Whose God? A Roundtable Discussion on the State of Faith in the 21st Century

  • submit to reddit

On this episode of NOW with Bill Moyers, Bill asked six panelists, “How is it that the God of comfort, hope, and peace prayed to by so many, can also be the God of oppression, cruelty, and injustice worshipped by others?” Some people believe that both Orthodox Christianity and Orthodox Islam are intolerant religions that divide humanity into believers and infidels. If human history is replete with people committing atrocities against one another in the name of God, is our democracy strong enough to remedy these tendencies? You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.


TRANSCRIPT

MOYERS: Welcome to NOW.

It’s been a busy season for God.

Poor God. So many children, so little accord. Consider what happens when to his credit President Bush reaffirms America’s ideal of religious tolerance.

BUSH: George Washington said that America gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. This was our policy at our nation’s founding; this is our policy today.

MOYERS: Over and again Mr. Bush reminds us the war on Muslim extremists is not a holy war against Islam.

BUSH: Our war against terror is a war against individuals whose hearts are full of hate. We do not fight a religion.

MOYERS: And on the celebration of their holy month of Ramadan, Muslims got personal greetings from the first family.

BUSH: Laura joins me in sending our best wishes to Muslims across America, and throughout the world, for a joyous holiday. May the blessings you received during this Ramadan be with you in the year ahead.

MOYERS: But some of the President’s most prominent followers have been saying quite the opposite.

FALWELL: Muslim countries…

ROBERTSON: You read the Koran…

GRAHAM: Great muftis…

MOYERS: Take the Reverend Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, featured on this local news program.

GRAHAM: The God of Islam is not the same God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith. It’s a different god, and I believe it is a very evil and very wicked religion.

MOYERS: Graham has lots of company. There’s the former president of the 16 million Southern Baptists in America, Jerry Vines, who recently said that, quote, “Islam was founded by…a demon-possessed pedophile.”

VINES: I have no plans to speak to this matter further.

MOYERS: But some can’t stop talking about it.

ROBERTSON: If I say something that Islam is a, you know, erroneous religion, I get criticized by the Anti-Defamation League. You just say, when are you guys going to open your eyes and see who your enemy is?

MOYERS: Cable television even became an unlikely forum for debating scripture.

NOVAK: I’m going to read you from Joshua 10:25-26. “Joshua said to his men: Be strong and courageous, for the Lord is going to do this to all your enemies. With that Joshua plunged his sword into each of the five kings, killing them. He then hanged them on five trees until evening.” Now if you were a Muslim who didn’t know any more about the Bible than you know about the Koran, wouldn’t you think that Christianity and Judaism were hateful and wicked religions based on that scripture?

FALWELL: The fact is, Christianity has a record for loving, for caring.

MOYERS: And politicians have a record for invoking God.

ASHCROFT: America recognized the source of our character as being godly and eternal.

TRENT LOTT: It’s the elected officials’ right to invoke God’s blessing.

GEORGE W. BUSH: May God bless.

MOYERS: We heard from them again last summer when a federal court said the words ‘under God’ had to come out of the pledge of allegiance…

Congress came out singing in one voice…

MOYERS: Amen, said the White House.

FLEISCHER: The President’s reaction was that this ruling is ridiculous.

MOYERS: The citizen who filed the suit could hardly be heard over the commotion.

MICHAEL NEWDOW: That I have the right as a parent to send my child to public school without the indoctrination of religious dogma.

MOYERS: And when like-minded free thinkers turned out on the mall in Washington to protest religion in politics, they were met by counter-demonstrators who told them they were going to hell. Undaunted, the atheists and agnostics announced they were forming a ‘godless Americans political action committee.”

That will hardly sit well with the new majority leader of the House of Representatives, Tom Delay. Listen to what someone in the audience caught on tape last year when Delay announced that God has chosen him to promote a biblical worldview.

DELAY: Only Christianity offers a way to live in response to the realities that we find in this world – only Christianity.

MOYERS: In the Congressman’s own hometown of Houston, an American Muslim begged to differ. He has sued the fast food chain Chick-Fil-A claiming he was fired after refusing to pray to Jesus during a training session.

NEWS ANCHOR: Aziz Latiff claims the fast food chain’s corporate purpose to glorify God discriminates against non-Christian employees.

MOYERS: It’s an old story: one person’s prophet is another’s evildoer. As we heard from Jerry Falwell on 60 MINUTES:

FALWELL: I think Mohammed was a terrorist. He– I’ve read enough of the history of his life written by both Muslims and non-Muslims, that he was a violent man, a man of war…

MOYERS: President Bush keeps trying.

BUSH: We welcome all faiths in America: Christian faiths, Jewish faith, Muslim faith. We welcome faith.

MOYERS: The President has even commissioned a television campaign to assure Muslims around the world that they are not the targets.

HAMMUDA: I believe American people in general respect the Islamic faith. Hello, my name is Abdul Hammuda. I am the owner of the Tiger Lebanese Bakery located here in Toledo, Ohio.

MUHAMMED: My name is Farooq Muhammed. I’m a paramedic for the fire department of New York. I have co-workers who are Jewish, who are Christian, Catholic.

