Southern Voices

Believing in Miracles

By Hal Crowther

Prague—the miraculous Infant of Prague is a wax baby doll, 400 years old and roughly “the height and weight of a prairie dog,” as I described him when we first met in the winter of 1989. The Infant, known to Czechs as the Jesulatko, is the best-dressed religious icon in all the world. In 1989 he owned 45 spectacular costumes. Now he sports 70—glistening gowns, capes, vests of silk and gold brocade to match his marble throne and his tiny jeweled crown. Carmelite monks at the Church of Our Lady Victorious change the Infant’s outfits according to the seasons and feast days; for a small fee you can climb to the tower museum and marvel at the rest of his wardrobe.

Much has changed since last we met. Only Prague’s winter weather seemed the same, cold and gray and brooding. When I visited the Infant in December 1989, the Czech capital was in the first flush of the delirium that greeted the Velvet Revolution, ending 40 years of Soviet-imposed communism. By sheer good luck, I arrived on the train from Budapest the very day the old government fell, the day half a million Czechs thronged Wenceslas Square and Vaclav Havel and Alexander Dubcek exhorted the crowd from their balconies, though few of us could hear them.

It was the first and only national euphoria I’ve experienced, however vicariously. Most Americans like me—too young to remember V-E Day—will die without savoring one of these moments of soaring hope that reveals a whole people embracing the future and believing the best of each other. Grinning patriots wearing red-white-and-blue ribbons roamed Prague’s freezing streets for days, embracing strangers and flashing the universal V-sign, which in Czech means “svobodu”—freedom. In a cafe near the Old City Hall, a beautiful dark-haired woman who spoke no English took off her ribbon, pinned it on my sweater and kissed me on my forehead. Late at night on the Charles Bridge, a thousand candles illuminated the statues of the saints and students huddled around oil-drum fires sang “We Shall Overcome” in Czech.

“My face was wet,” I wrote in my notebook after leaving the students and their midnight vigil. “I’ll remember it the rest of my life.”

I was 44. For a secular realist whose adult experience of politics had been assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate and Reaganism, this flood tide of optimism was like taking heroin. After three days, it was like taking an overdose. I retreated from the giddy streets, late on another arctic afternoon, and ducked furtively into the Church of Our Lady Victorious. The church was empty and pitch dark except for a single bulb backlighting the famous Infant, and three candles burning on his altar rail. We were alone, the two of us—the overdressed wax doll, famous for miracles, and the agnostic famous for dismissing them. If this was a contest between faith and doubt, the little rascal must have won. I was exhausted and emotionally overwrought, and the darkness and silence and the shadowy choir of early-Baroque angels may have helped him, too. But what I wrote of our meeting, to my present embarrassment but strange satisfaction, was this: “Prayer struck me as the only adequate response to the accumulation of feeling I felt in that place.”

“A miracle is occurring in Prague,” I wrote also. “If you think democracy is your true religion, come to Prague now, as a Muslim comes to Mecca or a Catholic comes to Lourdes.” My account of the pilgrimage to Prague was subtitled “Do You Believe in Miracles?”

That long weekend with the Velvet Revolution produced the most atypical outburst of enthusiasm and optimism I ever committed in print. When I returned with my wife on the 15th anniversary of Prague’s miracle, the American presidential election had just been sealed and certified, and even guarded optimism seemed light years beyond our reach. The grim weather suited our mood. Prague, too, in the natural course of things, had trimmed its sails and lowered its expectations.

“I feel that what we believed and what we hoped for did not happen 100 percent,” a retired engineer, shedding a single tear, told an American reporter.

Welcome back, Prague, to the world of scaled-down dreams. The Czech Republic, separated from Slovakia in 1993, is a new member of the European Union—the amorphous but ever-expanding leviathan that reminds some Czechs of the Hapsburg Empire, which swallowed their fierce little country for 400 years before disgorging it in 1918. Unemployment in the Czech Republic stands at 10 percent, and worst of all the Communist Party is making a comeback, with 15 to 20 percent of the vote in recent elections.

“It’s older people who have no education, they miss the old communist days when no skill or initiative was necessary to make a living,” said Martina, our brilliant guide with two university degrees and a diplomat’s grasp of world affairs (in Prague you need at least one degree, two foreign languages and a year of training to guide tourists). “In the new economy you need academic credentials and technology, and first of all English so you can work for foreign companies.”

