Press Column

I used to know a Bishop who would ask from time to time "where is God in all this": it was his way of concentrating before some really devastating political stroke, for the road to God always went through the shattered plans of his enemies. But this is clearly a question that is asked more often in America at the moment: a quick rattle around the search engines shows that the Times mentioned God 61 times last week; and the Guardian 281 times in the whole of the last month. Compare this to the Washington Post, where He appeared 313 times in the last fortnight alone; or the San Francisco Chronicle, where he made 466 appearances in September. Astonishingly, the most religious place in this rough survey was that Gomorrah in the desert, Los Angeles, where God appeared more than 500 times in the news, and a further 28 times in their entertainment listings. as well as 5 times in their live events.

One reason for the British papers lack of interest in the religious aspect might be found in the letter of six bishops to the Times , which never actually appeared there and turned instead into the letter of Eight bishops to the Daily Telegraph. They said, inter alia, that "The struggle to contain and suppress terrorism, has nothing to do with Islam, Christianity, or any other religion." OK: if religion has nothing to do with it; then why should we care what the religious have to say? One sees the point they were trying to make: partly because they went on immediately to make it: "President Bush’s use of the language of ‘crusade’ is particularly unfortunate. In the light of historical memory … this can only encourage the perception that Christianity has embarked on a ‘crusade’ against Islam."

But Bush has clearly recognised that the use of "crusade" was a mistake, not least, by avoiding the term in future. Maurice Rowlandson had a letter pointing out that Billy Graham, had deliberately stopped calling his shows "Crusades" in this country, to avoid upsetting Muslims. Meanwhile, the idea that religion has nothing to do with the war is absurd. On the contrary,. It has everything to do with the way the war is fought, and the aims of the contending parties. What’s interesting is the fact that the fault lines run within religions, rather than between them. They also run among atheists, of course: there was a letter from Francis Bennion in the Daily Telgraph explaining that "Excusive fundamentalism, whether Christian, Islamic, or other, is the only possible stance for a true believer." Thanks for clearing that one up.

The pacifism of the Pope is a story that is ignored almost as thoroughly as the American media avoids Palestinian grievances, while in the Islamic world any attempts to stop this war growing out of control rests on Muslim opinion splitting so that bin Laden’s analysis is rejected even by people who consider themselves devout and uncorrupted. Incidentally, a nice touch I found only in the BBC monitoring service web site was the exact wording of bin Laden’s declaration of war: it starts "To our Muslim brothers in Pakistan, peace be upon you", before spending six paragraphs explaining how war should be upon them instead.

The point was most clearly made by the religion writer of the San Francisco Chronicle, Don Lattin, who wrote: "Televangelist Pat Robertson, a Christian, and convicted bomber Mahmud Abouhalima, a Muslim, agree on a few things, including why God let thousands of innocent people die in the collapse of the World Trade Center.

"Robertson, who received nearly 2 million votes when he ran in the Republican presidential primary in 1988, said the terrorist attack succeeded because ‘God Almighty lifted his protection.’

"Abouhalima, one of the militants convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, sounded a lot like Robertson when he explained to an interviewer that the ‘holy war’ is not against God-fearing Americans, but against secularism in the United States, Egypt and around the world.

Before this month's attack on the World Trade Center, Abouhalima was asked in a jailhouse interview if he thought the United States would be better off with a Christian government. ‘Yes,’ the convicted terrorist replied. ‘At least it would have morals.’

This is all the more admirable when you consider the depth of ignorance in the American heartland. There are people out there who could not even get letters printed in the Daily Telegraph. I spent an hour last week answering questions on a radio show in Oregon: the two I remember were the man who had heard that there were suitcase-sized nuclear weapons all over the United, ready to be exploded by terrorists; and another who asked whether, if we were now allowed to use assassination against foreign terrorists, it would be all right to target the leaders of the animal liberation movement, too. But still, they did not have the consolation granted to Telegraph letter writers, of knowing that no one is more stupid and ignorant than a bishop in the cofe. I particularly treasured the man who wrote in to say "I wonder if [the bishops] are aware that the Koran denies that Christ died on the Cross. By implication, this refutes, the Resurrection, the central tenet of Christianity", while Brian Gill, of London W8 wrote in to clear up a similarly tricky theological point. "If Muslims adhering to the Islamic faith [always the worst sort] deny that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, then how is it possible for the 11 bishoips to state that we are all … ‘children of the one God.’ We need revelation, not deception."

The only really cheerful religious news of the week was to be found in the obituaries columns. Several papers recorded the death of a batsman named Dickie Dodds, who believed that the way to worship God was to hit the ball beautifully. Cricket and religion seemed wholly entwined in his life: apparently his first marriage was based "on a catch in the outfield and a simultaneous deal with God" That hints at what must have been the oddest prayer in history: "Yes, God. I will marry her if you’ll let me catch that ball."

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