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The Song of Roland Revisited
Published on Tuesday, March 8, 2005 by
The Song of Roland Revisited
by Steven Laffoley
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 movement.

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 State.

"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 anointed kings.

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


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