Was it lack of space or was it lack of time that made Katha Pollitt so bland and lenient about the current state of religious leadership in our country and our culture ["God Changes Everything," April 1]? She mentioned the obvious degeneration of the Roman Catholic Church into a protection racket for child rapists, true. She also instanced the way in which Judaism has become prostituted to the uses of messianic colonialism in Palestine. But this is merely to tinker with the problem. What about Billy Graham, who has been Protestant father-confessor to every President from Eisenhower to Clinton, and who has achieved the status of America’s mainstream cleric?
H.R. Haldeman’s diaries of the Watergate years, published in 1994, gave an account of a conversation between Nixon and Graham that included some heated talk about "Satanic Jews," and what to do about them. This elegant exchange followed a "prayer breakfast" that the two men had graced in February 1972. There was a brief flap about this when the Haldeman diaries were first published, but it soon died away. Now we have the tapes, first made public in an excellent piece by James Warren in the Chicago Tribune, and despite their many deletions they show Graham to be an avid bigot as well as a cheap liar.
Nixon initiates the conversation but Graham can’t wait to join in. Jewish control over the media is assumed, of course, and Graham says, "This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain." "You believe that?" asks Nixon and, when the preacher-man says, "Yes, sir," responds, "Oh, boy, so do I. I can’t ever say that but I believe it." (This seems to me to take care, at long last, of the excuse peddled by Nixon’s defenders that he liked to talk dirty about Jews only in order to seem tough to his gruesome subordinates.) Yet it is, admittedly, Graham who makes most of the running. The key excerpt is this: "But I have to lean a little bit, you know. I go and keep friends with Mr. Rosenthal at the New York Times, and people of that sort. And all–not all the Jews, but a lot of the Jews are great friends of mine. They swarm around me and are friendly to me. Because they know I am friendly to Israel and so forth. They don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country."
In other words, Graham can put up with the "swarming" because he, too, is for a crazed notion of a holy state in Palestine. This passage didn’t get as much emphasis as it should have in the reports of the meeting, which Graham at first pathetically claimed not to remember. His memory came back in the form of a fawning apology, but he was never subjected to the Farrakhan-Jackson treatment. After all, in the National Cathedral after September 11 he was allowed in the presence of our country’s elite to assert that all the murder victims were in paradise and happy to be there–a wild outburst of evil and stupidity that implicitly copies the fantasies of bin Laden. So there you have it: The country’s senior Protestant is a gaping and mendacious anti-Jewish peasant; the leaders of official Jewry are cringingly yoked with him for the purpose of a disastrous crusade and meanwhile the cardinals are running a rape fiesta for twitchy "celibates." All official attention turns, meanwhile, upon the weird beliefs to be found in the Koran, which may be partly because the Attorney General himself is a tuneless, clueless, evangelical Confederate dunce.
The struggle against theocratic fascism should, therefore, be inseparable from the struggle for a truly secular state. This need not mean an atheist state; the religious impulse itself seems to be partly innate at our present stage of evolution. But it need not necessarily take the extremely backward form that it assumes in our society, nor need its recognition eventuate in the present sickly "multiculturalism," whereby all forms of religious stupidity are granted equal "respect" while challenges to, say, scientific teaching are greeted with nervous tolerance.
Little, Brown has chosen the perfect moment to publish The Ornament of the World, by Maria Rosa Menocal. It is a history of medieval "Al-Andalus," or Andalusia: a culture where there was extensive cooperation and even symbiosis among Muslims, Jews and Christians, and where civilization touched a point hardly surpassed since fifth-century Athens. Indeed, that comparison itself is not inapt. It was the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad in the ninth and tenth centuries who sponsored the translation of the whole corpus of Greek philosophy into Arabic, thus preserving it from the ban on philosophy that had been imposed by the first Christian emperors. It was the Arab-Andalusian scholar Averroës, known also as Ibn Rushd, who later, in the twelfth century, made his commentaries on Aristotle available to the Latin-speaking world, where they were yet again banned by the Church fathers before finally being recovered by Europe. So it is no exaggeration to say that what we presumptuously call "Western" culture is owed in large measure to the Andalusian enlightenment.
The migration of Arabic-speaking intellectuals to the southern Spanish cities of Córdoba and Granada, and the magnetic pull exerted on Jewish scholars, was also to have revolutionary effects on the study of medicine–with early Greek texts again revived through translation–and upon the writing of poetry. Menocal has a wonderful chapter on the love poems of the era and on Ibn Hazm’s The Neck Ring of the Dove, a handbook on romance and a memoir of old Córdoba. We tend to forget that Maimonides, another great figure of this culture, wrote almost all his major works–with the exception of the Mishneh Torah–in Arabic. Nothing could be more remote from the bleak and arid doctrines of the Taliban.
However, it was not Muslim but Christian intolerance that put an end to Andalusia. By 1492 their Catholic majesties Ferdinand and Isabella had completed the reimposition of orthodoxy and begun the expulsion of the Jews and Moors. It was to the Muslim world that the Jews then looked for safety. This book partly restores to us a world we have lost, a world for which our current monotheistic leaderships do not even feel nostalgia.