We've now witnessed religion's best and worst

BOSTON — He has apologized as if it were a breach of etiquette or a case of bad timing.

With the country united in mourning before the fallen towers, the preacher spattered his words across the devastated landscape. In a moment of crisis, the evangelist linked theological arms with the enemy.

Before a television congregation, Jerry Falwell offered up his credo: "I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.' "

His henchman, Pat Robertson, seconded the motion, "Well, I totally concur."

Their Rolodex of villains had made, they said, God Almighty remove his curtain of protection. Remove it, presumably, from the thousands of Americans drinking their morning coffee in the twin towers and turning on their computers in the Pentagon.

What better spokesman for the Taliban? Our fundamentalists agree with theirs. God is on their side. America's sins are to blame.

What better allies for the men who call America the Great Satan? After all, the religious zealots who took over Afghanistan may not know the ACLU, but their first acts were against tolerance, against secularism and most zealously of all against the idea that any woman could determine her own life.

But I forget: Falwell has apologized. He now calls these words "insensitive," "uncalled for," "unnecessary." He calls them everything but wrong.

On a Web posting Sept. 17, he says, "I sincerely regret that comments I made . . . were taken out of their context . . ."

He says, "I should have mentioned the national sins without mentioning the organizations and persons by name."

He says his mistake was making these remarks "on television where a secular media and audience were also listening."

Falwell apologizes in the way that politicians apologize. He regrets it "if," yes, if, "my statements seemed harsh and ill-timed." And we are to accept his apology.

What a week has followed this vast national tragedy. We've seen the best and the worst of religion.

We've seen bigots, propelled by religious illiteracy, attack a Sikh mistaken for a Muslim and make some Americans afraid to go out on the street. But we've also seen, in far greater numbers, an instinctive and deliberate reaching out in gatherings as multicultural as the list of victims.

In this scheme of things, one preacher is a reminder of our own fault lines. One man talking about the judgment of God is a warning about how we will stand. Together or apart.

"There are people in each religion who hold their beliefs in a tightfisted way as if it were the only thing that could be true," says Diana Eck, who has written about the explosion of religious diversity in "A New Religious America." "There are also people in each religious tradition who hold their beliefs in an open-handed way, an invitational way, making their faith part of a complex and multireligious world."

In all the talk of clashing civilizations, do we understand that the basic clash is between fanaticism and tolerance, the open and closed fist? This line cuts across borders and nationalities and through the heart of virtually every religion — Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism.

"Every one of these religious traditions is a battleground now with a fringe of fanaticism and xenophobia," says theologian Harvey Cox, who teaches comparative fundamentalism at Harvard Divinity School.

"Every religion has its social justice vision, its ecumenical wing, the wing in which religion inspires compassion and concern for the weak. And then there is the other wing, the poisonous and rancid side of religion, especially when it mixes with nationalism."

We need no more proof about the world we live in — a world that is global and tribal, ecumenical and xenophobic, religious and secular. We too live among people who believe that God is on their side and among people who do not believe that God takes sides. We live among people who believe that God removed his protection from the man who got to work on time, but not the man who was late. And among people who will never swallow that.

The preacher and terrorist both claim that we must agree with their religious or political views — or be damned. So now we know who the dividers are.

But of course, I forgot again. Rev. Falwell apologized, didn't he.

Ellen Goodman's column appears Friday on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.