In its darkest hours, America has always foundillumination in the rhetoric of the Enlightenment andin the reasoned thinking of its Founding Fathers.
But no more.
Today, in a renewed time of darkness, America hasignored its Enlightenment past, looking instead to theangry rhetoric of the Dark Ages and the religiousviolence of the Crusades.
Consider: the photograph haunts me. An Iraqi child,sitting in the dark, her hands outstretched andupturned. She is crying, huddled on the floor, coveredin blood. To her right, standing in the shadows, is anAmerican soldier. He holds his gun loosely. He isfaceless, nameless, menacing.
Disturbed, I want to escape the present. So, I reachfor the bookshelf and take down an old French epiccalled The Song of Roland. I open its pages and stepback a thousand years:
“So spattered all the earth there would you find That through the field the grass so green and fineWith men’s life-blood is all vermilion dyed.”
The Song of Roland relates the conflict betweenChristians and Muslims in 778 A.D. In it, Saracens inSpain attack and kill a division of King Charlemagne’sarmy, including Charlemagne’s nephew, Roland.
Written sometime between 1098 and 1100 to encourageMedieval Christians to take up the sword in the firstcrusade against the Muslims, The Song of Roland was ablatant propaganda piece — historically inaccurate andgrotesquely racist. Roland is portrayed as the heroicmartyr, and Charlemagne’s horrific revenge — theslaughter of the Muslims — as God’s righteous wish.
Despite being propaganda, the poem worked, deliveringthousands of volunteers to fight the Muslims. The poemworked because its language was irresistible; itsreligious message, emotional and compelling: it’s usagainst them with God on our side.
I think again of the photograph and of the words inthe poem: the image of blood on the young girl, andthe image of blood on the green grass — images amillennium apart — suddenly sharing a moment andmeaning in time.
Listen to the modern crusader’s rhetoric, alsosweeping in its poetry and vision: “The survival ofliberty in our land increasingly depends on thesuccess of liberty in other lands. The best hope forpeace in our world is the expansion of freedom in allthe world.” The words belong to George W. Bush fromhis second inaugural address.
We need only replace “liberty” and “freedom” with“Christianity” and the words would find themselvescomfortably flowing from the mouths of crusadersstanding at the walls of Jerusalem a thousand yearsago.
But it’s more than a semantic trick.
For the last 30 years, the words “liberty” and“freedom” — what they mean and what they require ofcitizens — have been actively fought for, and finallywon by, the neo-conservative, Christian-rightmovement.
These redefined words — imbued with a narrow-minded,religious zeal — have taken hold of American politics.Example: the recent post-election, self-examination ofthe Democratic Party, thrashing itself over how toconnect with the American people. Their uniquesolution? Co-opt the rhetoric of religion, forthemselves. However, this Democratic concession to thepolitics of religion is historically un-American.
The Founding Fathers wanted their new nation to escapethe narrow-minded, superstitious belief in Godanointed kings — secular or religious. They wantedtheir new nation to reflect Enlightenment thinking — rational and reasoned. In fact, many of the FoundingFathers — Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, BenjaminFranklin, and Thomas Paine, for example — weresuspicious of religion and religious doctrine, hencetheir insistence on the separation of Church andState.
“The day will come when the mystical generation ofJesus,” wrote Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, “by thesupreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin,will be classed with the fable of the generation ofMinerva in the brain of Jupiter.”
Imagine the reaction from Fox News if John Kerry, HowardDean, or Ted Kennedy said that today. And what does itsay when no mainstream American politician canpublicly agree with Thomas Jefferson on this point?
It says that, slowly and with a creeping certainty,America is moving backward, past the Enlightenmentideals that informed its creation, moving backward athousand years, to the age of the Crusades and Godanointed kings.
In this new America, President Bush offers acrusader’s vision that is nothing less than a call towar against the infidels — whether those infidels areal-Qaeda members, or Iraqi militants, or EnlightenmentLiberals. 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 toreturn to their Enlightenment past for illumination.If not, only the Dark Ages lie ahead.