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A War for God-Fearing Peoples

As armies assemble, just whose version of the deity will hear the prayers?

January 30, 2003|Thomas J. Cottle | Thomas J. Cottle is a professor of education at Boston University.

I always watch the State of the Union address. Cynically, I tell myself it's an exercise in public relations, like the Super Bowl advertisements. Moreover, it is a preview of what the next presidential campaign probably will sound like.

Sometimes I find myself counting the number of occasions people interrupt the speech with applause and compare that number to the occasions they applaud and rise to their feet. I imagine there is something portentous about this ratio.

I also count the number of literary or historical references made by the president. Then I give one point for each reference to Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill or Robert Frost, and two points to anyone I cannot remember having been referred to by another president.

There may be something of significance in President Bush's State of the Union address this year inasmuch as there was not a reference to anyone.

Somewhere along the middle of the speech, when the president got to the meat-and-potatoes section, I tried not to be frightened by what he was saying.

The economic chapters are easy. He says what he thinks we want to hear: Read my lips and all that jazz. Some policy is mentioned that has never worked to boost the economy, so we'll try it again.

Was it Einstein who said that insanity is doing the same thing the same way and expecting different results?

But I do get frightened when the president speaks of war, and going it alone. A childlike instinct kicks in, and I ask myself: What if China or Russia decided that we were the most dangerous country in the world because we have weapons of mass destruction and are prepared to use them?

What if they offered to the U.N. Security Council, as smoking guns, Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

These sorts of thoughts I have to put out of my head. They're either too painful or un-American.

But the president in this year's speech has left us with a dilemma. On the one hand, the God of the terrorists promises a place in heaven and 70 vestal virgins to those who strap a bomb to themselves and blow up some people.

On the other hand, the president says our God created liberty.

It's the Crusades all over again. They're back, exactly as Andre Malraux predicted.

Decades ago, Malraux, who died in 1976, said the 21st century would be the bloodiest in the history of humankind, and the conflicts would all revolve around God.

It's the same rhetoric I heard as a child when someone was angry with me: "What in God's name," they would shout, "were you thinking?"

So there's the vexing dilemma: the God of liberty or the other?

Of course I lean toward liberty, but there are some interesting questions to ask our God. Like, why did you leave all those people out when your were creating all that liberty? Didn't you see them?

I think I'd also have to ask why thoughtful theologians never get drawn into these sorts of dilemmas.

I went to bed after this State of the Union address more than just a little frightened. It is the same feeling I always get when I hear about the death of a child somewhere in the world, and I wonder whether I could ever live through that sort of unthinkable ordeal.

So I simply flushed the entire image out of my mind.

Before falling asleep, however, I thought of a brief passage in George Steiner's autobiography, "Errata." Steiner doesn't linger all that long on the thought; he merely wonders aloud whether there has ever been a ruler leading people into battle under the banner of agnosticism.

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