Jerry Falwell knows who caused the terrorist attack on America: the ACLU. "The ACLU's got to take a lot of blame for this," he declared on the 700 Club, because, he explained, the ACLU, abetted by the federal courts is responsible for "throwing God out of the public square (and) the public schools."
This is a familiar charge and a false one. God is still present in the public schools, where students are free to pray, alone or in groups, so long as their prayers aren't officially sponsored and don't infringe on anyone's freedom not to pray. After school, God is still
present in the public square. Visit Boston next December and you're likely to see a creche in the Boston Common, just a few blocks from the office of the Massachusetts ACLU. The Common is a public park, open to all points of view, and the creche is maintained by private funds. Civil libertarians don't oppose God's presence in the public
square, so long as it's not sponsored by government and doesn't reflect preferential treatment of any particular faith.
But put aside the familiar inaccuracies of the charge that the ACLU has banished God from American life. What's most striking about Falwell's rant is his assumption that God's presence in public life and government is always a public good. How can anyone persist in believing that after last Tuesday's attack? Suicide bombers believe
in God quite fervently, perhaps even more fervently than Jerry Falwell. Their willingness to die is based on faith that mass murder and martyrdom will pave their way to heaven.
Suicide bombers are deluded, Falwell might say, if he were feeling charitable. They follow false Gods, while his God is true. But given his own absolutism and ignorant intolerance of other faiths (he disdains Islam), Falwell may have more in common with the terrorists than he knows. His God, incidentally, is mad at America because it
tolerates abortion. Falwell also blames the pro-choicers for the terrorist attack. They've "got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad."
Does this mean that God authorized the savagery of September 11th? God authorizes the bombing of abortion clinics and the murder of doctors who provide abortion, according to some of our own homegrown religious fanatics. God would rain destruction upon Orlando, Florida, Pat Robertson once predicted, because of its tolerance for gay people.
I'm not blaming religion for all or even most human barbarism. Of course faith in God generates compassion and altruism as well. Religious belief probably motivated some rescue workers who tried so heroically to save people from the wreckage. Religious belief offers solace and strength to people in the awful aftermath of the attack.
But while they gather together to pray and seek comfort, protection, or approval from God, so do the terrorists. Whatever lessons we take from this dreadful attack, we should never forget that it was, after all, a faith based initiative.