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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

What Is a Mormon?; Interview With Christopher Hitchens

Aired May 9, 2007 - 22:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone.
Weather is the lead tonight, on a night we're talking about God and politics and public life, there is weather of biblical proportions all across the country, including the remains of a wildfire that threatened Los Angeles and nearly overran a squad of L.A.'s bravest. We will talk to one of them tonight who had to fight his way out of this inferno.

Also: Mitt Romney's Mormon faith and what he says Reverend Al Sharpton said about it. Was it bigotry? And are evangelical voters intolerant when it comes to Mormons?

Plus: author Christopher Hitchens, who says not only is religion not a good thing; it is downright toxic -- his words. That's coming up.

We begin tonight with too much water in the middle of the country, not enough on both ends, and this: Subtropical Storm Andrea, the first named storm of the hurricane season coming, in fact, three weeks before hurricane season officially arrives.

It is wobbling a bit more than 100 miles off the coast of Florida, where they have got plenty of fire to deal with as well.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER (voice-over): Fires, fueled by drought, have scorched 195,000 acres in Florida since January, now burning in 54 of Florida's 67 counties. That's 220 separate fires across 78 square miles.

Bradford County, near the Georgia state line, has been hit hard, 250 homes evacuated, and the fires are only 20 percent contained. Tonight, firefighters from four states are battling the flames.

Florida is so dry, the governor, ironically, welcomed the first named storm of the season, Andrea.

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST (R), FLORIDA: And I just hope it's wet. I want it to be wet. And I want it to come in here. I want it to come in as soon as it can.

COOPER: The subtropical storm is making for some high surf, but isn't expected to cause much damage.

The California wildfire season is off to an early start, not usually a problem until June. Fires in the hills above Los Angeles cloaked the famous Hollywood sign in smoke. Firefighters worked through the night to save historic Griffith Park, and evacuated hundreds from nearby homes.

The dry Santa Ana winds and the tough terrain proved hard to beat, 800 acres burned. This is one of the driest seasons ever in the L.A. area.

In the Midwest, the opposite problem: water, water everywhere, ravaged by 25 tornadoes last week, this week, a record eight inches of rain in 24 hours. Twelve people died in the tornadoes, and at least two deaths are blamed on the flooding.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Folks are evacuating from this river community here.

COOPER: Parts of Kansas, Missouri, and Iowa are watching nervously as the waters rise. Some 20 levees on the Missouri River have breached.

Big Lake, Missouri, two miles from the river, is under water, after five levees protecting the town were toppled.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's not much you can do. When something like this, a natural disaster like this, happens, it's just unlucky.

COOPER: An unlucky and unfortunate spring for so many.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: As for the Griffith Park fire, officials are now saying they hope to have it fully contained by some time late tomorrow.

At its peak, it threatened several neighborhoods, the L.A. Zoo and, as you're seeing in this video, the lives of these firefighters right there, who literally had to literally battle their way out from beneath the bridge.

One of them, Will Heritier, joins me now on the phone.

Will, you know, this video is just incredible of you and your colleagues having to -- I mean, it looks like this flame just basically came incredibly close to you. What was going through your mind when the fire suddenly jumped up and seemed to swallow you guys up?

WILL HERITIER, LOS ANGELES FIRE DEPARTMENT: Yes. Sorry. I lost you there for a second.

But I think you were asking me how I felt when I saw the flames jump up. Yes, it happened real quickly. So, actually, we had discussed plans to escape if we had to do it that quickly. But it did happen real rapidly. And we know that can happen in a fire once the winds kick up.

COOPER: At what point did you know when the fire became too close? I mean, when did you know it was getting real dangerous? HERITIER: Well, our captain was really our lookout. He told us (AUDIO GAP) that moment would come. So, he had told us a way to get out.

We knew the way for us was (AUDIO GAP) over that bridge and escaping underneath it, the way we got up there. So, basically, when he told us it was time, we just dropped our equipment and we got out of there, because, yes, we could -- we could feel the heat and the flames were getting pretty close.

