In its darkest hours, America has always found
illumination in the rhetoric of the Enlightenment and
in the reasoned thinking of its Founding Fathers.
But no more.
Today, in a renewed time of darkness, America has
ignored its Enlightenment past, looking instead to the
angry rhetoric of the Dark Ages and the religious
violence of the Crusades.
Consider: the photograph haunts me. An Iraqi child,
sitting in the dark, her hands outstretched and
upturned. She is crying, huddled on the floor, covered
in blood. To her right, standing in the shadows, is an
American soldier. He holds his gun loosely. He is
faceless, nameless, menacing.
Disturbed, I want to escape the present. So, I reach
for the bookshelf and take down an old French epic
called The Song of Roland. I open its pages and step
back a thousand years:
"So spattered all the earth there would you find
That through the field the grass so green and fine
With men's life-blood is all vermilion dyed."
The Song of Roland relates the conflict between
Christians and Muslims in 778 A.D. In it, Saracens in
Spain attack and kill a division of King Charlemagne's
army, including Charlemagne's nephew, Roland.
Written sometime between 1098 and 1100 to encourage
Medieval Christians to take up the sword in the first
crusade against the Muslims, The Song of Roland was a
blatant propaganda piece - historically inaccurate and grotesquely racist. Roland is portrayed as the heroic martyr, and Charlemagne's horrific revenge - the slaughter of the Muslims - as God's righteous wish.
Despite being propaganda, the poem worked, delivering
thousands of volunteers to fight the Muslims. The poem
worked because its language was irresistible; its
religious message, emotional and compelling: it's us
against them with God on our side.
I think again of the photograph and of the words in
the poem: the image of blood on the young girl, and
the image of blood on the green grass - images a
millennium apart - suddenly sharing a moment and
meaning in time.
The present is past; the past is present.
Listen to the modern crusader's rhetoric, also
sweeping in its poetry and vision: "The survival of
liberty in our land increasingly depends on the
success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for
peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all
the world." The words belong to George W. Bush from
his second inaugural address.
We need only replace "liberty" and "freedom" with "Christianity" and the words would find themselves comfortably flowing from the mouths of crusaders standing at the walls of Jerusalem a thousand years ago.
But it's more than a semantic trick.
For the last thirty years, the words "liberty" and
"freedom" - what they mean and what they require of
citizens - have been actively fought for, and finally
won by, the neo-conservative, Christian-right
These redefined words - imbued with a narrow-minded,
religious zeal - have taken hold of American politics.
Example: the recent post-election, self-examination of
the Democratic Party, thrashing itself over how to
connect with the American people. Their unique
solution? Co-opt the rhetoric of religion, for
themselves. However, this Democratic concession to the
politics of religion is historically un-American.
The Founding Fathers wanted their new nation to escape
the narrow-minded, superstitious belief in God
anointed kings - secular or religious. They wanted
their new nation to reflect Enlightenment thinking -
rational and reasoned. In fact, many of the Founding
Fathers - Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin
Franklin, and Thomas Paine, for example - were
suspicious of religion and religious doctrine, hence
their insistence on the separation of Church and
"The day will come when the mystical generation of
Jesus," wrote Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, "by the
supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin,
will be classed with the fable of the generation of
Minerva in the brain of Jupiter."
Imagine the reaction from Fox News if John Kerry, John
Dean, or Ted Kennedy said that today. And what does it
say when no mainstream American politician can
publicly agree with Thomas Jefferson on this point?
It says that, slowly and with a creeping certainty,
America is moving backward, past the Enlightenment
ideals that informed its creation, moving backward a
thousand years, to the age of the Crusades and God
In this new America, President Bush offers a
crusader's vision that is nothing less than a call to
war against the infidels - whether those infidels are
al-Qaeda members, or Iraqi militants, or Enlightenment Liberals. Or, as the president has strongly suggested: it's us against them with God on our side.
It is dark in America. Americans would do well to
return to their Enlightenment past for illumination.
If not, only the Dark Ages lie ahead.
Steven Laffoley is an American writer living in
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org