There's an odd moment in the latest Vietnam flick, We Were Soldiers, in which Mel Gibson's character prays with one of his young soldiers (Chris Klein) before shipping off to war. Kneeling at a pew with Klein, Gibson thoughtfully notes that their enemies in battle will be praying, too. He then implores God to "ignore their heathen prayers and help us blow those little bastards straight to hell."
This is supposed to be funny, in an anti-P.C. sort of way. Director Randall Wallace also seems to want to use the moment to broadcast his ecumenical awareness: At the very least, he knows that God receives conflicting prayers. It might have worked, too, except for one complication: The North Vietnamese, as Communists, were doctrinally atheists. Most of them didn't pray.
In its bone-headedness about faiths -- and atheisms -- that don't usually cross Americans' field of vision, We Were Soldiers neatly replicates many religious debates in this country. Idea Log is thinking in particular about the recent flare-up over anti-Islam statements by two prominent Christian fundamentalists, Pat Robertson and John Ashcroft. There's been much huffing about these incidents, yet most commentators have conspicuously failed to make the obvious connection between them and the appalling spurt of bloodshed in India, in which gangs of Hindu nationalists slaughtered half a thousand Muslims in Gujarat state. The question certainly ought to present itself: If Pat Robertson considers Islam "not a peaceful religion," as he puts it, why hasn't he since gone on to say the same thing about Hinduism, or else draw a distinction between the two? Why hasn't anyone?
The answer has to do with something we might call "theological partisanship." The basic principle here is to attack your most immediate religious rival while simultaneously ignoring the existence of myriad others. It's the religious equivalent of shutting Ralph Nader out of the presidential debates.
Theological partisanship aspires to pit one good and true religion against one bad and "heathen" one. Its success depends on whether or not one takes into account the world's vast diversity of belief systems, including faiths like Hinduism and Taoism. If you actually look at the way religion manifests itself globally, you inevitably see a vast sea of mutually exclusive beliefs, perpetuated by a curious arrangement in which people embrace whatever God or gods their parents worshipped. Sure, one of these belief systems might actually be right. But then again, the arbitrariness of it all suggests that perhaps none of them are.
Rather than asking God to bless his troops and curse his enemies, maybe Mel Gibson should have waxed existential.
Pat Robertson, John Ashcroft, and their ilk don't let their thoughts stray in this direction. Thus, their attacks on Islam have been carefully circumscribed. Consider the Ashcroft incident. In a delightful display of theological partisanship -- so effective that he now claims he didn't actually do it -- Ashcroft told columnist and fellow fundamentalist Cal Thomas that "Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you."
By literally making each a reverse impression of the other, Ashcroft falsely suggests there's a binary choice between Christianity and Islam. Indeed, even when he's trying to sound broad-minded, Ashcroft still limits the field of possible religions dramatically. Speaking on February 19 to a group of religious broadcasters, Ashcroft commented, "For people of all faiths -- be they Christians, Jews, or Muslims -- it is impossible not to see the stark difference between the way of God and the way of the terrorists." Here once again, the poor Hindus -- the peaceful ones as well as the murderous nationalists -- get left out. So, as in We Were Soldiers, do the atheists. So do the Scientologists, the Rastafarians, the Theosophists, the Wiccans, the Buddhists.
Now, it so happens that Idea Log's spell-checker is quite ecumenical; it recognizes every one of the above religions except for "Wiccans." And perhaps that, as much as anything, should serve as a lesson to Ashcroft and especially Robertson -- who, when asked to defend his description of Islam as violent on CNN, cited an entry describing the faith in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Robertson may have gotten to "I" in the Encyclopedia's volumes, but until he backtracks to "H" -- and grapples with militant Hinduism -- it's hard to see why we should take him seriously.