THOMAS CAHILL came to town last week to talk about Christians and Jews and biblical prophets, but the message touched implicitly on George W. Bush and Robert Ehrlich and slot machine profits.
Cahill is the author of books about civilization and social justice around the world. Bush is the author of a war plan that seems ready to be implemented in the Persian Gulf. Ehrlich is the author of a slot machine package that seems to be going nowhere in Annapolis.
In a speech sponsored by the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies, Cahill - author of How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Gifts of the Jews and Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus Christ - addressed several hundred people gathered at the Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Northwest Baltimore County Thursday night.
He talked about Augustus Caesar, who "couldn't tax the rich people who put him in office." It sounded like Bush's America. He talked about the honored adage to "comfort the afflicted." It sounded like Maryland before this administration starts cutting social programs to solve the budget mess after slot machine legislation dies.
Asked what the ancient prophets would make of the conflict with Iraq, Cahill said, "I'm not a pacifist. I know when self-defense is in order. I was in favor of it when the Israelis knocked out Iraq's nuclear plant. But we're making a terrible mistake in not seeking the good opinion of mankind.
"This administration is abusive to its friends and allies without any need. We look like a schoolyard bully going after a fifth-rate power. Are we going to war because it's easy or because we really need to go?"
Cahill delivered his words as Bush, on national television, offered his rationale for war. The president was trying to convince many Americans who, polls say, do not favor the war. Partly, it is the fear of setting off additional terrorism. Partly, it is concern over an already troubled economy. But it troubles some people more than others.
If the biblical prophets returned today, Cahill said, "They would notice one-sixth of the world's population facing starvation on a dollar a day and half the population making two dollars a day, and half the children of the world going to bed hungry every night.
"From 1995 to '99, the number of [U.S.] millionaires doubled, but their taxes went down 11 percent," Cahill said, "while all other [income groups' taxes] went up. Now we're funding tax cuts for the rich and cutting social programs for the poor."
In Maryland, Ehrlich became the first Republican governor in more than three decades, helped in large measure by trumpeting the economic salvation of slots. But it was a word, not necessarily a plan. When asked for specifics about how the slot machine money would be spent, Ehrlich astonished state legislators last week with a blurry and incomplete picture - including a slight matter of $350 million in racetrack operating expenditures that administration officials apologized for leaving out. Inadvertence, they explained. No confusion intended.
By week's end, Ehrlich had alienated even staunch backers of slots with a plan that would give racetrack owners more money than it would give to schools. In the original plan, schools would receive nearly 64 percent of slots' proceeds; in the new plan, 44 percent, while track owners would get nearly 46 percent.
Faced with slots opposition he apparently did not anticipate, Ehrlich has threatened to cut social programs in order to cope with budget troubles. This is Cahill's biblical message, translated to Maryland: Enrich the track owners, and let the poor take care of themselves.
But it leaves us with a question: Does a conservative Republican administration consider this a bad thing? These are the people who have argued for years that government is too big, taxes are too high and too many poor people are being carried on the backs of the middle class. In Ehrlich's congressional days, the Republican Party was happy to make such an argument.
As governor of moderate Maryland, this might be considered bad form. So how do you cut programs without openly opposing them? You say you have no choice. You blame it on legislators who wouldn't pass gambling legislation - even if it's ill-conceived and out-of-kilter legislation that kisses off the very people it was originally intended to help the most.
So it goes in Washington. We're running up the deficits again? We might have to cut social programs? Sorry, but there's a war to be fought.
"We're heading to a new society," Cahill said the other night, "that's all but unnoticed by the war-mad media." He was talking about a society where the rich go one way and the poor go unnoticed, and war is seen as salvation. It's a society that would make the ancient prophets wonder if we've learned anything at all.