ISMAIL: My name is Rawia Ismail. I’m a school teacher in a public school in the United States of America.

MOYERS: But it’s going to be a tough sell. Remember what Jerry Falwell said on 60 MINUTES about Mohammed? Thousands of miles away in India, Muslims who heard about Falwell’s remarks rioted in the streets. At least five people died.

So words have consequences and that reality has implications for democracy. The writer Michael Lind says, quote: “Both orthodox Christianity and orthodox Islam are intolerant religions which divide humanity into believers and infidels. Humanist civilization is threatened today from both beyond its borders and from inside them.”

We gathered some people together to discuss how to talk about God in a democracy. And we’ll join their discussion in progress in just a minute. But first, listen to this prayer:

“Oh God, open all doors to me. Oh God, who answers prayers and answers those who ask you, I am asking for your help. I am asking you for your forgiveness. I am asking you to lighten my way. I am asking you to lift the burden I feel. Oh God, you who open all doors, please open all doors to me, open all venues for me, open all avenues for me. God, I trust in you. God I lay myself in your hands.”

That is the actual prayer, in Arabic, found in the suitcase of one of the terrorists on September 11th. It’s the prayer of a devout human bomber. We talked about it with our guests.

Now, that’s the prayer of a suicide bomber. But isn’t that your prayer, too? And my prayer? I mean, haven’t all of us prayed a prayer like that? And the question then is, how is it that the God of comfort, hope and peace prayed to by so many becomes also the God of oppression, cruelty and injustice worshipped by others?

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: You know, if we ask questions like, why does religion seem to lead certain people into violence? Well, if you accept the view that we’re fallen creatures and that there is simply a human propensity to do sort of bad stuff…and that every aspect of human history, whatever the religion or irreligion, every culture you look at, every society, you can see people committing horrors against one another, then the question is, well, where do the remedies come from? What can serve to chasten these tendencies? What can correct them? What can…

MOYERS: Democracy. Democracy.

ELSHTAIN: …push people in other directions.

MOYERS: Democracy.

ELSHTAIN: And then we have democracy, but it’s of course democracy not as an abstract set of procedures alone but as democracy as a culture and that culture of democracy—certainly in the United States—religion has played a very important part.

JAMES A. HAUGHT: I live out in the real world, the world of daily news. And I see religion is basically an oppressive factor where…in the bible belt of Appalachia. There was a terrible uprising in my town against godless textbooks back in the seventies, and mobs filled the streets, and they shot people, and they dynamited schools, all because they somehow spread the rumor among fundamentalist churches that the new schoolbooks in this county system were godless.

And all of us young rascals tried to read those books and…find this dirty stuff in them, and we couldn’t find any dirt at all. It was just plain old schoolbooks.

ELSHTAIN: What a disappointment!

HAUGHT: There’s a mindless component to religion as it functions in society that way. The fundamentalist preachers called a boycott of the schools, and they had marches in the streets, and the Ku Klux Klan came to support them. And they started throwing dynamite into school doors and they shot bullet holes in school buses. And this one minister, he and his followers decided that they were going to teach a lesson to the families that were still driving their children to school and defying the boycott…they were going to wire dynamite caps in their gasoline tanks so when the mother or father turned on the car to drive the kids to school it would blow up the car and burn them to death.

Now, that’s an extreme example, but that’s what religion out on the streets and out in the common daily life of a community can turn into. And so…

ELSHTAIN: But you would accept that there’s a difference between vigorous advocacy and criminal behavior. You’re talking about criminal behavior. And I think to say that religion gives rise to vigorous advocacy is absolutely right, but that’s what we celebrate in a democracy: people strenuously arguing for points of view, pressing them, trying to urge their fellow citizens to sign on.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: The question is, how in a democracy can we talk to each other about the shared public world given that we have different views about what matters most deeply in the universe.

If we’re a democracy, if we’re a republic in which people are supposed to engage each other in order to create the public world together, then it seems to me whatever reasons actually motivate our fellow citizens, whatever reasons they actually have for supporting things, I want to know.

I think the question isn’t the content of what you say; it’s the manner. It’s, can you have respectful discourse between people who have different views about things? And I think that it’s clear that you can, and it’s clear that in some context it gets out of hand.

And when someone comes in sort of banging a particular text, very often what they’re trying to do is to stop you having any further discussion. That’s I think what’s impermissible. And it seems to me impermissible whether it comes from a Baptist or a Catholic or a self-styled Atheist.

NANCEY MURPHY: The violence of 9/11 can only be talked about in light of the authoritative texts that our different religions come out of. And if those texts are being misinterpreted in order to paint Jesus as a violent man, and in fact, one of the translations of the cleansing of the temple is a bad translation, it says he made a whip of cords and he drove the money changers out.

That is taken by countless Christians as exemplary for their using violence in order to punish people who are displeasing to God. It is absolutely crucial to go back to those texts and read them aright and get the right readings out to the public.

HAUGHT: I think reading texts is chasing the will-o’-the-wisp because you can read a dozen texts to prove anything you want. There’s texts to say kill homosexuals, there’s texts to say kill everybody who works on the Sabbath, and there are texts to say forgive everybody and love everybody.