Vaclav Havel and an indignant corps of liberal legislators stood up and walked out of parliament recently when the Communist Party leader began to wax nostalgic about Marxist Czechoslovakia. The miracle has lost much luster in 21st-century Prague; students on the Charles Bridge no longer sing protest songs with stars in their eyes. But the Czechs’ disillusionment with democracy doesn’t compare to their disillusionment with America—once idolized in Central Europe, now a source of puzzlement and dismay. Anywhere you visit in Europe this winter, even nonconformist Prague, people make sure Americans aren’t Bush loyalists before they’ll talk to you at all. When they consent to talk, conversations take on a quality of wonderment, as if they were interviewing astronauts returned from Mars.

“What is wrong with your people now?” Martina asked us. “They seem hungry for propaganda, they question nothing. Do they know about Iraq? Here we know propaganda. Under communists we grew up on propaganda, nothing but propaganda. But here everyone knew it was propaganda—everyone. But you are free, yes? There’s something wrong with your schools?”

Our replies were lame ones. We felt compelled to remind her that 48 percent of American voters had not swallowed that poisoned bait of fear and fraud with which George W. Bush had gone fishing for a second term. I offered my opinion that our schools, inadequate as they seem to be, are doing a better job than our media. The role of the American abroad, in these strange times, is to hang his head and listen carefully, and hope to learn. In all my travels, I think this was the first time I could listen to harsh criticism of the United States with no defensiveness or resentment. I didn’t meet anyone in Prague or London who was as angry about Iraq as most of my friends in the States.

But Martina, an educated child of Prague who grew up doubting every word her government issued or approved, had asked the questions none of us can answer. The United States of America, technologically advanced, technically literate and nominally civilized, now stands in the dock of world opinion with little choice but to plead guilty to pernicious, pandemic, pre-Enlightenment, near-medieval gullibility.

Most countries in Europe are emulating America’s obsessive materialism. Few of them have offered much resistance to even the cheesiest, sleaziest manifestations of America’s gangrenous popular culture. The great abyss of difference that now yawns between Europe and America is the average American’s eagerness to believe damn near anything. Writing the day after the election, historian Garry Wills cited a poll showing that 75 percent of the president’s supporters still believed, in the face of three years of uncontested evidence to the contrary, that Saddam Hussein was intimately involved in the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. Had the media failed these citizens utterly, even conspired with the government to mislead them? Or do they simply ignore the media and believe as they please?

“Respect for evidence seems not to pertain any more,” wrote Wills, stunned and discouraged, in an op ed column headed “The Day the Enlightenment Went Out.” A critical election decided by self-blinding voters was just one of the crimes against reason that had reduced Wills to despair. Recent surveys, he claimed, indicate that many more Americans believe in the Virgin Birth than in Charles Darwin and his “Origin of Species.” Wills’ essay coincided with a fresh assault on evolution by a school board in Pennsylvania, of all places, seeking to dilute Darwin’s theory with a new theory of “intelligent design”—which one science educator disparaged as “creationism in a cheap tuxedo.”

Little wonder Wills despairs. Creationism, the kind of thing that leaves Europeans speechless, is the piece de resistance of imbecile fundamentalist rubbish. When the Darwin-bashers crawl out and try to flex their muscle, bookburners and witchburners are never far behind. Their case was closed 100 years ago; it’s so tedious to repeat for the ten millionth time that evolution, itself, is not a theory. It’s a scientific fact, as basic as gravity or photosynthesis, supported by a comprehensive fossil record—measureless tons of carbon-datable fossil material on which all bio-science depends. Theory begins only when we try to explain how evolution works—genetically, biologically—and it’s evolving theory to which Darwin and many others have contributed.

That’s a kindergarten science lecture. If the “literal” interpretation of Genesis were relaxed just a fraction, religion and science could be reconciled. Yet American fundamentalists assign their God no literary license, no credit for metaphor. “Intelligent design?” Any god clever enough to create an ashtray, far less the universe, would laugh out loud at unevolved literalists who are perhaps the best evidence that prehensile tails quite recently gripped our family tree. But these people worship a god who does not laugh.

“What has become of earony (irony, in the Czech accent) in your country?” asked Martina, speaking for the incurably ironical Czechs. “Mark Twain, he was an American, yes? We think that now you have no earony.”

I took a bite of honey cake, in that spotless Old Town tea shop where she paused to interrogate us, and tried to phrase something disarmingly “earonic” for Martina. But humor is the hardest thing to translate, and my ironies of the moment are too bitter to mix with cake and coffee.

“The secular states of modern Europe do not understand the fundamentalism of the American electorate,” Garry Wills writes. “It is not what they had experienced from this country in the past.”

