Do you believe in magic?

Do you believe like I believe? Do you believe, believer? Do you believe like I believe? Do you believe in magic?

— The Lovin' Spoonful

A distant relative was a fervid churchgoer. She had zero doubt that Jesus could, if he were of a mind, get her husband a raise, improve her kids' grades and save her from a bad hair day. One day she and my mother were driving around at the mall, looking for a place to park.

"Jesus, we need a parking place," the woman said. "Jesus, send us a parking space."

Finally, my mother could stand no more.

"Mary," she said gently. "Don't you think Jesus has more important things to worry about than getting us a parking place?"

Many people who think more deeply than the glue on a two-cent stamp see a line between religious faith and magical thinking. The former is usually held to involve a community of believers, a moral vision, a theology that informs our sense of place in the scheme of things. The latter is thought of more along the lines of lucky pennies, black cats and a belief common to compulsive gamblers and baseball managers, namely, that our thoughts can directly affect the outcome of real-world events.

This goes way back. When Zig, a caveman, discovered one day that he did not get eaten by a saber-toothed cat after crossing his fingers, he filed CROSS FINGERS away for future use, thus inventing magical thinking. Zag, his neighbor, told Zig of a supernatural being he could petition through rituals for new, improved protection from saber-toothed cats. Of course, he'd have to worship the being, forsake all others and pay dues. Zag thus invented organized religion.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. But we still get these things mixed up. Consider Sarah Palin's plea to Alaskans to pray for that $30 billion national gas pipeline those energy companies want to build in Alaska.

"I think God's will has to be done in unifying people and companies to get that gas line built, so pray for that," Alaska's governor said in June.

Who knew the creator of the universe had such a keen interest in that pipeline? And if it's his divine will, does he really need the help of a few Alaskans?

Now they want to run a liquefied natural gas pipeline through the Upper Rogue. The almighty's stance on this one is evidently unclear, since neither side brought it up Wednesday night at that meeting in Shady Cove. Maybe at $850 million the project doesn't meet the threshold for God's attention. Or maybe he's busy with, I don't know, black matter, dark energy and the fate of the expanding universe.

Imagine the magical thinking going on Thursday night in Corvallis when Southern Cal played Oregon State, which wasn't supposed to have, well, a prayer. Maybe they know something.

You can bet President Bush is praying for Wall Street. Bush (along with Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke) also wants Congress to give him $750 billion to throw at the Street. And to agree that what the Adminstration does with the money "may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency," which is a sort of wish for magical powers.

Say a prayer for that $750 billion. Much of it will wind up in the hands of the same Wall Streeters who took billions in bonuses for slicing and dicing all those flaky mortgages into the weird financial instruments that started the meltdown in the first place.

But for Bush and his pals, including John McCain's economic guru, Phil Gramm, and his fellow true believers, deregulation always was a belief in a specific kind of magic. As Chief Dan George once said, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Me, I'm rubbing my lucky penny.

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