MURPHY: Well, that’s why I don’t believe that every Joe Blow is equally competent to read the bible.

MOYERS: And that’s why democracy is important to make sure nobody can make that argument and impose it into law? Is that the issue?

DR. MUNAWAR ANEES: In the contemporary sense I think that within the American society we have something like six million Muslim immigrants. And I see that as a great hope for the Muslim world. They are undergoing that experience of democracy. They are undergoing that experience of pluralism. They have established an economic base, a socio-economic strength that they have compared to the rest of the Muslims.

So it is very important for the American Muslims here that we as American Muslims try not to fall in the trap of radicalization of Islam.

MOYERS: But I can’t help as a journalist like Jim Haught thinking as you talk of those young men from Buffalo, American-born Muslims, who went to Afghanistan, some of them, to study in the camps, where we are led to believe militant anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-democratic ideas are taught and brought back here. I mean, they were American-born Muslims.

ANEES: But Timothy McVeigh was an American born something else, Christian of some sort, I imagine.

MURPHY: Although he didn’t claim…in fact he was anti-Christian at the end.

ANEES:: Yes. The point is… these are extremists.

MOYERS: I agree with that.

APPIAH: And one of the questions, there is a fair question, I think, for Islam and for the intellectual and moral leadership of the Muslim world, which is that I think that there has been perhaps an unwillingness to address critically some of the developments within Islam that have created the world of the Taliban, of the Wahabi forces supported for example by the Saudi regime.

And I think it’s a fair thing to ask, just as it’s fair to ask Christians to deal with the intolerance that’s preached in the name of Christianity, I think it’s fair to ask Muslims to deal with the…to make the religious arguments that belong to their own tradition, to argue with co-religionists or their alleged co-religionists, because we can’t do it.

I mean, the only serious conversation that’s possible to these young men given their Muslim framing has to come from other Muslims.

ANEES: …which has not begun, by the way. Which has not begun.

MOYERS: Jim?

HAUGHT: I think there’s almost a rule of humanity that the more fervent religion is the more trouble it causes, the more horrors and bloodshed.

ELSHTAIN: The more trouble it can cause.

MOYERS: William Penn said to be furious in religion is to be furiously irreligious.

HAUGHT: Right. Most of the bloodshed around the planet is involved with religion one way or another. I mean, Christians and Muslims are killing each other every day in the Sudan and in Indonesia and in Nigeria, and in Azerbaijan; and Catholics and Protestants kill each other in Ulster. Religious tribalism is a tremendous force in the world today, and it splits communities into camps that start their own militias, and pretty soon they’re at war.

MOYERS: Would you think that’s a… do you think this is a problem in the United States?

HAUGHT: It isn’t Agnostics who are shooting people at abortion clinics.

I think individual freedoms and liberty are imperiled when religion is too strong and too strong a force in any group. The most religious government in the world was the Taliban in Afghanistan, and is that what you…is that…. You think religion created morality in Afghanistan?

APPIAH: Probably the most religious government in the world is in the Vatican. And I don’t see the Vatican as posing a great threat to the moral survival of our species.

ELSHTAIN: Indeed there’s arguments against all of the horrors that you discussed. But in the real world of American democracy, religious believers are more likely to be involved in a whole variety of ways in their communities and activities that conduce to the common good, that are not exclusively about their own religious bodies. They’re involved in all the various institutions of civil society.

APPIAH: Can I just…I think it’s…. Either sort of blaming religion or crediting religion is perhaps not the right way to think about it. Some of the strongest defenders of gay rights in this country are religious people within Christian and Jewish traditions.

MOYERS: Liberal religious…

APPIAH: Liberal, yes. And the arguments between more liberal and more conservative ends of these traditions are part of the texture of those traditions. So we can’t sort of blame religion, Episcopalians for making New York too liberal or Boston too liberal, and you can’t blame Baptists as they’ve developed Southern Baptists, as they’ve developed more recently, for making the south homophobic.

I mean, within each of these…in each of these traditions there are people making many different kinds of arguments, and as there are without…outside the traditions.

MURPHY: I think the critical issue is whether you’re looking at the genuine effects of religion per se or if you’re looking at the effects of people who already have an agenda for good or for ill using religion in order to support their cause and to stir up emotional backing for what they want to accomplish.

It’s heartbreaking to me to hear these stories about what Christians have done violently throughout their history because the whole point of Jesus’ teaching was to say, you shall not take up arms against one another, you shall not damage one another. You’ll forgive your enemies. You’ll pray for those who persecute you.

And the Christian church actually did a pretty good job of that for the first 300 years. It was only after Christianity became first of all their religion of the empire and then later became religions of the nation states…

MOYERS: Religion joined politics.

MURPHY: Yes. That’s right.

MOYERS: That was when Christianity was…

MURPHY: That’s right. And so then you’ve got people who call themselves believers who are contributing mightily to the nastiness of the world, but the flip side of that is the religion itself is being ruined when it’s being used for those purposes.

MOYERS: Let me ask Dr. Anees a question. Michael Lind said, quote, “Both Orthodox Christianity and Orthodox Islam are intolerant religions which divide humanity into believers and infidels.” If that is the case, isn’t that a threat to democracy?