And I haven't seen the footage myself, but I heard, yes, it looked like it was getting a little close there. But we -- we got out there. Nobody was injured.

COOPER: It looks like one of the hoses was left behind there for a moment. When the flames jumped the bridge -- and I know you haven't seen the video -- we're looking at it right now, though -- did you guys run underneath the bridge?

HERITIER: Yes, I actually went over the bridge. One of my partners there from Station 34, he actually got cut off and kind of hid behind the footing of the bridge.

And I was trying to use the hose line to protect him when the actual heat of the fire actually ruptured the hose. So, I was trying to use what I had, but, unfortunately, I had lost my -- my actual hose stream there, yes.

COOPER: And then we're seeing a helicopter that comes over, basically douses the area and really seems to put out the flames. At that point, where are you? Are you still under the bridge?

HERITIER: Yes.

We were kind of just underneath the bridge. It was kind of a steep slope that we had to ascend to get up there. That was a quick way to get out. And we were just underneath the bridge.

I haven't seen the footage. I didn't realize there was a water drop. And, supposedly, that helped us out quite a bit. And then we just kind of stayed there until it kind of blew over. And we took a look. And we decided we couldn't do much more at that point. So, we -- then we went back down to the fire row there and to our fire apparatus to fight the fire from that vantage point.

COOPER: I mean, that's the amazing about what you guys do, is, I mean, even after an incident like this, you still go out there and continue to fight the fire, because it's still threatening homes.

How tough is it to communicate with one another when you're in a situation like this?

HERITIER: It's difficult.

There's a lot going on. And, also, there's a lot of noise. And we're right next to each other, but, with the sound of the fire whipping up, and also with the helicopters and our apparatus sirens, it gets very loud.

And you can focus in on something, and, sometimes, you don't really hear somebody right next to you. So, you have got to really scream or actually nudge somebody, let them know, hey, it's a dangerous situation, communicate that.

So, it is difficult, but it's crucial that we communicate in all these situations like this.

COOPER: Well, Will Heritier, appreciate what you're doing and all your colleagues there. And send our best to them. And I'm glad everyone got out of that incident in particular safely.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us, Will.

HERITIER: Thank you. Thank you very much.

COOPER: As we have seen tonight, wildfires are incredibly destructive, also deadly at times, extremely costly to extinguish. Here's the "Raw Data."

In 2005 alone, there were 66,552 wildfires in America, nearly 8.78 million acres burned. And, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, federal agencies spent more than $875 million trying to put them out.

Turning now to God and politics, faith is front and center in the presidential election, Republicans and Democrats alike making their spirituality a part of their campaigns. And we are going to deal with religion and politics in-depth tonight.

We begin with the battle between the only Mormon candidate in the race and a former candidate who is always outspoken and often controversial.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER (voice-over): Is the Reverend Al Sharpton questioning Mitt Romney's faith?

Listen to want he said about the Republican presidential candidate during a debate on God Monday night with atheist and author Christopher Hitchens.

AL SHARPTON, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: And, as for the one Mormon running for office, those that really believe in God will defeat him anyway. So, don't worry about that. That's a temporary...

(LAUGHTER)

SHARPTON: That's a temporary situation.

COOPER: Romney reacted to Sharpton's comments this morning on MSNBC. He did not mince words.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, MSNBC) MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I -- I can only, hearing that statement, wonder whether there's not bigotry that still remains in America. That's an extraordinary thing for someone to say. And I can't imagine what prompted him to say something of that nature. It's an extraordinarily bigoted kind of statement.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Tonight, Sharpton told Paula Zahn his remarks were misinterpreted, and that he was responding to Hitchens' assertion that, until the mid-1960s, the Mormons believed in the separation of the races.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "PAULA ZAHN NOW")

SHARPTON: The argument was over atheists. The argument was not about Mormon -- real believers, not atheists, was going to vote against him anyway, because I don't think Romney will win.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. But...

