In the hours after Osama bin Laden's death, cyber-scribes unleashed a Twitter storm of biblical proportions, posting epistles at rates reported to have hit 4,000 a second. Apparently, 140 characters is a great fit for Bible quotations. The most popular post-Osama Bible tweets, as charted by Stephen Smith at OpenBible.info, quickly divided into two theological camps.
Some quickly offered passages such as Proverbs 21:15, which proclaims: "When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers." Another popular tweet was Proverbs 11:10: "When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices; when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy."
Others, however, declined to celebrate and quoted verses such as Ezekiel 18:23: "Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?" Some favored Romans 12:19: "Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord."
The No. 1 verse sounded this same sobering tone: "Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice (Proverbs 24:17)."
This was the verse Public Religion Research Institute personnel spotted and quickly wove into a survey probing the national mood after the death of the world's most famous terrorist. To be specific, the pollsters asked: "Scripture says, 'Do not rejoice when your enemies fall.' Do you believe this passage applies to how Americans should react to the death of Osama bin Laden, or not?"
The result was a strong coalition that crossed religious, political and ethnic lines, with 60 percent of those polled believing this verse applied in this case. At the same time, 65 percent were sure, to one degree or another, that bin Laden was locked in hell for eternity.
However, the details of this survey -- conducted in cooperation with Religion News Service -- contained a surprise for those inclined to think that most conservative believers would be dancing in church aisles after hearing this news bulletin.
Instead, 66 percent of white evangelical Protestants said "do not rejoice when your enemy falls" applied to bin Laden -- compared to 53 percent of those from liberal "mainline" Protestant denominations. At the same time, 70 percent of those polled from "minority" churches -- mostly African-American evangelicals and charismatic Latinos -- said it was improper to celebrate in these circumstances.
Believers from the biblically conservative flocks were, however, more likely to believe God played a direct role in bin Laden's defeat, with 54 percent of white evangelicals and 51 percent of minority Christians taking that stance.
"It's a careful line that they are drawing, but that line is quite clear" in the survey results, said Robert P. Jones, chief executive officer at the Public Religion Research Institute.
Members of the more conservative religious groups, he said, seem to be saying "what transpired was guided, in some way, by the hand of God. But at the same time they're saying that this is not something that they, as believers, should be celebrating. ... That's not up to us, in other words."
Many evangelical commentators offered variations on this dual message after bin Laden's sudden demise during a U.S. raid on his secret compound in Pakistan. The response by R. Albert Mohler, Jr., the outspoken president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., was typical.
"While we should all be glad that this significant threat is now removed, death in itself is never to be celebrated. Such celebration points to the danger of revenge as a powerful human emotion. Revenge has no place among those who honor justice," he noted. "The reason for this is simple -- God is capable of vengeance, which is perfectly true to his own righteousness and perfection -- but human beings are not. ...
"All people of good will should be pleased that bin Laden is no longer a personal threat, and that his death may further weaken terrorist plans and aspirations. ... But open patriotic celebration in the streets? That looks far more like revenge in the eyes of a watching world, and it looks far more like we are simply taking satisfaction in the death of an enemy. That kind of revenge just produces greater numbers of enemies."