ANEES: Bill, certainly that if you take it literally it certainly is a threat a democracy in that sense, where the world view is established by a religious belief and the whole life is governed out of that, civil laws are based upon that world view and so on. I think there is a tremendous amount of misunderstanding about what Islam stands for. What Koran talks about, the concept of God, what is the concept of God in Islam. And I do take exception to Franklin Graham’s comment that the God of Christianity is not the God…I mean, the God of Islam is not the God of Christianity. It is very much the same God in that sense, that Islam proclaims itself to be a continuation of the message. And that concept, one of the fundamental, you know, positions, within that concept of God is that this is a God for all humankind.

MOYERS: But it is the Islam of Osama bin Laden that worries Americans, just as it was the Christianity of the Ku Klux Klan…

ANEES: Yes.

MOYERS: …that terrified blacks and others in the south.

ANEES: I would characterize it to be that…. To say, your phrase, that it is Islam of Osama bin Laden, I would say that it is not even Islam of Osama bin Laden. It would be a misnomer to call it Islam, because what Osama bin Laden did is not permitted by any dictates of Islamic teachings.

MICHAEL LIND: You know, it seems to me we have a consensus that any time any religious group does something that we consider wicked therefore they misunderstood their own religion. I’m Agnostic on this question. I don’t believe it when people say that if a Christian blows up an abortion clinic, well, he’s misunderstood Christianity; that when a Muslim terrorist attacks some target including a Muslim target, I’m not willing to say as an outsider that this is not a perfectly principled deduction from that religious belief.

ANEES: It’s the exploitation in the name of the religion. It is not the teaching of that religion. It is not even the deduction…

PHILIP HAMBURGER: Even if we concede that someone who blows up somebody else on the basis of religion, I think we should hesitate to go to the extent of saying, well…therefore everyone else who’s religious, or everyone else who’s Muslim, or everyone else who’s Christian, necessarily has…shares deep attributes with the person who did the violent act.

LIND: No, no one suggests that.

HAMBURGER: Well, there is some danger when we argue from the extreme cases that at least by implication, this is being attributed to everybody else.

And I think America actually is a remarkable model for the world, precisely on account of our religious diversity. This is a place where already in the 18th century there was an understanding that people of many different religions including religions other than Judaism and Christianity, can get along.

It has been our religious diversity that has set the standard not only for religious toleration across the globe but also quite remarkably for our racial tolerance and our ability to come over other divisions.

MOYERS: That’s the past, Philip. What about now? In the aftermath of 9/11, in the aftermath of the heightened intense concerns over the Islam of the Muslim…

HAMBURGER: We stick to our traditions.

ELSHTAIN: Yes…

HAMBURGER: There’s not just one church out there that we’re afraid of or one Muslim world we’re afraid of. I think that would be simply foolish. There are diversities within every tradition and many utterly peaceful people even within the religions that sometimes people in an excessive fervor…

ELSHTAIN: And is there, are there prophylactics, so to speak, within religious traditions that can correct the kinds of horrors that you rightly gesture toward?

APPIAH: There’s a way of thinking about this which you can’t take from the inside. From the inside, say as a Muslim, the question is, what is the proper interpretation of my tradition? Right? And from that point of view you will rightly be critical of people who you think have misunderstood, abused, or simply taken advantage of the sort of pretense at your religion.

But there is a question I think you can ask from the outside, which is very important for us to think about in the context of American religious pluralism, which is that if you look at what happens to religious communities as they settled in this country over the last few hundred years…you get the sense that there is something that happens to most of them, a kind of Americanization.

What happens is that when you come into the United States your tradition fits itself alongside other traditions, and those traditions include practices of toleration.

I heard the other day, I was traveling up from Washington on Amtrak, and there were three young Muslim men talking, and Muslim Americans, American accents, no accent as they say.

And one of them said to the other at one point, you know, he said, what’s happened to me in the last year is that I’ve come around to the view that this toleration thing is extremely…. And these are smart people, I’m not trying to make them sound simple-minded.

I’ve come around to the view that…. He said, even…we may even have to be tolerant of homosexuals, he said. And one of his…compadres said, well, maybe we don’t have to go that far. But the point was, this very conversation…

ELSHTAIN: They’re having the discussion.

APPIAH: This is a an American conversation. It’s three Muslims having an American conversation about toleration.

And I don’t think if they—I think they were from Pakistan originally—I don’t think that if they were in Pakistan today they would be…they would have been having that conversation because the context is different.

ELSHTAIN: The story that came to my mind comes from a woman in Uzbekistan who received the democracy award this summer from the National Endowment for Democracy. I was present on the occasion.

And she described the centuries old traditions of toleration that had characterized that region where you had Jews, Christians, Muslims, living with and among one another.

And that this new variant on Islam, she argued had much more to do with the history of communism, of Bolshevism, and of these rigid, you know, in this case, Atheistic ideologies, and their intolerance had much more to do with picking up on that and giving it a kind of Islamic flavor than it had to do with anything intrinsic to Islam.

MOYERS: It is true that over time and with great, great setbacks from time to time, America has taken the sharp edge off of religious extremism. The compromise that is at the heart of democratic politics has done that even in religious competition.