SHARPTON: But I think -- no, but I think what is interesting here is, I think now Mr. Romney, since I didn't bring this up -- Hitchens did -- has opened the door for me to say, well, wait a minute. Is Hitchens right?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Sharpton also said Romney must answer about his religion's past.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "PAULA ZAHN NOW")

SHARPTON: If, prior to '65, '78, whenever it was, they did not see blacks as equal, I don't believe that as real worshipers of God, because I don't believe God distinguishes between people. That's not bigotry. That is responding to their bigotry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: The controversy is far from over. And it's only part of the bigger picture of faith and the White House race, an issue that Romney is facing.

JONATHAN DARMAN, SENIOR WRITER AND POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "NEWSWEEK": Mormonism really hasn't had its moment in prime time yet. And if -- as Romney gains traction as a candidate, people are going to be talking more and more and more about what Mormons actually believe. And most of America really isn't familiar with some of those details. And Mitt Romney is going to be the vehicle for exploring that, which is a real risk if you're trying to be a front-runner in a presidential primary process.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well, the question of where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints fits in the public eye leads to another even more provocative one for a lot of people: Where does it fit in, if at all, within Christianity?

Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER (voice-over): What is a Mormon? And is a Mormon a Christian?

Delia Gallagher investigates.

Also, from a hopeless place, a hopeful voice.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I will try and explain why this is the best thing that could ever happen to me.

COOPER: He's talking about the disease that could kill him and the gift that it brought him, a story that is inspiring tens of thousands of people around the world -- coming up on 360.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: We have a separation of church and state. It's served us well in this country.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MODERATOR: OK.

ROMNEY: This is a nation, after all, that wants a leader that's a person of faith. But we don't choose our leader based on which church they go to. This is a nation which also comes together -- we unite over faith and over the right of people to worship as they choose.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: That, of course, was the former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney at last week's debate of Republican presidential candidates.

He's the only Mormon in the race. And his faith, more than any other part of his resume, has become a focus on the campaign trail.

In a moment, more of the controversy sparked by Al Sharpton's remarks.

But, first, some facts about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Here's CNN's Delia Gallagher.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN FAITH AND VALUES CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's one of the fastest growing denominations in America, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormon Church.

More than five million Americans call themselves Mormons. And most of them live in Utah, Arizona, and California. They have two holy texts, the Bible and the Book of Mormon, in it, new chapters on the story of Christ.

They believe that Jesus ministered in Central America. The Book of Mormon, they say, was divinely revealed in the 1820s to Joseph Smith, their prophet, who founded the church in Upstate New York.

TODD CHRISTOFFERSON, MORMON CHURCH ELDER: This angel was one of those who had lived anciently, and was one of the prophet who authored the book, and showed him where those records were buried and gave them to him for this translation that followed. So, he was commissioned by God himself and by Jesus Christ, his divine son, to establish once again the Church of Jesus Christ upon the Earth.

GALLAGHER: Religious persecution drove the early Mormons west to Utah. In 1890, the church abandoned one of its central doctrines, polygamy.

Mormons consider themselves Christians. They believe that Jesus was crucified and resurrected and that faith in him as the savior is paramount.

But other Mormon beliefs have always stirred controversy.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE, VICE PRESIDENT, ETHICS AND PUBLIC POLICY CENTER: What the Book of Mormon and what the Bible teaches are really divergent on some very key issues. And those differences are not minimal.

GALLAGHER: Mormons believe that the Bible has a number of what they call errors and that the Christian Church strayed from Jesus' message after the apostles died.

And, where Christian tradition considers the Bible the final word of God, Mormons believe otherwise.

CHRISTOFFERSON: Revelation continues. It's not for any one period in the history of the world, but that it continues from the beginning to the end of history. It's a continuing thing today.

GALLAGHER: Other beliefs have raised an eyebrow or two in Christian circles, like the idea that God has a physical body, or that there is no such thing as original sin, and the practice of baptisms of the dead.

CROMARTIE: Mainstream classical Orthodox Christian Church has -- has found and felt that Mormonism was not Christianity, that it was aberrant, in fact, that some denominations say it's a cult.

GALLAGHER: But Mormons insist they are living God's will.

