

Remember Thermopylae.