I say "propose" because this is, as far as can be determined from a study of the Scriptures, Clinton's very own idea. As a child, I had to listen attentively to the bits of Matthew that occur between chapters five and nine. I experienced some of the same infantile difficulty that occurs to the audience in The Life of Brian. ("Blessed are the Greek"? "Blessed are the cheesemakers"?) And I often received the same sorts of reply to my piping questions. ("Cheese- makers are not intended to be taken literally. It's a reference to all those who are involved, in a very real sense, with the dairy industry.") However, by the end of the process, I knew for sure that it was the meek who would inherit the earth, and not the peacemakers. The peacemakers had to be content with the consolation prize: "For they shall be called the children of God." Things were even worse, as I recall, for the merciful. In a rather tautological verse, they were offered the guarantee that they, in return, would "obtain mercy". What if they hadn't asked for it? What if they didn't need it? I used to want to know.
My point, for now, is this. Did Clinton make a subconscious slip, or did he (subconsciously also) veer away from the claim that his political allies are "children of God"? After all, America is saturated with bible- bashers and with those who think that the two testaments are the unmediated words of God. Only a few weeks before the Israel-Jordan agreement, Clinton had officiated at the Rabin-Arafat handshake and had won golden opinions for claiming that his own speech was the result of an encounter during the small hours with the Book of Joshua. And the Beatitudes are among the New Testament verses that everybody knows, or that everybody used to know before they started messing about with the King James version. Yet nobody rose to tell the President that he had got the wrong verse, or had attributed the wrong reward to the wrong (or right) virtue. This is especially amazing in the instance of Belfast, which is rich in biblically minded folk and where there would be no need of "peacemakers" if not for the number of those who take their Christianity seriously. It seems that nobody in either audience had the wit, or the reverence, to try to correct him.
Of course, the errant claim that Clinton's political allies "shall inherit the earth" is also a rather immodest one. But it can have a secular ring to it, at least. It suggests that earthly rewards may descend upon those who are broad-minded and diplomatic enough to "get with the program" - which is the actual vernacular in which the White House staff discusses these matters. Only a few months back, faced with a number of awkward questions about the Whitewater affair, the President confided to a huge press conference that he had been deriving consolation from his reading of the Book of Psalms. I tried and failed to elicit from the White House press office the information about which psalm, or which verse of which psalm, had been of assistance. I had no better luck in asking whether the Leader of the Free World was hoping that the psalm reference would help him in this world or the next.
But I thought I could guess. A man who doesn't know one Beatitude from another, and a man who mentions the Bible when he and his wife are in a tight political corner, is a man from a very recognisable tradition. And there probably isn't a journalist in Washington who would be other than cynical about the uses of religion if the exhortation came from the fundamentalist right. Yet when Clinton reaches for the Bible, he has the same effect on the hacks as did Jesus in Matthew chapter 8, verse 26, when he rebuked the winds and the sea, "and there was a great calm". (Incidentally, in the chapter and verse that intervene between this episode and the Sermon on the Mount, we come across the founder of Christianity as he employs sorcery to command devils to enter the bodies of pigs. The pigs thereupon commit mass suicide. I used to wonder, even as a boy, why I was supposed to be favourably impressed by an action that seemed sinister and unbelievable all at once. And so to this day, I am careful of describing the mass and herd movements of my fellow-scribblers as "Gadarene".)
We are very fond of lampooning or pitying the religious foolishness or stupidity of lesser peoples. Many British soldiers will spend the pagan holiday we know as "Christmas" in the snows of Bosnia. Bored as everybody is by this subject, everybody has the vague idea that something must be done for the "Muslims" to be saved from slaughter. I don't mind that the words "Bosnian" and "Muslim" have become interchangeable, because there is a reality behind the simplification. But when did you last read, or hear, that "the Catholics" bombarded the city of Mostar, or that "the Christian Orthodox" shelled Sarajevo? This would actually be much truer - and much less insulting - than to say "the Croats" in the first instance or "the Serbs" in the second. Yet a reporter wishing to use this much more accurate shorthand would soon be on his bike, I suspect, because we cannot (again to quote from Matthew chapter 7, verses 1-5) distinguish between the beams in our own eyes and the motes that reside in those of others.
Obviously, a goodly number of back-room deals will continue to be made. Very often, these will involve the apportionment and partitioning of small countries by big ones. From whom is this supposed to be a secret? Any leader of any superpower can "make peace" with enough leverage, and can even write (as is written in the Dayton agreement) that the deal is supposed to last for only one year or as long as it takes to become a re-elected person. It's not as if this fact is unknown to the small countries. It is when the thing has to be "sold" that the King James version is dusted off.
But why do we consider a public figure to be acting with more modesty rather than less when he quotes or misquotes a verse that nominates him as a child of God? These chaps are already in power. Their kingdom is already of this world. They don't just intend to inherit it, they think they own it and all that it contains. They did not get where they were by being meek. Give me the cheesemakers every time.
Christopher Hitchens writes the 'Fin De Siecle' column for 'Vanity Fair'
Neal Ascherson is ill