In the Name of God


November 19, 1990|By Stan Lichtenstein

SILVER SPRING. — JOHN C. DANFORTH, who is both a senator from Missouri and an Episcopal priest, has made a modest and worthy proposal that I'm afraid will go nowhere. In calling upon the leaders of church, mosque and synagogue to jaw, jaw, jaw rather than war, war, war, Mr. Danforth becomes a prophet -- but one, alas, who is crying in the wilderness.

''The pope,'' urges Senator Danforth, ''should issue an invitation to an interfaith selection of widely recognized religious leaders'' who would declare that ''violence in the name of religion is contrary to the will of God,'' after which the cooperating clerics could set up ''a standing forum of religious leaders to address issues of religious violence.''

The proposal is unlikely to get off the ground because it implies an indictment. Does Senator Danforth really expect the world's holy men to plead guilty? If they ever do that, it will be -- to use an appropriate expression -- a cold day in Hell.

The senator and clergyman has put his finger on an unpalatable truth -- one that is generally denied or ignored by the wearers of the cloth.

Mr. Danforth pointedly samples the abundant evidence of ''religiously inspired calamity'' -- the ''heretofore secular'' Saddam Hussein calling his attempted conquests a religious crusade; Iran's current spiritual leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calling for ''a holy war to free the Middle East from the Western infidel;'' Moslems stoning Wailing Wall worshipers in Jerusalem and Israeli policemen shooting the stone throwers; warring Lebanese religious factions ''so numerous it is difficult to keep track of them;'' Catholic and Protestant Christians in Northern Ireland bombing each other ''as they have for decades;'' Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan equipping themselves to nuke each other off the map; Hindus against Sikhs in India; Moslems slaughtering Catholics in East Timor; Christians, Moslems and animists killing each other in the Sudan.

BTC Senator Danforth comments: ''All this killing is done with the absolute certainty that God wants it so. If thine enemy offends thee, rub him out. Indeed, it is believed that to lose one's life in God's cause is to die a martyr's death and win a reward in heaven.'' He deplores complacency in the West, which, enjoying ''a passable degree of religious tolerance,'' tends to ''dismiss news accounts of holy wars as shocking occurrences in exotic places.''

Such ''exotic'' turbulence is increasingly observable in the U.S., the senator notes, as when ''swastikas are painted on a Jewish school in Maryland.''

Except for an occasional and lonely voice like Senator Danforth's, the public square in our Judeo-Christian culture resounds with false and hypocritical assertions laying the blame for all the world's ills on the shoulders of the infidel. Only weeks before Mr. Danforth's statement, Doug Bandow, a Cato Institute senior fellow, repeated a favorite half-truth: ''The gruesome death states of this century were, not surprisingly, rabidly atheistic.''

This notion, resting on the records of dictators like Stalin and Ceausescu, is peddled by historical revisionists who never seem to have heard of other 20th-century ''death states'' such as Iran under its arch-theocrat, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose every gruesome torture and murder was undertaken in the name of God. Similarly, in Spain it was the pious Francisco Franco, not the ''atheists'' he was overthrowing, who initiated the slaughter in that unfortunate country.

If we look back to earlier centuries, we cannot hide from ourselves the frequency with which religion was a basis for bloodbaths as well as smaller-scale instances of torture and murder. The grievances various faiths harbor against one another -- including those of Islam against crusading Christianity -- are appallingly real. And, in political upheavals such as America's Civil War, we must acknowledge, as did Abraham Lincoln, that both sides prayed to the same God.

In our country, beset by a high level of violence, hysterical thinkers wildly seek scapegoats, turning all crime into thoughtcrime. After the Central Park jogger was gang-raped, tortured and left for dead, some sought to pin the deed on secular humanism, godlessness in the schools and liberal Supreme Court justices. With commendable restraint, law-enforcement authorities brought only the jogger's accused attackers into court, and did not arrest any humanist philosophers.

After Salman Rushdie was sent into hiding for having written his novel, ''The Satanic Verses'' -- which advocated the killing of no one -- religious and lay leaders including Jimmy Carter were at best half-hearted in condemning the ayatollah for ordering his hit squads to run down and kill the infidel.

Senator Danforth's proposal for lessening the violence stands no chance of success so long as world religious and lay leadership clings to its habitual fondness for deities wielding a terrible swift sword.

Stan Lichtenstein is a former editor of Church & State.

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