Bono's crusade comes to DC

As lunch ended in the ornate U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee conference room, Sen. Jesse Helms struggled to stand and bid farewell to the guest of honor.

Bono stayed at the conservative patriarch's right hand, doing what he could to help. For the photographers, it would have been hard to imagine a stranger image than this delicate dance between the aging senator and the rock superstar.

"You know, I love you," Helms said softly.

The singer gave the 79-year-old Helms a hug. This private session with a circle of senators during U2's recent Washington stop wasn't the first time Bono and Helms have discussed poverty, plagues, charity and faith. Nor will it be the last. Blest be the ties that bind.

"What can I say? It's good to be loved -- especially by Jesse Helms," Bono said two days later, as his campaign for Third World debt relief continued on Capitol Hill.

The key to this scene is that Bono can quote the Book of Leviticus as well as the works of John Lennon. While his star power opens doors, it is his sincere, if often unconventional, Christian faith that creates bonds with cultural conservatives -- in the Vatican and inside the Beltway. Bono has shared prayers and his sunglasses with Pope John Paul II. Don't be surprised if he trades boots and Bible verses with President George W. Bush.

The hot issues right now are red ink and AIDS in Africa. An entire continent is "in flames," said Bono, and millions of lives are at stake. God is watching.

The bottom line is that the Bible contains 2,000 verses about justice and compassion. While it's crucial to answer political and economic questions linked to forgiving $200 billion in Third World debts, Bono said this also must be seen as a crisis of faith. The road into the heart of America runs through its sanctuaries.

"What will really wake people up," he said, "is when Sunday schools start making flags and getting out in the streets. ... Forget about the judgment of history. For those of you who are religious people, you have to think about the judgment of God."

Bono knows that this bleak, even melodramatic, message sounds bizarre coming from a rock 'n' roll fat cat. In a recent Harvard University commencement address, he said the only thing worse than an egotistical rock star is a rock star "with a conscience -- a placard-waving, knee-jerking, fellow-traveling activist with a Lexus and a swimming pool shaped like his own head."

This is old news to Bono, who has had a love-hate relationship with stardom for two decades. In U2's early days, other Christians said the band should break up or flee into "Christian rock," arguing that fame always corrupts. Bono and his band mates decided otherwise, but the singer soon began speaking out about his faith and his doubts, his joys and his failures.

"I don't believe in preaching at people," he told me, back in 1982. A constant theme in his music, he added, is the soul-spinning confusion that results when spirituality, sensuality, ego and sin form a potion that is both intoxicating and toxic. "The truth is that we are all sinners. I always include myself in the 'we.' ... I'm not telling everybody that I have the answers. I'm trying to get across the difficulty that I have being what I am."

Eventually, Bono acted out this internal debate on stage. In the 1990s he celebrated and attacked fame through a sleazy, macho, leather-bound alter ego called The Fly. After that came Mister MacPhisto, a devilishly theatrical take on mass-media temptation. The motto for the decade was, "Mock Satan and he will flee thee."

Today, U2 has all but dropped its ironic posturing and the soaring music of this tour covers sin and redemption, heaven and hell, mercy and grace. Bono is quoting from the Psalms and the first Washington concert ended with him shouting: "Praise! Unto the Almighty!"

It wasn't subtle and it wasn't perfect. Crusades rarely are.

"I do believe that the Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force," said Bono, paraphrasing the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 11. "God doesn't mind if we bang on the door to heaven sometimes, asking him to listen to what we have to say. ... At least, that's the kind of religion I believe in."