In post 9 / 11 United States, books can keep faith alive

The Argument

Christmas approaches, amplifying the bitter irony of the spiritual basis of conflict -- and its resolutions.


December 21, 2003|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

In the delightful new film Love Actually, one of the characters notes that when the planes flew into the twin towers on Sept. 11 people called each other with messages of love. In the midst of a tragedy so immense, anger, pettiness and resentment receded and people embraced, regardless of difference. By reaching out with pure motives, they achieved a moment of spiritual ascendancy.

In a pre-Sept. 11, world the holiday season tended to create its own spiritual momentum, re-igniting humane concerns dormant through the rest of the year. Dickens' Tiny Tim with his call for God to "bless us every one" resonated for the 12 days of Christmas, eight days of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa observations, celebrations of Solstice and beyond. But in a post-Sept. 11 country still so deeply wounded by the moment when the national soul was riven along with the World Trade Center towers, do we still embrace the spiritual as in Christmases past and immediately following that horrifying September morning? Or has an event of such magnitude and amorality rendered us too spiritually stunned to turn to God with anything but angry recriminations or existential wariness?

Complicating the question is the disturbing fact that religion lay at the core of Sept. 11. Its perpetrators were Islamist zealots with a fervid hatred for America. Veteran journalist Kenneth R. Timmerman explores one historical basis for Sept. 11 and its aftermath in his treatise, Preachers of Hate: Islam and the War on America (Crown, 388 pages, $25.95).

Timmerman posits that anti-Semitism, melded with a basic hatred of the entire Judeo-Christian tradition, has poisoned the Arab world and Islam. Islam's radical leaders and its most zealous followers have thus pledged to eradicate not merely the state of Israel, but also Christians who claim connection to a spiritual, Biblical Israel.

Thus the United States, both a supporter of Israel and a predominantly Christian nation, has come under merciless fire. The deeply rooted belief held by a majority of Muslims, Timmerman states, is that Americans and Zionists have inviegled the Christian world into a war to destroy Islam -- the most dangerous theory at play on the international stage. Timmerman charges Americans and their allies to understand the depth of the historical anti-Semitic foundation for Islamist radicalism in order to best disarm it.

Many would claim war is itself a godless act and damages the spiritual core of nations that engage in it, particularly if it has no clear moral base. The war on Iraq is inextricable from, if not a direct result of, Sept. 11. Although President Bush has recently backed away from linkages between Iraq and Sept. 11, polls consistently show a majority of Americans believe that Iraq was complicit in Sept. 11 and that is the basis for war on that country.

New York Times Washington correspondent Todd S. Purdum, with other staff from the Times, writes compellingly about this in A Time of Our Choosing: America's War in Iraq (Times Books / Henry Holt, 320 pages, $25), querying the how and why of the U.S. engagement. Exploring the efforts of the French and others to forestall actual war, as well as reporting from various fronts in the battle, Purdum ponders the global impact of America's unilateralism with regard to Iraq to impressive effect.

George W. Bush ran for president as a "compassionate conservative" and his faith-based initiatives, although seemingly at odds with his hawkish bent, have formed the basis for his political agenda. Stephen Mansfield's The Faith of George W. Bush (Tarcher / Penguin, 200 pages, $19.99), depicts on its cover the president in a pose of reflection if not actual prayer. If Sept. 11 tested the faith of the nation, it also tested the spiritual mettle of the man who had to lead that nation through its grimmest hour in generations.

Mansfield asserts that Bush believes himself to have been called by God to the office of president and that he commits to no action without summoning prayer and considering his acts in relationship to his beliefs. In Mansfield's paean to Bush's "contexualizing" of Christianity within the presidency, there is no querying of whether the presidency is indeed the place for such an overtly theocratic perspective. Mansfield quotes the president, "Government can do certain things very well, but it cannot put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives," concluding that with this statement Bush "captured the very heart of the conservative movement."

But is this what the quest for hope and faith is or should be? A political leader whose personal religious beliefs infuse his presidency with such zealotry that they mimic enemy nations' theocrats?

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