Bono's New Tune
Born to a Roman Catholic father and a Protestant mother in the sectarian strife of 1960s Ireland, U2 frontman and beaucoup Grammy winner Bono has more than a few reasons to distrust organized religion.
Far too often, Bono did not see his experience of Christian faith reflected in what he saw as a preachy moralism that neglects the poor and usually "gets in the way of God."
So Bono was as surprised as anyone to find himself the keynote speaker at the Feb. 2 National Prayer Breakfast. Not only that, he was extolling churches and faith communities for their efforts in his global crusade to rescue Africa from disease, debt and economic destruction.
"I have avoided religious people for most of my life," Bono told more than 3,000 mostly evangelical attendees. Later, he sheepishly admitted that he has "started to like these church people."
Bono's band, U2, was the runaway big winner at Wednesday's Grammys, taking home five awards including the coveted album of the year honor for How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.
After years of running from organized religion, Bono says he can now embrace it, warts and all, as a pragmatic partner. And especially in the United States, Bono recognizes that any effort at social change must include an appeal to Americans' faith-based instincts.
Bono credits religious groups for progress in his humanitarian campaign, and the newfound alliance suggests that (his most famous lyrics notwithstanding) perhaps he has finally "found what I'm looking for" -- a partner he can work with.
During a meeting with a half-dozen reporters after his speech, Bono munched on muffins and cantaloupe as he mused about the role of Christian faith generally, and the church's infrastructure specifically, in confronting famine, disease and poverty.
His strategy seems to be threefold.
For one, Bono brings his own personal faith to bear, one that is deeply personal and not necessarily shaped by the four walls of the church. He finds hope in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, inspiration in the Hebrew prophets and solace in the idea of undeserved grace.
Although U2's lyrics have been picked apart for their explicit and implicit Christian imagery, Bono has sometimes been reluctant to embrace the "Christian" label for himself, often because of his own shortcomings.
And he's the first to admit he's not a theologian. "I appreciate the absurdities of being a rock star quoting the Scriptures," he said.
Nonetheless, he can quote entire sections of Scripture -- he used his childhood Bible to prepare for the prayer breakfast speech -- and talks in terms of national "tithing" on foreign aid, and the Bible's 2,100-plus verses on poverty.
"This is the leprosy of our age," Bono said, linking HIV/AIDS with the plagues of Jesus' day. Speaking in a hotel room after the breakfast, he said, "It couldn't be more poignant, from a scriptural point of view, that this is on God's mind, that this is Jesus' point of view."
For years, many evangelicals -- Bono's target audience at the breakfast -- weren't sure what to make of the drinking, partying, salty-mouthed Irishman and his rock band.
In recent years, much of that skepticism has fallen away. "He's a doer," President Bush said of Bono at the breakfast. "The thing about this good citizen of the world is he's used his position to get things done."
"He's ready to be used by God in whatever ways he can," said the Rev. Richard Cizik, the Washington-based director for the National Association of Evangelicals, "and if we were all so willing, the world would be a better place."
Bono's personal faith affects and informs the second thrust of his work, which is an appeal for a 21st-century reimagining of Christian essentials. It's an effort to sidestep divisive issues of sexual morality and partisan politics for a return to caring for the "least of these."
He has openly criticized Western governments for not spending more on foreign aid, especially for drugs that treat AIDS, schooling for African children and mosquito nets to prevent the spread of malaria.
"God will not accept that," Bono chided the prayer breakfast guests. "Mine won't, at least. Will yours?"
Bono's work with churches reflects how politically savvy he is and underscores his additional goal, which is harnessing the power of American religion to shape the outcome of American politics, or at least the U.S. budget.
Bono has worked with Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton, conservative religious broadcaster Pat Robertson and progressive preacher Jim Wallis. America's strong religious identity has actually made it easier for him to preach his social gospel here than in Europe, which is now largely secular, he said.
Star-Telegram Staff Writer Malcolm Mayhew contributed to this report.