In the last decade this democracy of ours has swelled with immigrants. Millions of people who have brought their gods with them. I mean, given what’s happening to the welfare of democracy, should we leave on our currency “In God We Trust”? And whose God is it?

APPIAH: “In God We Trust” is a statement which is of great significance to people who believe it. But for people who don’t believe it, it’s a matter of indifference.

So I don’t think it does any harm to the people who don’t believe it, and since…. And I don’t think that it’s worth making…getting much exercised about it.

MURPHY: There’s too much of a tendency in this country to associate our Christian identities with our American identities. It’s like, my country right or wrong, but it’s always right, because “In God We Trust.” But I feel equally strongly about taking all of the American flags out of the churches. So that we don’t so easily confuse a Christian agenda with a national agenda.

MOYERS: Michael Lind, do you believe that President Bush and his administration with the House and the Senate in their axis will press a religious right agenda?

LIND: I have no doubt about it. The President owed his nomination to the religious right defeating John McCain in the Republican primaries. We have people like House Majority Whip Dick Armey who are Christian Zionists who say that Israel should expel the Palestinians.

This is the most devout group of particularly southern Protestants who have been in charge at the Federal level—they’ve long existed at the state level. There’s nothing like this in American history.

I think this is a very dangerous time in American politics. Traditionally there have been two powerful traditions in the United States. There’s the enlightenment tradition and there’s the Protestant reformation tradition.

Now, the Protestant reformation tradition has been divided between 19th century evangelical Protestants in the north, social gospel Protestants, who were in favor of reforms like anti-slavery, feminism, things like that. So enlightenment, liberalism and Protestant reformism worked together.

This particular brand of southern Protestantism as you well know sees the enlightenment as the enemy. And it traces its own intellectual origins back to the Plymouth colony and the early Calvinists and thinks that Jefferson, Franklin, Washington were evil infidels and Agnostics.

So I think that there’s a growing divide in this country. And in the interests of ecumenical harmony we shouldn’t paper over it.

APPIAH: My own view is that I do not believe that the people who now run the Republican party would be able to use our constitutional apparatus to impose on all of us.

On the question of, for example, gay rights, I just think that the argument even within the religious traditions has shifted substantially…and that again I think most Americans would see including most people who identify with the Christian right, would see the imposition, say, of exclusions on gays in teaching and so on, as horrendously intolerant.

MOYERS: In a democracy, isn’t it acceptable for people to run for political office putting their religious views out there as…

HAUGHT: Oh, it’s mandatory. In America, every politician has to be right there standing up with Jesus, and when Bill Clinton was in trouble with Hillary he trotted to church every Sunday with a bible tucked under his arm. And any politician who admitted any doubt about the dominant faith, he’d lose. That would be the end of it.

MOYERS: Is it your belief, Jim Haught, that any God talk is a threat to democracy?

HAUGHT: It’s pandering and self serving and political posturing. We have a big prayer breakfast for the state government in West Virginia every year, and one year the chief leaders were the Governor and the Senate President and a visiting Congressman.

And two years later there were all three in Federal prison. And I always thought, there goes your pious, pompous, posing Christianity that is so essential in politics.

MOYERS: What do you think would happen to any candidate for the President who today emulated Theodore Roosevelt who spoke at the American Museum of Natural History on my experience with naturalism, it was the topic of his article and his lecture. I mean, what do you think would happen to somebody who stood up and said I’m a naturalist, I’m an evolutionist, I may even be an Atheist or at least an Agnostic. And I’m going to run for President of the United States.

APPIAH: Well, clearly he wouldn’t be taken seriously, but…I think that’s a problem.

HAMBURGER: I suspect he would be taken seriously on account of his prose. And to the extent…our politicians are willing to talk capably about their beliefs, they get all the more respect.

So I actually do not think he would necessarily be as much of a problem as you might fear, although I think there would be grounds for concern.

HAUGHT: I think an avowed skeptic would get two percent of the vote. He’d be overwhelmingly rejected by the America people.

APPIAH: If we don’t talk to each other about these things, then the people who go off in a corner from as large a group as they can, because that’s how things happen in a democracy and try to push the agenda their way. What we should be doing is we should be in dialogue with each other.

MOYERS: I did an interview a number of years ago with your colleague, the scholar of religion Elaine Pagels I think some of you know her. And she said there’s practically no religion I know of that sees other people in a way that affirms the other’s choice. That is the nature of religion, is it not, not to affirm the other’s choice. If my truth is true, can your truth be true?

LIND: True or false: Jesus is God. True or false? That’s a truth statement that’s the foundation of most Christian belief. Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet and therefore this truth statement is false.

Now, we’re all saying, we should engage, we should debate and so on. Well, here’s my idea of Christian Muslim conversation: Jesus is God, accept him. Muslim: No, he was a prophet. We’ll honor him but we won’t worship him because that’s blasphemy. Beyond that I don’t see much prospects for theological exchange.

MOYERS: Are we one nation under God as you see it by that definition? On our coin it says…

ANEES: Yes.

MOYERS: “One Nation Under God.” Are we in that sense?

