EDITOR'S NOTE: As much as they may compete with each other, the world's three desert faiths find common ground when it comes to promoting the rise of the theocratic state. President Bush's promotion of Harriet Miers for Supreme Court justice based on her Christian faith is a case in point. PNS contributor Richard Rodriguez, an essayist and author of, most recently, "Brown: The Last Discovery of America" (Viking, 2003), is working on a book about religion. An earlier version of this essay was aired on "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."


SAN FRANCISCO--For centuries, Judaism, Christianity, Islam -- worshipping the same desert God -- these brother religions have been divided from one another, divided even among themselves. It is not news that ancient hatreds persist.

But consider also this: This week, the president of the United States, in the spirit of a theocratic Middle Eastern country, and in violation of Article 6 of the Constitution, proposed that his nominee, Harriet Miers, deserves her place on the Supreme Court because of her (evangelical) Christian faith.

Or consider this: At a press conference last March in Israel, a Muslim cleric, the Orthodox archbishop, the Latin Patriarch, the chief Sephardic rabbi, and the Chief Ashkenazi rabbi, sat side by side to announce their opposition to a gay parade in Jerusalem.

Even as lethal differences separate the three desert religions, this is a time also of strange similarities and new alliances -- two against one, or three against the secular state.

Even while some mainline Protestant churches consider divestment from companies that profit from Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories, low-church Protestants become Zionists. For some, support of Israel fulfills an apocalyptic expectation. But such a mainstay of Israeli tourism have evangelicals become, a grateful Sharon government may lease to a Colorado Protestant group the site on the Galilee where Christ dispensed the beatitudes.

Sometimes reconciliation masks rivalry. For example, to counter the appeal of Islam in the Third World, Roman Catholicism accentuates its own conservatism. During the papacy of John Paul II, the Vatican allied itself with Muslim clerics in taking pro-life positions at international meetings, such as at the Cairo Conference on Women in 1994.

So strange, so unprecedented is our religious age of rivalries and alliances, we lack a proper lexicon.

We speak of "fundamentalist Christianity" when we describe the new super-churches in America's suburbs. But a church like Lakewood in Houston, the largest super-church in the country, is exactly the opposite of fundamentalist -- it has exchanged any theological precision for an everyone-is-welcome, feel-good Christianity. In a church like Lakewood there is no distinction between Methodist or Presbyterian.

In another century, wars were fought among Christians over intricate points of theology. Now there is reunion, in resistance perhaps to Islam or to secularism. Increasingly, one hears in America people name themselves simply as "Christians."

Outside Terri Schiavo's Florida hospice last year gathered Roman Catholics alongside low-church Protestants. In another time, highly communal Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism's stress on Christ's personal call were as different as the "We" and the "I." In another time in America, the Catholic Church was the "whore of Babylon" in the eyes of many low-church Protestants. Nowadays the tele-evangelist sits beside the Cardinal at the White House prayer breakfast.

>From Vienna, Cardinal Schonborn, a confidant of Pope Benedict, voices skepticism about Darwinism. Catholicism long ago rejected a literalist reading of Genesis. But now, as right-wing Protestants challenge evolution in the classroom, and born-again President George Bush proposes teaching the theory of "intelligent design" alongside Darwin, the Viennese cardinal suggests that evolution is mere "ideology, not science."

In the Middle East, fatal differences between Shia and the Sunni may end up destroying Iraq. In America, a fear of Islam leads many non-Muslims to see Islam as the monolith next door. We speak of "Muslims" without qualification. In time, perhaps America and Europe will create a new Islamic identity in the refusal to distinguish among the several.

Though in a recent poll, a majority of Americans indicated an "admiration" of Islam. One senses more: one senses envy, envy of the Muslim's freedom to worship in the public square in ancient, desert cities.

>From the U.S. Air Force Academy comes news that coaches and administrators and students -- the very people responsible for protecting our freedom to believe or not -- have busily been proclaiming America "a Christian nation."

As it has become fashionable for Americans to speak of their religious faith publicly, I confess mine to you: I go to Roman Catholic mass every Sunday. Yes, I am, you could say, a Christian.

But, ever since Sept. 11, 2001, when havoc descended, in the name of my desert God, I find my easiest companionship with the agnostic and the atheist.


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