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BOSTON -- At first, it sounded like satire. My God is bigger than yours? Did Gen. William Boykin actually taunt his Islamic enemy with that muscular divinity?
Not my weapons are bigger than yours. Not my battalions are bigger than yours. My God is bigger. It sounded like some e-mail that got through the morning spam filter: Click here if you want your God to be three inches bigger.
Of course, after the stories he told evangelical churchgoers became public, Boykin apologized in that nonapologetic way to "those who have been offended." He said, "I am neither a zealot nor an extremist," nor anti-Islam. If he sounded like a religious warrior, it was just a misunderstanding.
But the more you read and heard about the soldier who preached politics in full uniform to religious groups, the less likely you were to misunderstand. This is a man who defined our country as a "Christian nation" fighting "a spiritual enemy that will only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus." This is the man who said, "The enemy is a guy called Satan."
The revelation that we had our own holy warrior in the upper reaches of the War on Terror was startling enough. The undersecretary in charge of finding Saddam seems to have found ... Satan. The Pentagon's man who has yet to locate the caves holding Osama bin Laden nevertheless once identified a dark spot on a Somali map as ... "the principalities of darkness." The man in charge of intelligence believes that his commander in chief was "not elected by a majority of the voters ... he was appointed by God."
This story broke just days after the Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, offered up some gratuitous anti-Semitism in a speech otherwise chiding his Islamic world. President Bush quickly labeled Mahathir as "wrong and divisive." But he didn't utter a harsh word about a wrong and divisive general.
Donald Rumsfeld said crisply in the general's defense, "We're a free people." And religious conservatives in Congress began circulating a letter against any action that could "intimidate the free religious exercise of his faith." They rose to protect Boykin's religious freedom to denigrate another religion and his First Amendment right to intolerance.
How far we have drifted from the early days after 9/11. In the wake of the terrorist attack by Islamic fanatics, the country was urged to understand that our enemy was the fanaticism, not Islam. After a false start, after calling for a "crusade," the president made it clear that this was not a religious war. It was, if anything, a struggle between theocrats and democrats, those who believed God was on their side and those who believed that God didn't take sides.
Of course, there were homegrown zealots even then. Some of our fundamentalists linked arms with Osama's fundamentalists. Jerry Falwell joined the enemy in blaming Americans -- "the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and lesbians ... all of them who have tried to secularize America" -- for the fate of the folks buckled into their seats in planes and those who were opening up their coffee cups in the twin towers. He said, "I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen."'
But, by and large, most Americans recognized that our unity and strength depended on accepting our diversity. Our civic religion of tolerance kept us strong in the face of intolerance.
Yet we seem to be drifting again into civil skirmishes over religion. Last summer, the Ten Commandments judge, Roy Moore, became our own theocrat when he refused to remove the Judeo-Christian symbols he had installed in a secular courthouse. This fall, the Pledge of Allegiance came to the Supreme Court for a contentious struggle over whether our school children can pledge to "one nation under God."
Do such symbolic wranglings divide us when we need to be united? Is my theism bigger than your Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, or atheism?
And now Boykin, deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, joins al Qaeda in calling his enemies "Satan."
I have no doubt that Boykin deserves respect for his military record and freedom for his religious beliefs. I will leave it to the Pentagon investigators to determine whether he's violated any code.
But for all we talk about the clash of civilizations, we know that the most important global struggle is not between one religion and another, but between fanaticism and tolerance -- the two principles that cut across all borders and run through every religion. In the long struggle between theocracy and democracy, Gen. Boykin has, I am afraid, thrown his lot in with the enemy.
If Americans are to stand for tolerance, it's more than a strategic error to say that my God is bigger than yours. It's a sacrilege to our civic religion.
Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Copyright 2003, Washington Post Writers Group