CHRISTOFFERSON: I believe being a Mormon would mean someone who tries to -- with all his or her honest efforts, to follow the injunctions of prophets, the apostles and Jesus Christ himself. If there's anything lovely, of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.

GALLAGHER: And spreading the gospel is another priority. Young men and women are encouraged to do two years of missionary work.

CHRISTOFFERSON: Yes, I look back on that as one of the choice periods of my life. I made many wonderful friends and saw some come into the church. It was -- it was a choice experience. And I have invited and encouraged all my children to do the same. And it is part of our tradition, part of our belief.

GALLAGHER: A belief system and a tradition that has been attracting more and more new members.

Delia Gallagher, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: As we said earlier, the Reverend Al Sharpton claims that his recent remarks about Mitt Romney and his faith were taken out of context. Romney shot back today, calling the comments bigoted.

And that's where our "America Divided" segment begins tonight.

I talked earlier to CNN political contributor and Democratic strategist James Carville and Republican strategist Ralph Reed.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Ralph, Mitt Romney is suggesting that Al Sharpton is a bigot for what he said was an attack on Mormonism. Sharpton says the Romney camp is trying to fabricate a controversy to help their campaign.

What do you make of this?

RALPH REED, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, I think it's sad, honestly. I just think it's sad, and a very unfortunate comment.

I don't think there's any kind of place in politics for religious intolerance, in any of its ugly forms. And I think, if Governor Romney took it that way, then whatever Al Sharpton meant, I think the -- the best thing to do, and I think the most healing thing to do, so that we can have an uplifting dialogue about faith and the political and civic process, is for Reverend Sharpton to apologize.

COOPER: Do you see it as offensive?

REED: I do.

But my interpretation of the words, whatever the motivation was or whatever he intended, is that religion is being used as an instrument and a weapon, rather than as a force of healing and reconciliation. And none of us want that, Republican or Democrat, liberal or Republican, or liberal or conservative.

And, you know, John F. Kennedy, when he spoke to this when he ran in 1960, he made a very salient point. He said: Today, I am the victim. But, in the past and in the future, it may be a Unitarian. It may be a Quaker. It may be someone of another faith.

He could have said, it could be with a Mormon.

COOPER: James, is this about religion, or is this about politics?

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, I know Reverend Sharpton. He's a lot of things. Stupid is not one of them.

Anybody that knows anything know that Mormons devoutly believe in God. I agree with him. You could read it any way. I take him at his word, that he didn't mean it that way.

And my religious faith tells me, when people say that, you should take them at his word.

COOPER: It's interesting, Ralph.

You know, only one-third of Americans -- you look at surveys that were recently done about Americans' attitude toward Mormonism, one- third of Americans, 34 percent, think Mormons are Christian. Now, whether that's they simply don't know or that is a belief that they have, does it pose a problem for Romney, as he tries to court religious conservatives, as he tries to move forward in this election?

REED: No, I really don't think so.

And that same poll, Anderson, indicates that about the same number believe that they are Christian.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Do you believe they're Christian?

REED: My personal theological belief is -- is that it's the Bible, and you don't add to it or take away.

COOPER: Are Mormons Christians, in your opinion?

REED: Well, you know, again, my purpose is not to -- I have my own personal beliefs. And -- but I'm not really here to talk about what my beliefs are.

I'm here to talk about whether or not I think that somebody who has a different faith than I do, and doesn't share my theology, has just as much right to run for office, seek office, and hold elective office as anybody else.

COOPER: Are there many people in the evangelical community who do not view Mormons as Christian?

CARVILLE: Anderson, I would point out that the preferred name, I think, of their church is, is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

They certainly say they're Christians. I believe them. I take them at their word. Who am I to sit -- just like I'm -- who I am I to sit in judgment? I take the Reverend Sharpton at their word.

I think that the people, the folks in the Mormon Church or the Church of Latter Day Saints of Jesus Christ, they have a right to be called what they want. And they certainly do -- what little bit I know about Mormon theology -- I have read a couple of books on it -- they certainly do believe in Jesus Christ, and, so, if that -- that -- but, to the extent that that should matter to anyone.

