'Ol' time religion' still getting manipulated

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More than 300 years have passed since people were put to death in the English-speaking world for embracing the "wrong" religion -- Catholics and separatists in old England, non-Puritans and "witches" in New England.

In any given year, through the late 1600s, the religion of those martyred in England depended on which monarch was in power and who presented the biggest threat to the unholy alliance of church and state.

In New England, the separatists who fled England's hunt for heretics soon launched their own. But here it was a conflict among equals -- among colonies and theologians -- not the cynical maneuvers of a power-amassing king. Fed at the end by the madness of crowds, colonial religious conflict culminated in the Salem witch trials, and they became, as one historian put it, "the rock on which the theocracy shattered."

Today, American Christians do not riot when someone insults their religion. They hold news conferences. They stand in line to buy fast-food chicken. They write letters to the editor. And so do Americans of every other religious persuasion.

But as history reminds us, and as President Barack Obama noted in his speech Tuesday to the United Nations, "true democracy -- real freedom -- is hard work."

"True democracy demands that citizens cannot be thrown in jail because of what they believe. ... It depends on the freedom of citizens to speak their minds and assemble without fear; on the rule of law and due process that guarantees the rights of all people."

These observations followed an appreciation for Ambassador Chris Stevens, the diplomat murdered in Libya two weeks ago. The president moved from denouncing this assault on our embassy to praising the (supposed) rise of democracy in the "Arab Spring," to discussing democracy's foundation in freedom of speech.

Mr. Obama then mentioned the "crude and disgusting" anti-Islamic video, made and posted online by California resident Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, that has "sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world."

While he sought to explain to Muslim leaders why the U.S. cannot ban this video or any other free speech, he said, "on this we must agree: There is no speech that justifies mindless violence. ... There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy."

But it was not the video that incited the attack on our Libyan embassy on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. Within 24 hours of the attack, the Obama administration already knew al-Qaida was likely behind it. They admitted this fact a week later, well before the president's U.N. speech.

If Muslim sensitivities are the issue, wouldn't the administration's much more recent and sustained boasting (at its convention) of killing Osama bin Laden, or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's boasting of killing Moammar Gadhafi, just as likely have enraged the Libyan arm of al-Qaida?

So why make this false connection to an inflammatory video? Because blaming riots -- the madness of crowds -- shifts attention from cynical political maneuvers.

There are many ways to manipulate religious passions to one's advantage. Two days after the president's speech, an infamous 1987 photograph by Andres Serrano went on display again in New York City. It depicts a crucifix suspended in a glass of the artist's urine, and according to Mr. Serrano, it criticizes the "billion-dollar Christ-for-profit industry" and "those who abuse the teachings of Christ for their own ignoble ends."

Since Mr. Serrano built quite a career on his vulgar depiction of Christ, he is a master of irony, if not much of an artist. Playing on religious passions has served him well.

A Huffington Post blogger opined that the exhibit opened without "the usual hammer-wielding protestors." But hammer-wielding protestors are not usual: The photograph has been displayed for months at a time in many countries where Christians live, completely without incident. The hammer attack occurred in France last year and precipitated anguished national debate.

So lying about religious passion gives some members of the art world an opportunity to preen.

"I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video," Mr. Obama said at the U.N.

So that same week some Christians publicly asked Mr. Obama to condemn the Serrano photograph, which was subsidized by a government grant -- 25 years ago. Their challenge to the president struck me as an attempt to incite religious passion for political ends. If I receive a Serrano-centered fundraising letter, it won't get opened before it hits the recycle bin.

We banished state religion and its tendency to incite mass violence a long time ago. As a result, passionate but peaceful religion thrives here. It will continue to do so, if we stand fast against religious manipulators of every kind.


Ruth Ann Dailey: ruthanndailey@hotmail.com.


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