Given what came afterward, it's interesting that Joseph Stalin was a seminarian. In the same vein, I mention that as a boy Adolf Hitler attended church regularly and sang in the choir. I present these facts not to suggest that an acquaintance with religion drives one to mass murder, only that it is not always a sure-fire way to build character.
And yet from the post-Littleton statements of many politicians you would be excused for thinking otherwise. Just the other day, in fact, Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) told a House hearing on gun control that if high schools were allowed to display the Ten Commandments "we would not have the tragedies that bring us here today."
Other politicians, just as smart and equally logical, made similar statements. Dan Quayle, running for president on the anti-Murphy Brown ticket, observed that the problem at Littleton was one of religious values. "A child who loves God, honors his parents and respects his neighbors will not kill anyone," he said. In other words -- and this has probably not occurred to you -- good kids do not kill their classmates and teachers.
Gary Bauer, another Republican presidential candidate, also found ominous the absence of the Ten Commandments from the school wall: "If a teacher in Columbine had hung up the Ten Commandments in the classroom, or said `God loves you,' that teacher would have been in deep, deep trouble. We've got it upside down."
Yet I dimly recall that back when I went to school and began each day with a prayer, plenty of kids mocked others and some even picked fights. I had a teacher who kept a crucifix on her classroom wall, and yet her students were not noticeably sweeter than others. Indeed, when we walked home from school it was the kids from St. Mary's, a parochial school, we feared encountering. A day with religion somehow turned some of them nasty.
Remarkably, of all the changes in American society in the past 30 years or so, these pols have singled out the very one that is the most ephemeral -- the abolition of organized school prayer. The other changes -- rootlessness, suburban alienation, divorce -- go largely unmentioned. Yet if they really want to understand what has happened to this country, they need only look to themselves.
For openers, let's consider Bob Barr. This avatar of all things good and true grew up everywhere (Panama, Iraq, Iran), went to law school in California, not Georgia, and has been divorced twice. In short, he is your average American -- on the move, on the make, a product of contemporary economic and social forces, no matter how fixed his 19th-century views.
If you look at most of the presidential candidates, you find a similar profile: the occasional divorce, the rootlessness, the homage to an idyllic place where they do not choose to live. Quayle is typical. He announced his candidacy in Huntington, Ind., a town he left long ago. (He is, in fact, a citizen of the golf course.) Elizabeth Dole extols Salisbury, N.C., her hometown, but fled it for Washington. Al Gore will announce in Carthage, Tenn., a real-enough place, but his true home is Washington.
Nothing is wrong with any of this. Once, presidential candidates claimed a birth in a log cabin; now it's a small town. This exercise in silly nostalgia is innocent enough, but it gets dangerous when a longing for the good ol' days entails a disregard for the rights of others. After all, America is hardly a small town. It is now home to plenty of people who do not claim a Judeo-Christian religious heritage -- not to mention some who eschew any religion at all. Inexplicably, a good many of these people are not homicidal maniacs.
Equally bad, this emphasis on the irrelevant amounts to an instruction to stop thinking: Don't wonder if high schools are too big (Columbine has about 1,900 students), about alienation, about the social cost of suburban sprawl (I-95 gets quality time), about the veneration of the jock and, especially, whether a nation entering the 21st century can any longer afford 18th-century gun laws.
The last is the most important. The country we once had, the romanticized one of church socials and large turnouts for Fourth of July parades, is largely gone. We need politicians who will deal with what we have become -- a nation of shredded communities. Where once neighbors were armed, now strangers are.
At Columbine, what mattered was not what was missing from the wall but what was under the killers' coats. Until our politicians recognize that, no amount of prayer will stop it from happening again.