Bush Is Playing With Religious Fire

Does George W. Bush appreciate what fire he is playing with when he stirs up the religious
right? It is almost as if we are on the road to religious war.

In so many corners of the globe, people are brutalizing their neighbors because each is convinced that he
has a direct pipeline to the true deity, while the outsider is a dangerous infidel.

Whether in the Middle East, or Ireland, Iran or Afghanistan, state-fomented religious intolerance is the
great blight on the right of ordinary people to live as they choose, as well as a grave threat to the peace.

Colleague James Carroll's recent best-selling book, ''Constantine's Sword,'' recounted the appalling
history of how militant Christians slaughtered millions of outsiders, in the name of the healing word of
Jesus of Nazareth.

As we see from the seemingly insoluble conflicts in Ireland and Israel, religious difference quickly
degenerates into tribalism. The conflicts have long since ceased to be about the correct form of worship,
but about which group dominates which other group, and which accumulated hatreds need to be
avenged.

In the United States of America, we have been largely spared religious warfare, despite a proliferation of
different forms of worship.

The genius of the Founders was to appreciate that the state should stay far away from religion - not to
suppress faith but to let its diverse forms flourish.

This radical breakthrough of religious tolerance as official government policy came after three centuries
of religious war. In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia had produced an uneasy truce by giving the
sovereign the right to determine the official religion of each country in Europe. If you happened to be a
Catholic in a Protestant country, or vice versa, you converted or you got out. If you were a Jew, you
wandered the earth in search of a benign protector. It was Jonathan Swift who declared that ''we have
just religion enough to make us hate, but not enough to make us love each other.''

Ours was the first nation to make religious tolerance and state neutrality the national creed. America has
had its share of religious crusades and great awakenings, and they are protected by the Constitution.
They ebb and they flow; and mercifully they have never turned into religious warfare so far.

Government neutrality has historically been a calming influence. But this administration has now put
the power of the federal government in the camp of religious absolutists.

The so-called faith-based initiative was bad enough. It tried to put the government in the business of
subsidizing social services provided by churches with taxpayer dollars, with the religion mixed in.
(Churches already provide subsidized services, like day care, but can't proselytize.)

Bush soon bumped into Jefferson. Congress balked at providing the money unless their churches
wouldn't use the funds to preach religion. But as leaders of the religious right indignantly pointed out,
that's what churches are all about. Bush also stumbled on where to draw the line. If our taxpayer dollars
support services sponsored by Christian fundamentalists, why not Muslim fundamentalists? How
about pagan fundamentalists? Jefferson had it right. Government should stay far away.

Bush's pandering to groups who equate a fertilized embryo with a human being is even worse. His
bizarre compromise - embryos donated to science before Aug. 9 are ethical, those used after Aug. 9 are
not - was pure pandering. It will deny millions of people a fuller life by delaying the development of
life-enhancing therapies.

Until the stem-cell controversy arose, antiabortion groups were picketing clinics, but nobody was
protesting the murder of tiny fertilized embryos discarded in the course of fertility efforts. The only
logic of Bush's decision was to rescue the religious right from the wrath of the broad public, once the
logic of its position was widely understood.

Americans are justifiably ambivalent about abortion. A majority supports abortion rights, but most of
us think abortions should be a rare last resort. At the same time, very few of us think stem-cell advances
should be halted because cells in a petri dish are people.

Now the religious right is on the march because some religious radicals think Bush's limit was not
stringent enough. (One thing about absolutists - you can't please them unless you are with them 100
percent, because they know God is on their side.)

Let us each give thanks to whatever divinity we worship for America's religious tolerance - and tell
George W. Bush to stop messing with it. There will be hell to pay.

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