George W. Bush and the Asian tsunami have put religion back on the front page. Exit polls revealed that a majority of religious folk voted to re-elect the president; after tens of thousands died under the waves millions turned to religion for answers to the question that men and women have asked wise men for millennia.
A headline in the New York Observer puts it bluntly: "Disaster Ignites Debate: 'Was God in the Tsunami?'"
If so, how can such things happen? If not, how can such things happen?
Some of the answers seek to exploit tragedy. Palestinian Media Watch Bulletin reports that one Palestinian imam told his congregation that the tsunami was the result of "Jewish American corruption and destruction." Other imams blamed Christians.
Every Sunday-school scholar is familiar with the teaching that God rewards righteousness, as seen in the flood that spared Noah, the endless suffering of Job, the New Testament presentation of the Gospel. But skeptics have forever mocked religious exhortations in politics and religious explanations of natural disasters. After the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, Voltaire's Candide ridiculed the idea that "this is the best of all possible worlds." Marx jeered that religion was "the opiate of the people," and Freud suggested that neurotics sought a "heavenly father" as protector to replace the biological father.
But religious faith thrives. "Almost everywhere you look around the world, with the glaring exception of Western Europe, religion is now a rising force," reports The New York Times. "The tsunami in Asia could spur religious revival as well, as victims and onlookers turn to mosques, temples and churches both to help them fathom the catastrophe and to provide humanitarian assistance."
In Washington, humanitarian assistance is discussed in pragmatic terms, suggesting (probably a triumph of hope over actual expectation) that our generosity will show Muslims, whose radical extremists seek to persuade with terrorism, that Christians and Jews are not so bad after all.
But generosity needs no political analysis. You don't have to be religious to be charitable to the victims of "acts of God," but it's the religious impulse that has guided American idealism and benevolence through our finest hours.
G. K. Chesterton, the English writer, called America "the nation with the soul of a church." David Gelernter, writing in Commentary magazine, examines how American democracy was built on a Biblical foundation.
"The Bible is not merely the fertile soil that brought Americanism birth," he writes, "it is the energy source that makes it live and thrive; that makes believing Americans willing to prescribe freedom, equality, and democracy even for a place like Afghanistan, once regarded as perhaps the remotest region on the face of the globe."
American history is rich in allusions to America as the New Eden, as if we are a chosen people fulfilling Biblical destiny in the New World. Presidential inaugural speeches abound with Biblical phrases and references that are not meant solely for inspiration, though they are that, but to embody the driving force for spreading American values of democracy. Abraham Lincoln called us God's "almost chosen people." In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy said our revolutionary beliefs "come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God."
Abraham Lincoln never joined a church, but said he would if he could find one with a creed fulfilling "what our Lord said were the two great commandments, to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and mind and soul and strength, and my neighbor as myself."
Woodrow Wilson, the son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers, sounded in his inaugural like a Biblical prophet, albeit with more optimism than most: "The feelings with which we face this new age of right and opportunity sweep across our heartstrings, like some air out of God's own presence, where justice and mercy are reconciled and the judge and the brother are one."
Americans are firm in their belief in the separation of church and state, so that men and women of different faiths and of no faith are equal before the law. Anyone who talks to President Bush hears this echoed today. "The president's job is not to pick a religion," he told me this week in an interview in the Oval Office. "The president's job is not to say you've got to be religious. The president's job is to say you're free to choose. It's very important for that to be even clearer today, given the world in which we live. If you're a Sikh or a Muslim you're equally an American as if you're a Methodist - or anyone else."
Harry Truman, a plain-spoken Baptist, captured in his memoirs the firm belief of most of us: "What came about in 1776 really had its beginning in Hebrew times."