Few cities are more secular than Prague, few states more skeptical than the Czech Republic. We appear to be two nations passing in opposite directions. The Infant with his entourage and wardrobe, his miraculous testimonials, speaks to the pious Catholicism of Hapsburg Prague. The city owes much of its splendor to Catholic churches and monasteries, a symphonic array of ecclesiastical architecture ranging from medieval Romanesque to late Baroque. At St. Vitus Cathedral, still a work in progress after seven centuries, we see the whole history and spirit of a remarkable people captured in stone.

It was here in Prague that the martyr Jan Hus, a century ahead of Martin Luther, lodged the first anti-clerical protests that led to the Reformation. According to legend, it was in Prague’s ghetto that Rabbi Low, in the 16th century, created the monster Yossel the Golem from Vltava River mud, to protect the Jewish community from Christian thugs. In the reign (1576-1612) of the eccentric Emperor Rudolf II, Prague was world-renowned for both science and pseudo-science, attracting alchemists, astrologers, sorcerers, necromancers, conjurers and the like from every corner of Europe. From the peasant mystic Petr Chelcicky in the 14th century to the German-language masters Franz Kafka and Rainer Maria Rilke in the early 20th, native writers have explored alternative realities and stretched the boundaries of the literary imagination.

As you must visit Prague to understand, some residue of faith, fantasy and mystery clings to every stone. Yet Czechs, exhausted by a century of wars, invasions and totalitarian overlords—Hitler and Stalin back-to-back—have turned away sharply from their supernatural heritage. Their ancient churches attract only tourists. According to Martina, a full 50 percent of the Czech people are avowed atheists. Only 30 percent claim any religion—20 percent Catholic and just seven percent Protestant, here where Hus burned alive to launch the Reformation.

In a nation formed by Catholic princes and archbishops, where liberal intellectuals were once burned at the stake, they’ve gone a step beyond liberal religion—faith leavened with common sense—and opted for no religion at all. The United States was founded by post-Enlightenment intellectuals, many of them agnostic, who pursued the science of liberty with the support of austere Anglicans, Congregationalists and Quakers. If you could poll the shades of the Founding Fathers, you’d be hard pressed to find one who believed in the Virgin Birth. What they all believed in passionately, and believed to be the cornerstone of democracy, was the strictest separation of church and state.

“What have been its fruits?” asked James Madison of state-supported Christianity. “More or less in most places, pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”

At the time of the Revolution—to be brutally frank—the kind of fundamentalism now reshaping American politics was practiced chiefly by people who could neither read nor write. Now, polls tell us, 83 percent of Americans believe in the Virgin Birth—and 82 percent in a literal heaven, 45 percent in a literal devil and 86 percent (attention, Infant—it may not be too late to emigrate) in miracles. Forty percent call themselves evangelicals and 40 percent believe in Revelation’s world-ending wrestling match between Satan and Christ. (48 percent say the USA enjoys God’s special protection.)

Most explanations for this rout of rationality and liberal religion do not convince me. A free-market model proposed in The New York Times—extreme religion thrives in the States because so many feverish churches are competing for converts—seemed particularly glib. More relevant was a London cab driver’s assertion that only 18 million Americans hold or have ever held passports (a number I can’t confirm), implying that we’re suffocating from provincial isolation. The most interesting story line I’ve encountered was offered by the the late Marshall Frady in his 1979 biography of Billy Graham. After the disillusionments of Vietnam and Watergate, Frady suggested, America abandoned its civil, secular pieties and, like Graham, withdrew into the otherworldly, “the extrareal.” In “the evangelical phenomenon, rife across the land,” Frady saw the shadow of “a second kind of Middle Ages, a curious new sort of electronic, suburbanized medievalism.”

Pretty fair prophecy for 1979, for a Baptist preacher’s son. With credulity ascendant and skepticism in full retreat, the United States is becoming a citadel of denial. A reputable British journalist is accusing us of new and unthinkable war crimes in Iraq, but you won’t find her on “Meet the Press.” Yesterday’s bombings, massacres and utter bloody chaos in Iraq were briefly summarized on page 18 of my local newspaper, while the front-page headline was about athletes rubbing growth hormones on their legs.

In Prague—where we patronized a wine shop with a stone wall that was part of a 9th-century bridge—the Dark Ages are definitively over. In the USA, where I own a barn just 20 years younger than the American republic, the Dark Ages seem to loom ahead of us. What nation’s intellectual history ever ran in reverse? The first time I met the Infant of Prague, the prayer in my head was one of thanksgiving. This time I was a supplicant looking for miracles. What if I woke up tomorrow, in Kafka’s city of dark dreams, to find that these 15 years were just a nasty nightmare? n