Published on Sunday, September 23, 2001 in the Observer of London
Leave God Out of It
by Cristina Odone
I've done my head counts. My family, in Washington DC, is fine. The house shook when the Pentagon was hit, but no one was injured. My former neighbor, who works at the Pentagon, is unscathed, having fled his office when he heard the explosion. My friend Charlie, a banker based in the Twin Towers, was still away on holiday in Cape Cod on 11 September. But while the tragedy has spared my family and friends, it has hijacked my God.
The Taliban and bin Laden invoke God as the co-pilot in their jihad. (In a recently recycled interview bin Laden gave to Time magazine two years ago, the word 'Allah' punctuated his every threat.) Yet talk to any moderate mullah, and he'll tell you that the ethos of the Koran is compassionate and inclusive, and that Islam values the peace lover as highly as the soldiering martyr.
Meanwhile, a distorted Christianity is being megaphoned by public figures like the US televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson - not to mention President George Bush. In a shameful double-whammy that showed 'compassionate conservatism' had made no inroads into Bible Belt bigotry, Falwell and Robertson worked themselves into a fire and brimstone fury, blaming the present crisis on gays, feminists and the pro-choice movement: these sinners had offended God, and here was his vengeance.
No sooner had the duo delivered their holy-roller sermon than George Bush was telling the American people to get ready for an all-out war on terrorism - and pray.
Presumably the President's Prayer, unlike the Lord's, wastes no breath on forgiveness, but urges the faithful to bomb the hell out of those towel-heads, Amen! Coming in the wake of his talk about launching a 'crusade', the President's message was clear: God's on our side. Beware the infidel - i.e., anyone who does not subscribe to our belief in America the beautiful.
To American ears, this kind of noise is as cozily familiar as Songs of Praise is to British ones. Since President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke of the 'spiritual weapons' which 'forever will be our citizens' most powerful resource' at the beginning of the Cold War, successive governments have turned Americans' piety into their best defense shield system. Whatever the fight - the pinko commie enemy within, or the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union - the citizens of the world's No 1 superpower can rest easy in the knowledge that, when God's on your team, you've got nothing to fear.
In the sinister, trenchcoat and fog world of the Cold War, when a few too many embarrassing questions (like 'Hey, is that a bug in my phone?') were being asked by a few too many ordinary citizens, the powers-that-be were eager to frame any conflict in religious terms. Thinking of themselves as the Godly taking on the ungodly might just convince Americans of the legitimacy of the campaigns being waged in places like Chile, Nicaragua, or - under Joe McCarthy's witch-hunts - Hollywood.
No wonder that, as Frances Stonor Saunders shows in her book about the CIA, Who Paid the Piper? , God was dragged into every aspect of American civic life. In 1954 the words 'one nation under God' were added to the pledge of allegiance with which every child begins their school day. In 1955, Congress mandated the use of 'In God we trust' on all currency; a year later those words became the official national motto.
The same decade saw the emergence of Billy Graham, patriarch of American evangelism, who rushed from sea to shining sea, delivering Bible-thumping sermons that reassured WASPs they were holy (shame about the Jews, the Papists and the 'Mohameddans'). His wild-eyed proselytizing was aided by two publishing magnates,William Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce, who puffed the Graham Crusade in their newspapers and magazines.
God was turned into an instrument of national policy, sanctioning every intelligence and military operation. In this way, the murkiest CIA plots and the most senseless military maneuvers could be given the imprimatur; shady dealings were bathed in divine light.
It's a tactic that, in a nation where the overwhelming majority call themselves believers, works wonders - or at least, helps citizens turn a blind eye to phone tapping and other infringements of their civil liberties; and a deaf ear to the faulty logic of invading Vietnam, say, or Kent University campus.
The American patina of God-speak is about as true a religious statement as some tatty plaster saint in church. The paint and the gold leaf inevitably peel to expose a soulless mold. There's nothing Christian about nuking Afghan civilians, nor spying on American students; just as there is nothing Muslim about hijacking planes and flying them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center or the Pentagon.
Yet US history has shown that, by appealing to their Christian identity, Americans will accept much that is contemptible, and confuse the ideological with the theological. With this mindset, 'Hallelujah!' amounts to a war cry, and 'Onward, Christian Soldiers' to a latter-day crusade. This is bad religion passed off as good.
We should beware Dubya's Bible-thumping. When a US President invokes God, he has something to hide. Bad religion hides dirty politics.
Cristina Odone is deputy editor of the New Statesman
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001