Our side needs a Higher Power (National Post, April 7, 2004)

This week marks pivotal religious holidays celebrated even by otherwise secular Christians and Jews. Mel Gibson's film, The Passion, will doubtless be discussed at length over the brisket, then over the ham. The Passion is a product of Gibson's pent-up frustration against Vatican II, which his extremist sect considers a dilution of authentic Catholicism. However problematic Gibson's views, his advocacy for religion's nuclear importance is striking a resonant chord. After a 40-year exile in the counter-cultural wilderness, religion and ancient God-centric values are rattling the gates of the West's cultural marketplace.

When I was growing up, religion was an immutable fact of communal life. At 15, I fell in love with a religiously observant boy. Because he was both a brilliant scholar and a born teacher, I "converted" from the pliable Conservatism of my upbringing to Orthodox Judaism. A thirsty reed, I absorbed more knowledge from the distillation of his toils in the exegetical vineyards than from years of formal teaching. The orthodoxy didn't take permanently, but the respect for religion's importance in life did. My early religious immersion was to provide armour against the approaching juggernaut of anti-religious postmodernism.

Religion was taken seriously in the '50s, but in a rather sweet, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" way reflecting postwar hopes for a finer world. Chauvinism was out, inter-faith understanding was in. Religion was an accessory to the good (material) life in the West, and a means of distancing ourselves from godless Communism during the Cold War. Canadians, almost all then of Judeo-Christian descent, aimed for mutual respect while prospering together in a pluralist Golden Age. Unspeakable crimes had happened in Europe, but they would never happen again, because (we thought) the world had learned its lesson once and for all. Our churches and synagogues reinforced the basic civic virtues of that conservative era.

Then the Young Turks of the counterculture proclaimed that bourgeois Western religions were colonialism's handmaiden, and propagated an imperialistic hierarchy of superannuated values. In the Boomers' brave new world of individualism, multiculturalism and social justice for all, everyone would find his or her own unique route to the modes of spirituality deemed compatible with secularism. Exotic (undemanding) Buddhism and drug-induced visions were fine. But the God of our fathers was excommunicated.

Secularism, formerly a departure from the norm, now joined with socialism to achieve establishment status amongst Western elites. For the past 40 years our intellectuals and politicians have insisted that God has no place in public life. In Europe, Scandinavia and Canada -- except for diminished populations of the mainstream faithful, and fundamentalist enclaves -- secularism has been the reigning orthodoxy throughout the entire lifetime of people under 40, many of whom have literally never attended a church or synagogue service. Consequently, many Canadians seem unaware that for most of human history and amongst most of the world's population, religion is the overwhelming factor in how one's life is spent -- or sacrificed.

And so on to 9/11. Islamism! We have yet to absorb its impact, because in our deity-free solipsism, and having discredited pre-'60s approaches to history, we can't understand that a malignant tumour in the body of a major religion is metastasizing through hatred -- hatred of us. So we tell ourselves the continuing unprovoked wrath will happen only to other people, and for anything but religious reasons.

George W. Bush is an ardent Christian (but fortunately Mel Gibson's anti-type), whose faith is the animating engine of his behaviour. He understands the power -- for good or evil -- of religious belief. He "gets" Islamist terrorism. He too feels he is tasked with a knight's religious mission. Bush considers his tenure an opportunity to put "neighbour love" -- democracy --into practice on a global scale. His speeches are unselfconsciously strewn with allusions to the Bible; freedom, he preaches, is "God's gift" to the world.

Bush's unapologetic piety is the real reason he is so hated by the Left in the United States, and with such particular venom in Canada, Scandinavia and Western Europe. Ideology prevents secularists from paying appropriate respect to great ideals -- and Bush's ideals are great -- whenever they are overtly linked to biblical precepts. The liberal refusal to privilege the very heritage that makes us tolerant, compassionate and progressive is, ironically, jeopardizing our security.

In the borderless war against terrorism, we need borderless banners to march under. We need Mel Gibson's passion (but not his obsession with martyrdom). We need George Bush's commitment to "God's gift" of freedom. We need to support our knights who draw courage from their sense of duty in protecting us. Victory in a post-9/11 world depends on our acknowledgment that God-inspired fire is our most effective unifying weapon against Allah-fueled brimstone. We need a Higher Power on our side -- whether we believe in Him or not.

© National Post 2004