Editor’s Note: This editorial ran on the op-ed page of The Stamford Advocate in October 2001, just after the World Trade Center tragedy. As expected, the Religious Right reacted abominably to the disaster, giving us agnostics targets to shoot at that were like ducks in a barrel. Even our born-again president found Pat Robertson’s position despicable, and smug right-wing moralist Bill Bennett (with whom I've almost never agreed on anything) publicly excoriated Robertson and his fellow mullah, Jerry Falwell, for saying America deserved to suffer because we're not quite right-wing enough. Click here for a nice compendium of chapter and verse from one of America’s foremost ayatollahs.
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It’s clichéd, but true that tragedy brings out our best and our worst. Since September 11, we’ve seen the finest America has to offer: the sacrifices of police and firefighters, New Yorkers showing compassion they’re seldom credited with and the humane leadership of politicians like Mayor Guiliani. Sadly, there are also lesser angels in our nature: hotels near New York airports doubling their rates to gouge stranded travelers, gas stations raising prices to scrounge a few extra dollars, and angry, ugly Americans attacking innocent Muslims and Arab-Americans.
And always, some will take advantage of catastrophe to advance their own agendas — political or otherwise — without regard to patriotism or the bounds of good taste. Within 72 hours of the World Trade Center disaster, one of America’s own fundamentalist clerics, the Rev. Pat Robertson, assigned blame for this tragedy on our country’s liberal agenda. Citing “rampant pornography,” “rampant secularism,” and willingness to allow “the occult to be broadcast on television,” Robertson proclaimed: “God Almighty is lifting His protection from us.”
Note that Robertson did not suggest his view might be the case, but definitively stated it as fact. Evidently, he is so intimately acquainted with The Almighty that he knows God hates our society sufficiently to justify the murder of thousands, which is exactly what the mullahs in Iran and Afghanistan have been saying all along. Do we really need our homegrown ayatollahs agreeing that America should be punished for being a secular and tolerant society? I, for one, resent it when self-appointed prophets — whether from Teheran or the Bible Belt — tell us we deserve to suffer because America is The Great Satan.
In his execrable September 14 press release, Robertson attacked the Supreme Court for having “insulted God over and over again” by its decisions to “take the Bible out of the schools” and ranted against “organizations that have gone to court” to maintain the separation of church and state. He accused “the highest levels of government” of “sticking their fingers in God’s eye.” Apparently, Robertson considers homosexuals, pro-choice advocates, secular humanists, moderate jurists and anyone opposing his fanatical brand of religiosity to be responsible for God’s rejection of the United States and the suffering that has befallen our unworthy nation.
Perhaps, if we posted the Ten Commandments in classrooms, compelled schoolchildren to pray each morning and persecuted gay folks a bit more, God might love us again and convince our enemies to love us too. Maybe if we made it our national goal to enact Robertson’s fundamentalist agenda, the Lord would protect us from terrorism. Perhaps, we can again be worthy of divine intervention if we ban embryonic stem cell research or feminism or stop handing out condoms in the schools.
Do you suppose that, if Robertson had preached during World War II, he’d have blamed Pearl Harbor on the perverting of our youth by Benny Goodman’s music or on The New Deal? Today, as in 1941, the United States is the envy of the world — even in Iran and Iraq, where mosques echo with rants about the Great Satan, the citizenry is eager to emigrate here. Do you know any Americans who’ve happily packed their families off to Syria or Yemen?
At this point in history, the United States is the last superpower — the only force on earth capable of preventing our marginally livable globe from plunging into chaos rivaling the Middle Ages. If we weren’t doing it, who would? … the Russians? ... the Chinese? ... the French? In 2001, it is not jingoistic to say that — despite our failings — America really is the light of the world, without which dictators and warlords would slaughter their neighbors more enthusiastically than they already do. So I find it offensive and grossly unpatriotic when domestic mullahs like Robertson declaim that God has abandoned America for failing to adopt their agenda.
Shall we eliminate church/state separation and become more like the benighted Middle Eastern theocracies that have spawned so many terrorists? I can guess Robertson’s answer — after all, Iran and Afghanistan allow no pornography or secularism and compel their people to pray. And there’s little danger their Islamic courts will “take God’s commandments from the courthouses.”
When disasters strike, contemptible people will exploit them for their own agendas. But now, when it’s obvious that we have real enemies out there, we should not allow our own radical fundamentalist clerics to muddy the waters, in order to frighten the sheep and make us forget who these enemies are. Our foes are not the liberals, the homosexuals, the feminists or the ACLU. And those demagogues who would distract our attention with such nonsense should be rebuked for their hypocrisy and opportunism.
After the Tiananmen Square massacre, a National Rifle Association spokesman suggested that, if Chinese protesters had the same Second Amendment rights we do, they might have been able to stand up to the Red Army. Most decent, clear-thinking Americans — including many NRA supporters — were rightly disgusted and embarrassed by such blatant opportunism (not to mention the absurd image of suburban NRA members fighting off tanks with their hunting rifles). How much more reprehensible would it be if self-interested politicians attempted to exploit our current situation to push for increased tobacco subsidies or a decrease in the capital gains tax?
Yet somehow, when someone with “Rev.” in front of his name rants about “God” and “sin,” we’re anxious to give him a free pass. Well, let me be the first to say that maybe we should just leave The Lord out of this — the villains in this tragedy may have shouted “God is Great” as they took down the Twin Towers, but that doesn’t mean we need to follow their lead.
The fundamentalists here and abroad may have inerrant knowledge of God’s will, but I have no idea what role, if any, The Almighty has played or will play in this national nightmare. Robertson claims “our churches need to be full” (as the mosques are in Iran), “so that He may come to our defense.” However, if the most inspirational concept our hometown ayatollahs can come up with is the ghoulish notion that God allows such suffering because we’ve failed to enact their social-conservative agenda, decent, thoughtful and spiritually enlightened believers may find it just a little harder to sit in the pews. And decent and thoughtful nonbelievers will find it easier to say paradoxically, “Thank God I’m an atheist.”
In the weeks and months ahead, there will be those among us who will try to use this disaster to make us more like our enemies in the Middle East, because there will always be those anxious to exploit misfortune for their own narrow purposes. But we need to reject such nonsense. Fifty years ago, someone asked Senator Joe McCarthy a question that needs to be asked today of Robertson and his ilk: “At long last, sir, have you no shame, have you no decency?”
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