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Faith: Something worth fighting for

The Baltimore Sun

Nietzsche first proclaimed it in 1881: "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him." Time magazine agreed in 1966, with its infamous black death-notice cover. Yet although 2006 was marked by many cataclysmic events - social, political, military, ecological - nothing on Earth had as much impact as God. Or rather, the belief in God.

According to a recent NBC poll, 80 percent of Americans identify as Christian, 26 percent of whom are evangelicals. Throughout the world, 2.5 billion people call themselves Christian. Another 1.7 billion are Muslims. There are 900 million Hindus, 400 million Buddhists, 15 million Jews. Hundreds of thousands worship other religions from traditional African and Chinese religions to neo-paganism and Scientology.

There are, of course, secularists and outright atheists in the world. But for the majority, theism is a focal point of life, something not only worth fighting for, but, increasingly, worth killing for. Which puts the lie to Nietzsche's statement. God is alive and well in the hearts and minds of three-quarters of the people of the world. For good or ill.

This hasn't stopped adamant atheists from making the case against God, however. If anything, it has bolstered the rationale for atheism. Marx has nothing on 21st-century atheists and their claims of religion being not just an opiate of the masses, but a soporific that allows acceptance of the worst intolerance.

Sam Harris has been on God's case for several years now, first with his best-selling The End of Faith, and now with Letter to a Christian Nation. Richard Dawkins also makes the case against God with his best-seller, The God Delusion. Both writers are succinct in their declarations that religion and belief in God are dangerous if not outright terroristic forces. Both cite Christian evangelicalism and Islamic fundamentalism as the prime sources of intolerance, global war and terrorism. Dawkins stipulates that religion is bad for everyone, that it oppresses women, represses children and suppresses science; Harris agrees. Were it not for religion, each claims, the world would be a more peaceful place, because religion generates hostility and plays into nationalism in the most brutal ways (witness the Holocaust and Darfur). Without religion, rational thought would supersede all else; social unrest would diminish immeasurably.

With so many believers, however, numerous voices are raised contravening Harris and Dawkins. Antidotes to (or at least would-be attempts at) what the Gospel of Luke calls "irreligion," are much in demand. Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly's Culture Warrior and Ann Coulter's Godless: The Church of Liberalism don't so much assert the importance of God as declaim that if one is politically liberal/progressive, one is, ipso facto, anti-God.

O'Reilly insists that there are two camps in America today that are divided by religion: "culture warriors" who are Christian traditionalists and "secular progressives," who are pretty much, as O'Reilly delineates them, Satan's helpers. Coulter agrees with O'Reilly in sum, yet, rabid ideologue that she is, goes a step further, affirming that liberals have made godlessness into their own religion.

Alleged liberal rejection of religion isn't the only problem some conservatives are having in the quest to keep God in the forefront. Expatriate gay conservative Bruce Bawer argues in While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within that liberals in Europe (he now lives in Oslo, Norway) are responsible for the rise in radical Islam in the European Union. This is, according to Bawer, a Christian, incalculably dangerous. Bawer states that political correctness and multiculturalism are "a habit of thought that in America is an annoyance, but in Europe is a veritable religion." Bawer complains that in Europe, godlessness is the foe of containing radical Islam, and if Europeans don't watch out, unassimilated Muslims like those who perpetrated the terrorist attacks on July 7, 2005, in London will be the norm in little more than a generation.

But wait-isn't radical Islam a religion? So does God need to be contained? Or only their God?

Where is the true God in all of this cant?

God, it seems, is being held hostage. From President Bush to Muqtada al-Sadr, God is used as the excuse for starting and perpetuating wars, not ending them. (Bob Woodward's State of Denial corroborates Bush's claim that God led him to war. However, in his new book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, former President Jimmy Carter remembers telling Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir that "Israel was punished whenever its leaders turned away from devout worship of God." Depending on which president you believe, God wants incompatible religious answers in the Middle East. So much for presidential omniscience.)

When God isn't being used to invade countries or foment insurgencies, God is being manipulated mercilessly for political ends. In Tempting Faith, David Kuo, former special assistant to Bush and deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, asserts that Bush and his cohort were using people of faith like himself to further their own agenda with a predominantly evangelical political base. Kuo claims that Bush's famous compassionate conservatism was a ruse - that the promises he made to his evangelical constituency were not only never kept, but were made solely for political purposes. What's more, writes Kuo, the Bush team wooed Christian voters, but never took them seriously, making jokes about them and their leaders.

Throughout the globe God has become a rationale for violence at the expense of peace. Christ's Sermon on the Mount, the keystone of Christianity and the New Testament, is virtually unread and declaratively unremarked by evangelical Christians in the United States. Kuo suggests in Tempting Faith that evangelicals take a respite from politics, that they have lost sight of God in their quest to unite church and state.

There is no Muslim leader to make a similar suggestion to the Muslim world: that theocracy might be the wrong road for nations to take, that God and state should remain separate entities and worship a private matter. However, Jon Meacham, aNewsweek editor, lays out a compelling argument for the separation in his new book, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation.

Democracy and religion need not be antithetical, Meacham explains, because they can impel each other. It was, for example, the deism of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson that led to their beliefs in the fundamentals of democracy. Freedom of religion as much as freedom from religion drove the fledgling democracy, which had its share of religious persecution. Religious belief is, according to Meacham, distinct from morality, yet forms the underpinning which makes democracy work.

As this year ends and a new one begins, the role of God among all nations must be acknowledged if there is to be any comprehension of why the world is in such foment and chaos. God didn't put us there, but the manipulation of religious fervor has. Meacham implores that our and other nations look more closely at the role of religion in politics as a means toward ending and resolving conflict, rather than instigating new ones. An idea of which God would no doubt approve.

Victoria A. Brownworth, a practicing Catholic, has written extensively about religion and politics for numerous publications, most recently in the anthology "Sodom and Me: Queers and Fundamentalism." She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her latest book is "The Golden Age of Lesbian Erotica: 1920s - 1940s."

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