ANEES: Yes. There is an instinct in all human beings of all kinds, of all races, of all countries, that there is some sort of religiosity that resides in us.

The American experience of religious pluralism and democracy, that mixture has historically proven to be unique anywhere in the world. Given that, I think we should leave that on our currency saying one, In God We Trust, or One Nation Under God.

For the simple reason that I see it as a convergence of democratic governance, pluralism, and a free expression of very inner code of human religiosity.

ELSHTAIN: But I think… to think of that moving prayer and then to think of the horror of people who were prepared to intentionally target and murder innocents in the name of their religion suggests that we need to think about what all they are bringing to bear in order to make that prayer work with that intention and that action.

And I think there we simply cannot rule out the fact that these are people functioning at the beginning of the 21st century with a century behind them of murderous totalizing anti-religious ideologies that offered these comprehensive world views that in fact didn’t have any of the virtues of the pluralism and the tolerance that we’re talking about as intrinsically connected to democracy and in which certainly the American democracy, religious belief, religious faith, religious institutions have played a central part.

MOYERS: Each of you has made an important contribution, and I thank you very much for both your time and your ideas.

MURPHY: Thank you.

ELSHTAIN: Thank you.

LIND: Thank you.

HAMBURGER: Thank you.

MOYERS: Soon after the terrorist attacks on September 11, I came by coincidence upon a small book that at first I almost put aside, unread. But glancing at the first two pages, I was hooked, and finished it that same weekend.

I read it a second time recently, because it offers another way of thinking about the subject we just discussed. This is the book: REVERENCE: RENEWING A FORGOTTEN VIRTUE. And this is the author, Paul Woodruff, when he was 26 years old, on duty in Vietnam.

Paul Woodruff came home from Vietnam to begin a distinguished teaching career at my alma mater, the University of Texas, where he is professor of the humanities. He is also one of the country’s noted translators of the great writers of ancient Greece, Plato and Thucydides among them.

His knowledge of that world and their ideas leads him to write quote, “Reverence runs across religions and even outside them through the fabric of any community, however secular. We may be divided by one another by our beliefs, but never by reverence. If you desire peace in the world, do not pray that everyone share your beliefs. Pray instead that all may be reverent.”

Welcome to NOW.

PAUL WOODRUFF: Thank you.

MOYERS: How do you define reverence?

PAUL WOODRUFF: I think reverence is the capacity for awe in the face of the transcendent.

MOYERS: The transcendent being–

PAUL WOODRUFF: It’s whatever we human beings did not create: God, justice, the truth…

MOYERS: Beauty.

PAUL WOODRUFF: Nature, beauty.

MOYERS: Death?

PAUL WOODRUFF: Death is one of the most awe-inspiring facts of our lives. And I think complementary to the awe in the transcendent is a felt sense of our own mortality and our own limitations, our own tendency to make mistakes.

MOYERS: How does this create reverence?

PAUL WOODRUFF: Realizing the– the distance between us and the ideals which we see as transcendent is the essence of reverence. Recognizing that, you know, we are– we are born to die and between the time we’re born and the time we die, we’ll– we’ll probably make a number of significant mistakes, and realizing that this is true of other people as well as of ourselves, that we have a common– a common humanity and are all in the same way vulnerable. It’s the virtue in– actually, in both the Greek and the Chinese system, I think, that protects the people who are most helpless from the people who are most powerful. When a victorious soldier kills a prisoner, that’s a failure of reverence. When a ruler refuses to hear a suppliant, that’s a failure of reverence.

When you’re utterly helpless, if you’re an old person in a hospital, if you’re a lonely minority teenager stopped on a road late at night by a policeman, you really have nothing between you and– and a terrible fate but the– what I would call the reverence of the powerful person in your life at that moment. The best clue to how reverent we are is how we treat the weakest people around us.

MOYERS: Why does reverence do that? Why is it responsible for that kind of humane, civil behavior that– that prevents a soldier from desecrating the body he has just created?

PAUL WOODRUFF: Well you put it beautifully. Desecrating a body. The– the dead, of course, are the most helpless people from the Greek point of view and from any point of view. They are– a dead body is utterly helpless and vulnerable and to desecrate that is– is to cross– is to violate the– the sacred. Part of reverence is recognizing, you know, the lines that divide where we can step and what we can touch and what we can do from what we shouldn’t.

MOYERS: You say, simply put, reverence is the virtue that keeps human beings from trying to act like gods.

PAUL WOODRUFF: Perfect. (LAUGHTER)

MOYERS: Well said.

PAUL WOODRUFF: Yeah. But it’s very …

MOYERS: You said that.

PAUL WOODRUFF: Yeah. When people are powerful, they– they tend to fall into habits of acting as if they were divine. The– the cliche, of course, is power corrupts. But what– what the Greeks are noticing is that it corrupts in a very particular way. You think that you can’t go wrong. You think that you can’t be mistaken. You think that because you are not likely to be mistaken, you don’t have to listen to other people. And those are all signs of tyranny and they’re all signs of hubris. They all indicate a lack of– of – of respect for the difference between human beings and– and gods, which is the essence of reverence.

MOYERS: So reverence is something other than the worship of God.