But the main point here is, is that Mormons have served this country honorably and -- and with integrity for a long, long time, and that they should not -- I think any voter would be -- it would be a very big mistake not to vote for someone based on their faith or Mormon faith or any other faith.

COOPER: It's interesting, James.

Ralph mentioned John F. Kennedy. When he was a presidential candidate, as Ralph mentioned, obviously, Catholicism was a big issue.

CARVILLE: Right.

COOPER: He gave this very influential speech, part of which Ralph quoted from.

I want to play just a little sound bite from another part of the speech. Let's listen to that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN F. KENNEDY (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I do not speak for my church on public matters. And the church does not speak for me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: That really sort of changed that speech, was the beginning, I think, of changing the tide for the president.

CARVILLE: Right.

COOPER: Does a Mitt Romney have to make a kind of speech like that, where he addresses his faith?

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: Well, I don't know that -- I suspect that he may have to, certainly not for me or -- I think a lot of other people feel the same way. And I don't know how big of an issue this is going to be. But it's actually something that he has to be aware of. For me personally, I don't care about any religious test for anybody, and particularly someone of a church and a faith that have so many people who have served this country so honorably.

But it could be that he may have to do something similar to that. It's a shame that someone would have to do something like this in America in 2008. I hope that he doesn't, but he may have to.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: James Carville, Ralph Reed, interesting discussion, guys. Thank you.

CARVILLE: Appreciate it. Thank you.

REED: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Coming up next: He's taking on religion and taking on God.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "VANITY FAIR": If you insist on believing this, then, that's all right. But can't they do it at home? What I don't want is them telling me I have to believe it, too.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: See why bestselling author Christopher Hitchens believes that religion poisons everything it touches -- ahead on 360.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Well, before the break, we were talking about the firestorm between Mitt Romney and Reverend Al Sharpton.

Sharpton says his remarks that sparked the storm weren't aimed at Romney, who is Mormon. He says they were directed at the man he was debating at the time, Christopher Hitchens, an author, an outspoken atheist. The title of his latest book, "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything."

That pretty much sums up Hitchens' view of all things religion.

I talked to him recently.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: In the book "God Is Not Great," what is -- I mean, what is your problem with religion? I'm sure that you have been asked this question a million times. HITCHENS: Oh, yes, I have.

COOPER: I just want to read something from the book.

You said: "Religion poisons everything. As well as a menace to civilization, it's become a threat to human survival."

Why do you see religion as purely a destructive force?

HITCHENS: It can't keep itself to itself. It has to go out and try and convert others, try to impose itself on others.

For example, if you take one case, the present pope says, OK, AIDS in Africa is bad, but condoms, much worse. That is going to mean a lot of people will die for a dogma of this kind.

The present pope is also saying we should teach children about hell all over again. That's ruined the lives and childhoods of millions of people. It's a wicked thing to be saying. And it's a falsehood as well.

COOPER: But can you be...

HITCHENS: Cartoonists in Denmark can't do their job without death threats, believable ones, serious ones, attempts to sabotage the whole Danish economy.

Settlers on the West Bank are trying to bring on the messiah and try for Armageddon, and bring on the end of the world. They won't leave us alone. So, I think that it's time that people who are secular and skeptical banded together a bit and said, enough already.

COOPER: Do you see any benefit to believing in a God?

HITCHENS: I don't personally.

COOPER: Any positive impact on society?

HITCHENS: No.

I like religious music. And there are several religious poets. John Donne and George Herbert, I suppose, would be the main ones, without whom I couldn't do and I couldn't manage. Gothic architecture. Not so much devotional painting, I must say.

But that's cultural. And we owe religion a lot in that respect, for art. And, of course, we all have our transcendent moments. But I'm not going to be told what to do by people of so-called faith.

And I do think we have a perfectly good alternative tradition, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Albert Einstein, Spinoza, the rationalists, even the Greeks. Science is just as beautiful, if not more so.

COOPER: I want to read something else from the book: "Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge."

