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Exorcizing Religion
Why morality is all we've got.


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Jonah Goldberg

I gave a speech in Hanover, Pennsylvania the other night. It was a delightful time. I’m in hot demand these days because of my olive-oil voice and guinea charm. Oh wait, that’s Johnny Fontaine from The Godfather. Sadly I’m only in lukewarm demand — and that’s only because I’m relatively cheap and I keep the nudity tasteful and integral to the plot. Regardless, I gave a speech in Hanover and on the drive back to Washington I succumbed to what could only have been food poisoning. My temperature was over 102 and I was, to put it delicately, on a weight-loss program familiar only to supermodels and survivors of the Bataan death march.

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I will spare you the gruesome details, but suffice it to say that if regurgitory trends continued I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Father Karras and Father Merrin appear at the foot of my bed chanting “the power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!”

Of course, you wouldn’t expect Catholic exorcisms to be all that successful on pseudo-intellectual demi-Jews from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We are much more susceptible to threats such as “cast the demon out or we will close the cheese department at Zabar’s!”

But I am an ecumenical pragmatist. If holy-water-carrying Catholic priests would have done the trick, then I would have been perfectly delighted to have Catholic priests take care of business.

I think I’m like most Americans in that way. Earlier this week I attended a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute delivered by Irving Kristol, the founder and editor of The Public Interest. Kristol noted that Americans may be fairly divided theologically, but we are unified on morality. When Utah applied for membership in the Union, according to Kristol, Americans were bitterly divided over the issue of Mormon polygamy (a wonderful name for a band by the way).

Nobody read the Book of Mormon and nobody really cared what it said about Mormon theology. What most Americans objected to was the practice of having multiple wives — I don’t mean “having” in the suburban wife-swapping sense, I mean actually marrying multiple women simultaneously. Once the Mormons dropped polygamy, the controversy was over almost overnight. (Note to readers: I have no idea how tendentious this reading of historical events is to Mormons, I’m just paraphrasing Kristol).

In short, Americans are very respectful of private faith as long as it doesn’t result in behavior which conflicts with public morality. This mixture of religious pluralism and moral consensus is one of the things that makes America great. Believe whatever you want, as long as you behave the right way.

Oh sure, sometimes this sort of consensus can be suffocating for the free-spirited few “stuck” in small towns and the like. But America has always had places for free spirits to live happy lives, we call them “cities.” And, yeah, there are folks who think this moral consensus is simply a totalitarian patriarchy. But, yawn, that’s what they get paid to say.

Now, I’ve always preferred giving a lot of room to religious liberty. Places like Bob Jones University aren’t my bag, but they generally keep to themselves and, besides, as a voluntary institution it doesn’t force anything on anybody. More generally, by definition, all religions and their institutions are going to be a little irrational. It’s irrational for so many Jews to keep kosher or Catholics to avoid meat on Fridays or Zoroastrians to wear scratchy shirts. But on the other hand, rationalism ain’t no free turkey dinner either. As a personal rule, I find the more excessively rational a person claims to be the more likely he is to be a jerk toward people and faiths he disagrees with.

Regardless, there have to be limits to tolerance. That’s why the growing debate over whether or not Islam was hijacked by Osama bin Laden seems more than a bit irrelevant to me. Oh, I understand why President Bush needs to say we’re not at war with Islam. First, it happens to be true. Second, even if it weren’t we would need to say it for propaganda purposes.

Today, NRO has a piece by law professor David Forte, who has reportedly been a key intellectual influence on the president’s thinking about Islam. Mr. Forte’s essay is in part a response to criticisms from Andrew Sullivan, Frank Foer, and others who claim that Islam has some serious problems that we need to be aware of. They suggest that, say, Saudi Arabian Wahhabism is the wellspring for Osama bin Laden.

Mr. Forte rebuts that “What drives bin Laden is not religious faith of any traditional kind; it is, rather, the all-too-familiar phenomenon of murderous revolutionary ideology politicizing religion for its own purposes.” Referencing the heinous acts of Osama bin Laden, Mr. Forte takes the position that “nothing this evil could be religious.”

Now, I find this to be a fascinating academic debate. Can religion be evil? Is there something essential to Islam in principle or in practice which requires violence? Personally, I’ve got a stack of books I’ve been reading to help answer such questions (and my not-yet-settled position is that Islam is at least part of the problem).

But, in a very important sense, such questions are irrelevant to the immediate task at hand. If you kill 6,000 innocent Americans, I don’t care whether God or the radio signals in your fillings told you to do it. Murder is murder. I understand that some religions have fairly strict views about women. That’s all fine. Indeed, I’m willing to nod along in agreement with plenty of things said by the Promise Keepers or social conservatives who bemoan the effects of feminism on the American family. But good golly, women shouldn’t be beaten for laughing in public. They shouldn’t be beaten for letting their veils drop below their chins. They shouldn’t be shot for teaching girls how to read.

If I kill your son, will you feel better about it if I tell you my religion made me do it?

God’s will must remain a mystery, so we cannot get satisfactory answers as to why certain religions require so many seemingly odd things. But morality is not a mystery. We have some basic rules about morality (not enough in my opinion) and we have to act on them. Period. If you want to call these ideas culturally biased, be my guest.

In fact, I recently read how the British responded to the charge. When they controlled India, wife burning was widespread. The British were horrified. But, you don’t understand, they were told. Wife burning is deeply rooted in the Indian tradition, religion, and culture. The British responded, that’s fine. But you should understand our tradition of hanging people who burn their wives.



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