PAUL WOODRUFF: On my view, yes. And this came to me as a surprise, actually, because I had always been taught that for ancient peoples, reverence was sacrificing the appropriate number of goats or sheep or cattle or chickens or whatever so that the plague will be averted or we won’t have an earthquake next year or whatever. What people have called “do a deus,” “I give to the god, the god will give back to me.”

Then I– but as I– as I tried to translate this term and understand what it meant and why it was so important to the tragic poets like Sophocles, I realized that had nothing to do with it. Oedipus and the other tyrants are not in trouble because they didn’t sacrifice enough chickens. It didn’t have anything to do with that. It was about their attitude towards themselves and their– their failure to realize that they were not truly godlike.

MOYERS: Do you see evidence of reverence around you in your daily passages?

PAUL WOODRUFF: Yes. When– when a family has dinner together or celebrates any other very humdrum sort of ritual, they are, I think, celebrating the reverent idea of– of the unity of a– of a family, which transcends each individual member of it.

When a good teacher listens to a– to a student, when a good teacher in a classroom an atmosphere of reverence towards the truth which they’re seeking to understand and learn, reverence is in play. When a game, you know, even a football game is– is well run, you know, and people respect the umpires and– and the players respect each other and the– the game is plainly not simply about the egos and the successes of the various players and coaches. When a group of musicians comes together and plays and their egos sort of drop away and they– they are simply serving the– the beauty of the music, that’s– that’s reverence.

MOYERS: The surprising thing in your book is when you say reverence has more to do with politics than religion.

PAUL WOODRUFF: Reverence has to do with politics because I think reverence has more to do with human relations than it has to do with relations between human beings and God. It has to do with human relations because it’s expressed in– in families, in hierarchies, in human structures of all kinds.

And when it’s violated in the ways that are most important, it’s– it’s violated between one human being and another.

MOYERS: You’ve actually said that reverence is– is crucial to the health of a community, of a family, of an army.

PAUL WOODRUFF: Right.

MOYERS: Of a political party, of a nation.

PAUL WOODRUFF: All of that.

MOYERS: Why?

PAUL WOODRUFF: Well, for the– for the ancient Greeks, there were two complementary primary virtues, justice and reverence. And justice by itself you might think is enough to have a sound community. But the Greeks understood that it was not. Justice works between equals and when justice has been done, usually there’s a winner and a loser.

Reverence is about sort of gluing together a society where there are big differences in power or big differences in wealth or big differences in strength and involve– and– and creating avenues of respect and languages of– for the expression of respect between people who might otherwise not be able to– to function in the same community.

MOYERS: You tell a story in here of the woman Janis who never voted and tells you she never will. She thinks Tweedle-Dee, Tweedle-Dum, it makes no difference. What’s that got to do with reverence?

PAUL WOODRUFF: Voting is one of the great ceremonies of democratic society. It’s one of the ways that we come together as a community. And I think tradition soc– more tradition societies than ours that have a closer experience of ceremony and reverence vote in larger numbers.

Seeing long lines of people who voted in South Africa when it first became possible for everyone to vote in South Africa was inspiring to me and I thought why– what are we missing here? And I think what we’re missing here is the sense of the importance of that act to our being the community that we want to be.

MOYERS: There’s a very moving passage here. I’d like to ask you just to– to read it right through the poem.

PAUL WOODRUFF: As I write, the United States is in the supreme moment of its power. Not far from where England stood in 1897, when Kipling wrote “Recessional” as a reminder that power leads to arrogance and arrogance to a fall. The tumult and the shouting dies, the captains and the kings depart, still stands thine ancient sacrifice and humble and a contrite heart. If drunk with sight of power, we loose wild tongues that have not thee in awe, Lord God of hosts, be with us yet lest we forget, lest we forget.

Kipling was the poet of empire, but he was also a poet of– of reverence. Remembering, not forgetting that we are mortal. Remembering, not forgetting that human enterprises, great governments, great powers eventually stumble and fall, as history teaches us. It’s very dangerous to be powerful. Powerful people forget that they can make mistakes. I said this before. And powerful nations can forget that, too.

MOYERS: The essence of tragedy is overreaching, is it not?

PAUL WOODRUFF: Exactly. And I– you can’t, I think, understand tragedy without understanding why reverence was so important to the Greeks because overreaching destroys community. When– when people overreach, other people, of course, are angry and frightened. It’s not just the– the gods who might resent you for overreaching. Other– other people do, too. And the– the possibility of your being accepted as a– as a genuine leader, as a legitimate king is undercut by your overreaching.

MOYERS: I saw that happen to Lyndon Johnson when he overreached in that war which you were part– you were in Vietnam in what, ’69?

PAUL WOODRUFF: ’69 to ’70.

MOYERS: How do you think that experience influenced your thinking about all this?

PAUL WOODRUFF: Enormously. I– I went to Vietnam as someone who was partially trained in classical scholarship for whom it was a diversion. I came back from Vietnam thinking that I really shouldn’t do anything that didn’t matter to people’s lives. It was hard for me to figure out how to pursue a scholarly life in the way that I’d been taught and take on issues that really matter to people.

MOYERS: Well, there are some people who say that nothing matters less to us today than the lives and thinking of 3000-year-old dead Greeks.

