Seven years ago last Thursday came the attack, but the American mistake came three days later. That was when President Bush, standing in the soaring space of the National Cathedral and invoking God, declared his purpose: "to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil."
When the global war on terrorism was conceived in expressly religious terms, with a Christian God declared to be not only an ally but a sponsor, the administration was carrying out an essential part of the plan of Osama bin Laden. Bush is criticized for many things, but his most grievous failure lies in having fallen into bin Laden's trap.
Beginning on Sept. 14, 2001, US foreign policy was yoked to a certain brand of messianic fundamentalism. Although discussed openly in eschatologically-minded religious institutions, the link between state power and radical Christian fervor remained blurred both in Bush's mind and in political discussion, yet it was defining. Key administration figures signed on for the good-versus-evil crusade, the enemy was defined in explicitly religious terms - "Islamofascism" - and end-of-days religion began showing up as a mode of building unit cohesion in the US military. God was assigned a place in the chain-of-command, and prayer, mainly in the name of Jesus, became a function of government.
Bin Laden wanted to be taken as the world-defender of Muslims; he wanted a war with the Great Satan as a purification of the House of Islam; he wanted the clash of civilizations. It worked, but only because a particular religious vision animated American responses. Here are that vision's main characteristics:
Manichaean, with primitive notions of an absolute divide between good and evil - the saved on one side, the damned on the other.
Apocalyptic, convinced that redemption comes through violence.
Millennial, taking prospects of bloodshed and mayhem as God-predicted tribulations from which the born-again will be rescued.
Otherworldly, so ready to denigrate life on earth as to risk its destruction, whether quickly through war or slowly through pollution.
Israel-obsessed, with the Jewish state openly seen as instrumental in God's plan for the coming Last Judgment (while downplaying expectations of universal Jewish baptism).
As the Bush crusade wore on, ever more clearly a failure, the American public became uneasy with its religious overtones. There was less talk of defeating evil, and of God as a US ally. Yet because questions of faith are politically loaded, and because public figures, too, have a right to freedom of conscience, there was, equally, little or no public reckoning with the way such Bush-sponsored state-religiosity had empowered bin Laden around the Muslim world, recruiting his legions to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But by the time of this year's presidential campaign, Christian fervor as a mode of foreign policy was so discredited that, even among Republicans, the otherwise compelling candidacy of Mike Huckabee went nowhere. John McCain gives necessary lip-service to piety, but is not driven by it.
This is the context within which arise grave, and as yet unanswered questions about Sarah Palin. It seems clear that her nomination as the Republican vice-presidential candidate has generated such enthusiasm in large part because of her ties to politicized evangelicalism. Normally, the content of her beliefs would be no more a subject of proper political inquiry than, say, John Kennedy's Catholicism was. But when conservative Christian leaders openly transformed their faith-based networks into a partisan political movement, with drastic consequences at home and abroad, the political-religious convictions of an evangelical candidate must be addressed.
In interviews, Palin has already expressed a readiness to go to war with Russia, and a refusal, as she put it, to "second guess" Israel. What lies behind these positions? Does she regard war as a possible mode of redemption? Does she believe God has granted Israel title to the whole land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean? Is it proper for US military commanders to impose religious tests on their troops? Does she see the United States as possessing transcendent virtue, other nations as more prone to evil?
Once, such questions would have seemed crackpot. Today, their answers could tell us if our nation is about to replay its gravest mistake.