If you curled up in front of the TV on Tuesday, you saw members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, pair up like awkward fourth-graders at the school dance.
"The night of polite" became an underlying theme of President Barack Obama's State of the Union evening — a bipartisan effort to muddy the clichés of talk radio and cable TV.
But if you had ventured into a bone-chilling rain and pointed yourself toward The Temple in midtown Atlanta that same evening, you might have seen the real thing: A Muslim scholar — one of the world's best — explaining the Quran from the pulpit of a major synagogue.
In front of him was a mixed audience of 200 or so. Not of Republicans and Democrats, but Jews and Muslims, men and women, some in yarmulkes and some in hajibs. With the occasional bare-headed gentile thrown in for good measure.
The purpose in Atlanta was the same as in Washington — an attempt to escape the cartoon corner we have painted ourselves into.
On one hand, we sit on a globe splintered by politics, terrorism and at least three religions with histories that collectively stretch several thousand years. And yet, at this very moment, America's most influential theologian may be Glenn Beck. The world can be a very silly place.
The two-hour session, "Understanding the Quran," was sponsored by the Southeast division of the Anti-Defamation League, headed by former TV journalist Bill Nigut, and the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta, led by Soumaya Khalifa.
Ice-breakers were tossed out — quips about things that American Muslims and Jews hold in common. For instance, a shared sense of not knowing what to do with themselves during Christmas. And a new governor of Alabama, who recently said that he views only Christians as his true brothers and sisters. (The statement was quickly retracted.)
But the main attraction was Joseph Lumbard, chair of Islamic and Middle East studies at Brandeis University. He addressed those troublesome Quranic verses, like this one:
"Slay the idolaters wheresoever ye find them. Capture them. Besiege them. And lie in wait for them at every place of ambush."
Many Islamic scholars, Lumbard said, have judged that the verse is directed at a specific rival tribe in the deep past, and should not be used to justify terroristic acts in our world.
The Quran even has a verse acknowledging the likelihood of its own false prophets: "There will rise among this nation a people whose prayer will make you think little of your prayer," Lumbard recited. "They recite the Quran, but it does not go past their throats."
The first question from the audience was obvious. Where, the first interrogator asked Lumbard, were Islam's moderates? They exist, and carry great weight in the Muslim world, he replied. But they are terrible at public relations. Another query: Is there an important difference between Sunni and Shiite? Yes, and far more than can be explained in a single evening, he said.
But the evening boiled down to religion and citizenship. Nigut, in his deep bass, took up the question of the separation of church and state — using Jesus' admonition in the New Testament to render unto Caesar. Do Muslims have something similar?
Lumbard's answer would have given comfort to many conservative Christians tired of Thomas Jefferson's wall. "There isn't what we would consider to be a separation of church of state," he said. "Sometimes it works out that way, but from a Quranic perspective, there isn't that."
Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Congregation Bet Haverim, on stage to balance the question-and-answer session, shifted in his chair. "What you're saying makes Jewish Americans nervous," he admitted.
Nigut pointed out the irony. Many Christian Americans, polls show, remain suspicious of Jewish loyalty to Israel.
In the audience, Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta picked up the theme. Last year, Lewis delivered a fiery sermon that has become well known inside and outside Jewish circles.
"From Fort Hood to Bali, from Times Square to London, from Madrid to Mumbai, from 9/11 to Gaza, the murderers, the barbarians, are radical Islamists. To camouflage their identity is sedition. To excuse their deeds is contemptible. To mask their intentions is unconscionable," the rabbi declared in October.
On this evening, Lewis — pointedly but politely — asked Lumbard whether Muslims in America considered themselves U.S. citizens.
Muslim minorities, Lumbard said, are "basically obligated to follow the laws of that particular state. Will your alliances lie with your religion before the country? Yes, they will," he added. But the same rule applies in Islamic countries — creating the same tensions.
Lewis tried again. "I know that, at the Olympics, when I see the American get a gold medal and they play 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' I cry," the Marietta rabbi said. "So my question is, if an American Muslim sees somebody getting a gold medal for the United States and they play 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' do they cry?"
"I cry," the Muslim scholar assured him.
The evening closed with a reminder from a member of the audience. Perhaps he was of Pakistani extraction. A recent British study has found that home-grown Islamic terrorists are drawn, not from those well-versed in their religion, but from those who are fresh to the faith — and don't understand its nuances.
A good reason for disposing of cartoons.