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Danger and grace – Sept. 11 and America’s religious moment

By Richard Rodriguez Pacific News Service
Wednesday January 09, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO – After the names and the utterances of prime ministers and secretaries of war are forgotten, after the madmen in the desert have been hunted and killed, after the capable youth of today’s soldiers has been undermined by the blessing of a long life, history will, I think, remember this time – our lifetime – as a religious moment, both dangerous and capable of great grace. 

This is or should be a deeply embarrassing time for anyone in America who claims to be “religious.” On videotape, Osama bin Laden celebrates death and destruction with joyful invocations to God. What we see in the face of our adversary – this Muslim terrorist – is the mad glint of the otherworldly, as ancient as religious belief. 

As a Christian, I have been forced by the angry, bearded face of Islam in recent months to wonder about my own religious face. I believe, through history, organized religion has done more good than harm in the world. That is not a dashed-off piety – I really believe it. 

My own Roman Catholicism has encouraged me to do good in the world; to prize love above all other emotions. But Muslims speak of the “Crusades” as a fresh offense, and I cannot forget now that religion – mine certainly – has caused havoc in the world, brought destruction to “infidel” and “heretic” in the name of God. 

Not without reason did the founders of America establish a secular society. The secular state’s protection of all religious and non-religious belief has been interpreted by some Americans, in recent decades, as an excuse to remove religion from our public life altogether or denigrate it (as post-modern Hollywood regularly does in its comic portrayals of Christianity). But at its best, the American secular state has protected religious rights in America, and protects, not coincidentally, Muslims today. 

It serves Osama bin Laden to ignore the point of our secularism. He is, or portrays himself as, too medieval a man to understand us. He describes America as a “Jewish-Christian” alliance, attempting thereby to separate Muslims from our national company. 

President Bush’s great patriotism at this time has been his insistence that American military action is not a war against Islam. He has been photographed with American Muslim clerics, dined with them in the White House, and prayed with them. 

Less impressive has been the gaudy parade of American clerics and ministers who seem unable to address the dark implications for religious belief of Sept. 11. Catholic bishops merely assure us now that ours is a “just war.” The Rev. Jerry Falwell deciphers the events of Sept. 11 as God’s wrath against gays and abortionists. And from Billy Graham’s son, Frank, we hear a hymn of Christian triumphalism against Islam. 

Confrontation with the darker aspect of religion – thus of ourselves – is difficult for America. Despite 19th century persecution of Mormons on our soil, for example, or the trampling of American Indian spirituality by pioneers, the country has generally been free of religious conflict. 

Beyond our borders, we have not cast ourselves as religious warriors. We went to war, for example, against the Empire of Japan, not against an emperor who was said to be a god in the Shinto religion. And after World War II, Americans grew accustomed to a Cold War enemy that was simply “godless.” 

Now, however, we face a self-proclaimed religious adversary, a circumstance unprecedented in our history. Most embarrassing for me is that this adversary’s religious belief causes me to question my own. For the God that he professes is also mine, in a foreign translation. 

After Sept. 11, it is oddly pertinent to notice how the three desert religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the three religions that are claimed by most Americans – can become not a way of life, but a cult of death. 

Jewish settlers in the West Bank make an eschatological claim on the land; Muslims, dreaming of a paradise that resembles the Playboy Mansion, chant the name of Allah as they slam jetliners into office towers. And some Christians – though not the sort who get polled by Gallup – speak of waiting for the Rapture, the Endtime. 

It is, I know, not completely fair to equate these three religions in this way. As a minority faith, a faith of the “chosen,” Judaism was not a universalist religion, has never sought to be. It is therefore less inclined than Christianity or Islam to persecute other faiths in the quest for converts. 

But from Judaism came a monotheistic theology, crucial for the development of Christianity and Islam, an idea about God both wonderful and dangerous. The idea basic to Judaism is that God acts in history. If God acts in history, then we are not alone, our lives are not meaningless, our sensibilities are not mockery and our history not mere confusion. This is the overwhelming consolation of Jewish belief that watered all religions of the desert. 

But the dangerous aspect of this theological insight is that the God who acts in history becomes decipherable to us, indeed becomes a partner to our wishes (rather than the reverse), even chooses to be on our side. Yahweh, God or Allah ends up a prisoner of his followers who assume his will. 

Bush is not the first among presidents for ending his speeches with “God bless America” – it has become a sort of platitude of political oratory. Now that invocation sounds differently – and seriously – an echo of Islamic militancy. Now, we should not be unaware of the implications of such a prayer within a political speech, how easily religion can be drafted. 

I think of Pope John Paul II, instead, whose papacy may end up most remembered for the litany of apologies he has made for the church’s misdeeds. In early December, the Pope encouraged Catholics worldwide to fast on the last day of Ramadan, and thus to share the spirituality of the Islamic world. The Pope’s suggestion, though little broadcast in the United States, seems to me a particularly valuable one for the future – and nowhere in the world more so than in the United States, where Methodist lives next door to Jew who lives next door to Muslim who lives next door to atheist. 

Precisely because I live in secular America, I find myself able to admire people whose religious faith is not my own. And I feel my own faith burnished by their good example. I do not forget, however, that secular Europe and North America have inadvertently given birth to dark sons – from John Walker in California to Richard Reid in London – sons who end up warring against the freedom and the religious and irreligious diversity of their neighborhoods. 

But the secular state of America might also give birth to a new sort of believer, a new sort of Catholic, a new sort of Baptist, a new sort of atheist. A new sort of Muslim, as well – someone who professes Islam within the cosmopolitan and diverse city. This American Muslim could end up the bright grace for us all in this dark religious moment.