Sydney Morning Herald

By Jacqueline Maley

In 1970, Jack Miles, God's biographer, left the Jesuit order after 10 years as a seminarian. But even though he quit religion, religion did not quit him. "I joined the Jesuit order for reasons, although I didn't realise it at the time, that were not authentically religious," the 68-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner says now.

"I came from a working class background. The men I knew did not have careers. They had jobs, and they were anxious to leave them at the end of the day. The Jesuits did have careers, they were doing something they thought was important. They were intellectuals."

As the Chicago-born Miles likes to say, the Jesuits made him an intellectual and the intellectuals made him an ex-Jesuit. But after leaving the order, he remained preoccupied with questions of religion.

Miles has spent his life studying, writing and thinking about it, with his interest culminating in the 1995 publication of his highly-acclaimed book God: A Biography, for which he won the Pulitzer.

In it Miles treated God as a literary protagonist, using the Hebrew Bible as his primary resource. He followed God's character development throughout the Old Testament - His hope when He created life, His disappointment in Adam and Eve, the anger which led Him to unleash the flood, and His remorse over the antics of his human creations.

Six years later Miles followed up with Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, based on how Jesus was portrayed in the New Testament. He is the general editor of the forthcoming Norton Anthology of World Religions, a regular contributor to papers including the Los Angeles Times (where he has served as literary editor) and the The New York Times, a professor of English and religious studies and fellow for religious affairs with the Pacific Council on International Policy. He is now working on a book about the Koran.

Spiritually, Miles toyed with atheism for a while, then "a kind of Buddhist-flavoured practice of meditation" before returning to his Christian roots and joining the Episcopalian church, the American version of Anglicanism.

He felt he could not go back to Catholicism because he could not accept the concentration of all power in the papacy. Miles is critical of the "monarchical" structure of the Catholic church, and says it is responsible at least in part for the widespread nature of the global child sex abuse scandal within the church.

"It's a crisis of the plausibility of the Roman Catholic church authority," he says of the sex abuse issue.

"I see absolutely no willingness on the part of the current Pontiff or his curial entourage in making any change ... so I would anticipate that the possibility that such abuses could continue."

In Sydney this week as a guest of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Miles gave a lecture about the use of Islam as a religious weapon against President Barack Obama. Miles quotes research showing 18 per cent of the general US population and 41 per cent of Republican voters believe Obama is an illegal Muslim immigrant.

In fact Obama is a US-born citizen and an adult convert to Christianity, but as Miles asks, an American president can be any religion he likes, so why does it matter?

Miles argues that the "secret Muslim" rumours are a deliberate attempt by elements within the American right-wing to de-stabilise the President, and to give voice to Americans who believe there is something "not quite right" about him.

Open racism is no longer acceptable in mainstream American society, Miles says, so the phoney Muslim issue serves as a convenient cover for those who do not trust Obama because he is black.

Obama has not publicly confronted these misapprehensions about him, preferring until now to let his more radical opponents talk themselves out of air. But idle talk has a way of hardening into fact in the minds of some, according to Miles.

"If you say 'rumours are flying', then the fact they are flying so thick and fast becomes a type of authority. When there's this much smoke there must be fire," Miles says.

He believes that now might be a good time for Obama to address the issue, coming as it does at a tense moment in US-Islam relations. Controversy over a planned Islamic centre in Manhattan a couple of blocks from the Ground Zero site has reached fever pitch. A church pastor in Gainesville, Florida, had planned to publicly burn the Koran today to mark the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, and there is anxiety among US Muslims that their biggest religious celebration, Eid, falls on the same ill-fated day.

"Relations between world Islam and the United States of America do lie close to the centre of what is at least one of the larger cultural encounters of our time, and one that must come to a satisfactory resolution," Miles told his Sydney audience this week. "For now, the outcome of this encounter seems troublingly uncertain."