The good news is that according to Attorney General John Ashcroft, God is on our side in the war on terrorism. This is a definite improvement over the Jerry Falwell-Pat Robertson position, stated and then partially retracted, that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States were proof of God's wrath over our national indulgence of lesbians and the like.
The bad news is that Ashcroft is again off on a holy war of his own. Sermonizing to a flock of the Christian faithful gathered for a meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters, the guardian of our civil rights argued that "civilized people -- Muslims, Christians and Jews -- all understand that the source of freedom and human dignity is the creator." Perhaps Ashcroft should heed the words uttered by President Bush in China: "In a free society, diversity is not disorder. Debate is not strife. And dissent is not revolution."
Presumably the president's heartfelt plea for religious tolerance in China is also a defense of the rights of those Americans who are not Christians, Jews or Muslims, extending even to those who want no truck with organized religion at all.
Can the attorney general be trusted to protect the rights of those whose spiritual life rests outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition when he has excluded them from the ranks of civilized people? Not to split angels on the head of a pin here -- or to restrict Ashcroft's hearty expressions of his Pentecostal faith as manifested in his daily prayer meetings at Justice -- but it is alarming when he defines his job in religious terms: "The guarding of freedom that God grants is the noble charge of the Department of Justice."
What hooey! The Justice Department is a creation of men to enforce laws written by ordinary mortals -- some of them drunk as well as godless -- and, most important, to follow the precepts of the U.S. Constitution, itself the product largely of those founders who were suspicious of efforts to bring any official notion of God into the day-to-day governance of a free people. They had enough of that with the religious pretenses of English kings, and they made no bones about their deep concerns regarding the mixing of church and state.
Admittedly, Ashcroft's recent remarks are an ecumenical improvement over those he was said to have made last year to Christian conservative columnist Cal Thomas, suggesting that only Muslims, and never Christians, support terrorism.
"Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him," he reportedly told Thomas. "Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you."
The Justice Department later issued a statement that Ashcroft had only meant to refer to those Muslims who are terrorists. Still, one wonders if Ashcroft has ever heard that song, "Onward, Christian Soldiers," or read about the Crusades or been told of the violent terror propagated by Catholics and Protestants for decades in Northern Ireland.
President Bush offered a more benign and inconclusive view of religion in his China address, even mentioning Buddhism, Taoism and localized religions. "Regardless of where or how these believers worship, they're no threat to public order," he said.
That is a noble expectation, to be sure, but it is not one borne out by history. Throughout history and to the present day, religious divisions have been great disrupters of public order. One wonders whether Bush would have offered the same remarks before an audience in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan or the former Yugoslavia.
What is most disturbing about the remarks of both the president and his attorney general is the simplistic association of faith in a major religion with virtue and responsibility. Simplistic, because men of loudly proclaimed faith sometimes are responsible for actions most uncivilized.
We have come to an odd juncture in this world's modern history, when notions of God are once again routinely employed to justify and counter the most heinous of human actions. Isn't it enough to state that the wanton destruction of innocent civilians, whether by primitive or sophisticated military means, is just plain wrong, as defined by what exists of international law and the laws of all nations worth respecting?
For political leaders to bring God into it is to again risk overplaying a hand that has a long and bloody history at the expense of many true believers, as well as the rest of us.