Entry from April 16, 2004

There seems to be a gathering consensus among the anti-Bush intelligentsia that the problems of our problem-filled world, and especially those of the problem-filled Bush foreign policy, are all caused by religion. Or, as a correspondent of The Times of London writes, “many, if not all, of the ills of the past 100 years have been caused by men with high ideals and strong convictions of righteousness.” Why limit it to the last 100 years, I wonder? The point is to make a link with Communism, the most recent faith in whose name killing has been justified in the West. This in turn allows an easy means of approach to that favorite intellectual paradigm, the moral equivalence between the supposed Bushite religious fanatics and the Islamic fanatics they are so determined (apparently) to fight. Another correspondent seconds the motion that “wars are caused when people are dogmatic about their beliefs, whether these are religious or ideological.” You know who we’re talking about GWB!

Richard Cohen of the Washington Post goes even further, building his case for Bush the fanatic on nothing more than his once having inadvertently used the word “crusade” and his having thought that Saddam Hussein was a threat to American security when “he manifestly was not.” Perhaps only Cohen would have the chutzpah (if that’s what it is) to use a word like “manifestly” about something that a majority of the American people disagree with him about. Talk about people being “dogmatic about their beliefs”! And Cohen goes on: “Bush talks as if only an atheist would demand proof when faith alone more than suffices. He is America”s own ayatollah.” Maybe just a bit of a stretch, there, Richard? Not, I guess, if you aspire to join the Maureen Dowd-Tina Brown school of column writing for which outrageous exaggeration is the stock-in-trade.

A couple of months ago, Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times was inspired to a dithyramb on the dangerous religiosity of the Bush administration because the Vice President and Mrs Cheney sent out Christmas cards last year which bore a quotation from Benjamin Franklin: “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” Who would not see this as an uncontroversial — they didn’t know about “imperialism” in those days — and humble prayer for divine assistance in the war against terrorism? Not Nicholas D. Kristof, who wrote that “It’s hard not to see that as a boast that the U.S. has become the global superpower because God is on our side. And ‘empire’ suggests Iraq: is Mr. Cheney contending that in the dispute over the latest gulf war, God was pulling for the White House and fulminating at Democrats and others in Beelzebub’s camp?”

Well, yes, Nicholas D., I rather think he was. At least he was contending that God was — like the Democrats at the time, most of whom voted with Bush — likely to look with favor on those who sought to rid the world of the “evil” Saddam Hussein, a man who, remarkably enough, really was evil.Why would God not be “pulling for” an effort to bring to justice a pack of vicious murderers? But it is an article of faith with those belonging to a certain progressive school of thought that whenever anyone appeals to divine authority for sanction even for the most unexceptionable kinds of things — the murdering of children, for instance, at which Saddam was hideously experienced — he must be wrong. “Religion may preach peace and tolerance,” writes Mr Kristof, “yet it’s hard to think of anything that — because of human malpractice — has been more linked to violence and malice around the world.”

That expression “linked to” is a weaselly formation if ever I saw one. Of course Mr Kristof is entitled to be against religion himself, but as Don Marquis, a far better columnist than he, once said: “An idea isn’t responsible for the people who believe in it.” This is especially true of religion, whose pretensions to offer access to the sources of truth and life make it particulary tempting to the unscrupulous seeking cover for actions which they would doubtless find some other excuse for if they didn’t have religion. Whenever I hear this kind of intellectually sloppy blaming of “religion” for the faults of its multitudinous varieties of religious believers, I like to think of the carpenter in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall who kills people — including Mr Prendergast, the liberal clergyman with “doubts” — because he imagines that that the Angel of the Lord appeared in his shop one day, called him “the Lion of the Lord’s Elect” and told him to “kill and spare not.”

Were the murders of this madman the fault of the scriptures out of which he had constructed his own private mythology? Or yet of the pious men whose exegeses have led over the years to quite different and more desirable consequences? Waugh the Catholic was satirizing the kind of extreme Protestantism that leaves all moral questions only to the arbitrement of the individual conscience. But in our secular world, where such a foolish liberty has now become a universal principle — the only universal principle, for obvious reasons — we find it expedient to blame religion for the excesses of those who espouse it in the name of the unfettered and newly-empowered individual. Religion may no longer provide much of a check on those who would commit horrible deeds in its name, but it’s not as if, without religion, it would never have occurred to them to commit such deeds in the first place. Vanity, cruelty and vengefulness are constants in human history, and it is bizarrely illogical to blame these qualities on the only force that has ever had any power against them, merely because it has never had enough.

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