PAUL WOODRUFF: Well, I think they’re wrong. The– the Greeks were extraordinarily observant about the human condition. And they– they were models to us, I think, in many ways. For example, this is one of the– the most important things to me about the ancient Greeks. Homer starts off the Greek tradition, after all, with THE ILIAD. And in THE ILIAD, the most human, the most sympathetic characters are the Trojans. They’re not Greeks. They’re going to be defeated. They’re losing the war. And the least sympathetic figures are the Greeks.

Agamemnon, who is really a tyrannical general, quite without reverence, Achilles, who flies into a rage and– and describes himself as a beast and acts like a beast through much of THE ILIAD. But the Trojans are human and the ability to see the enemy, the defeated, the about to be defeated enemy as human is– is something remarkable about the Greeks.

With Hector, there’s a wonderful scene just before they fight. Hector says, “Achilles, let’s make a deal. Whichever one of us kills the other, we’ll spare the body of the other and turn it over to his parents for proper burial.” Achilles says, “Does the wolf make bargains with the lamb? I will kill you and I will leave your body to the dogs and the vultures.” And they fight and indeed that’s what Achilles sets out to do. When he returns the body of Hector to Hector’s father, he does so because he remembers his own father. And in remembering his own father he remembers his humanity and sees what there is in common between him and Hector, which up to now he’s been denying on the grounds that they’re enemies.

MOYERS: And in your world, the wolf does make bargains with the lamb out of reverence for the weak.

PAUL WOODRUFF: In my world, we’re not wolves or lambs. We are human beings in this together and finding the common bond, finding the– finding the common experiences and the common emotions. Finding the common potential for reverence is what enables us to see each other as human.

MOYERS: You write, “If a religious group thinks and acts and speaks as God commands in all things, this is a failure of reverence.” That’s what you mean.

PAUL WOODRUFF: Right.

MOYERS: It is some people’s notion of the sacred that– that frightens some of us. I mean, the men who hijacked the planes and drove them into the World Trade Center, into the Pentagon, they did it in the name of– of Allah, of God. It’s there in their manuals and their instruction books.

PAUL WOODRUFF: Right.

MOYERS: I mean, it’s– it’s when they think they’re on a sacred mission that I think some of us have to worry.

PAUL WOODRUFF: Absolutely. And I– I think that one of the most devastating ways to be irreverent is to think that you know the literal mind of God and that you are carrying out God’s will, that you are God’s instrument in what you do. We don’t– we don’t know the divine that well. And partly because they were unable to see, recognize the– the humanity they share with the– the many innocent people they killed.

MOYERS: Tell me the story of Iphigenia.

PAUL WOODRUFF: Yeah. This is famous. Agamemnon was leading the Greek army against Troy. They needed a favorable wind in order to cross the Aegean Sea to get from Greece to Troy and the winds kept coming the wrong way. So he consulted the prophet. The prophet said if you sacrifice your daughter Iphigenia or Iphigenia– you can say it any way you want– if you sacrifice your daughter, you will have fair winds. So he sent a message to his wife saying, “I found a bridegroom for Iphigenia. Bring her in her wedding dress and we’ll have an altar and everything will be ready.” Well, she went to the altar and there was no bridegroom. There was her father there with a knife. The Roman poet Lucretius, describes this scene and then ends with a ringing line, “So much evil religion can bring about,” and it certainly can.

MOYERS: Because?

PAUL WOODRUFF: Because religion is not always reverent. Religious wars represent a failure, I think, to recognize the common human experience of reverence in different religions. The– the great Israeli poet of peace, Yehuda Amichai, who died a few years ago, wrote in his last long poem a canto that has the theme, “Gods come and go, but prayer is forever.”

And the English poet of war, Rudyard Kipling, said something like that in– in one of the poems he wrote for his novel, KIM, and he’s speaking of a– of a man who’s worshipping a burnished idol. And he says, “His god is as his fates assign/His prayer is all the world’s, and thine.”

Both poets in very– in different ways, I think, were trying to get at the same idea that if we can get beyond differences in articulate belief and focus on the– the reverence that is possible in the different religious traditions and the– the human vulnerability, the human needs which are represented in our common prayers, gods come and go, but prayer is forever. It’s a very powerful line.

MOYERS: Paul Woodruff, thank you for joining us. REVERENCE: RENEWING A FORGOTTEN VIRTUE is a wonderful book.

PAUL WOODRUFF: Thank you.

ANNOUNCER: Next week on NOW: 50 states, 50 crises.

The worst budget shortfalls since World War II are forcing state governments to make agonizing choices.

Health care is only one of the casualties and some people have nowhere to turn.

Next week on NOW.

MOYERS: That’s it for NOW.

Our time is up, but I urge you to keep the discussion going with a visit to our web site at pbs.org.

You’ll find more about the views of our guests, including other television appearances and links to their writings.

Our web site this week also offers a history of how “under God” wound up in the Pledge of Allegiance. It happened not too long ago.

Check out our lesson plan, all on pbs.org.

For NOW, I’m Bill Moyers.

Happy New Year.

This transcript was entered on March 30, 2015.

  • submit to reddit