There are, though -- I mean, your view of religion seems to be the -- the extremes, or the fundamentalists in all faiths.

Do you not see anyone who believes in rationality or reason, who questions...

(CROSSTALK)

HITCHENS: I'm not talking about the extremists.

I mean, people like Aquinas and Augustine, the great fathers of the church, had no idea of germ theory of disease. So, they thought disease was a punishment, or a plague was a punishment from God for wickedness, or, sometimes, it had been started by the Jews.

They believed in astrology. They believed in limbo for the souls of unborn children. They -- they had no knowledge of the cosmos at all. They didn't even know that the Earth goes around the sun.

But we have minds. And, so, people will often prefer a conspiracy explanation to none at all.

COOPER: And, yet, though, today...

HITCHENS: Or a mad one to none at all.

But now we have outgrown all that. We don't need it. My kids know more about the natural order than Aquinas did.

COOPER: And, yet, people still want religion in their lives. They want a belief in their lives.

HITCHENS: I'm not trying to take it away from them.

They mustn't think that they have any divine permission to intervene in mine. That's where the law -- sorry -- the line will be crossed. And that's why I have written a book urging the secular to stick up for themselves more, in the confidence that there are many more of us than the religious people think.

COOPER: Would the world be a better place without religion?

HITCHENS: Certainly it would, yes, if such a thing were possible.

I really have to argue against myself, in a way, here. I know that that will never happen. And, in some ways, I would miss it if it all went away.

But this is an argument about all the most important things, where we come from, what's the meaning of life, what are our duties to one another so forth. I just think you can do this perfectly ethically without any appeal to the supernatural. And I think that's been proved repeatedly. You think of the character of people like Spinoza or Einstein, you're talking about morally exemplary people.

But, if you think of the character of about half of the known popes, imams, mullahs, rabbis and so on, you will find people -- incitements to most appalling evil and bigotry all over the place.

Northern Ireland has just recovered today from, what -- beginning to recover -- 25 years of too much religion.

COOPER: The book is "God Is Not Great." It is incredibly well- read -- written, and no doubt will provoke a lot of thought.

Appreciate it. Thanks for coming on.

HITCHENS: Very nice of you to say so.

COOPER: Thank you very much.

HITCHENS: Thanks for having me.

COOPER: Thanks.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Christopher Hitchens.

Straight ahead tonight, "Raw politics": another potentially embarrassing check written to Planned Parenthood, this time by the wife of a staunchly pro-life presidential candidate who has been taking heat for changing his mind.

Also tonight, this remarkable story:

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER (voice-over): From a hopeless place, a hopeful voice.

MILES LEVIN, CANCER PATIENT: I'll try and explain why this is the best thing that could ever happen to me.

COOPER: He's talking about the disease that could kill him and the gift that it brought him. The story that's inspiring tens of thousands of people around the world, coming up on 360.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: We've been looking tonight how faith co-exists with politics. Coming up, CNN's Tom Foreman has another angle. Here's a preview.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Polls show roughly half the country believes human beings were created in our present form by God.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Genesis is written as a ritual history. Why do we see this? Because there was an original sin because a real man in a real garden with a real tree and a real fruit, a real event really happened.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Certainly others don't see it that way. In our next hour of 360, a special, "What is a Christian? God, faith and Hard Science".

But first, we go to Washington for our daily dose of "Raw Politics". Tonight, a memory lapse, a flip-flop and a disappearing act are all part of the mix.

Here again, CNN's Tom Foreman.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: Anderson, the White House was brushing up on its magic act today, meaning what you did not see is what mattered.

(voice-over) In Kansas, the president toured the tornado's path. Not seen, at least not much, governor Kathleen Sebelius. White House watchers say she clearly infuriated the president by suggesting the war has left National Guards unprepared for natural disasters. You don't get into a photo-op after a crack like that.

Next, to Iraq, where Vice President Cheney met with Nuri Al- Maliki to urge progress on the war. Not seen, this was really an arm twisting session. When Dick Cheney comes to call, it means the White House is unhappy, and they want you to be, too.

Unhappy trails. Republican Mitt Romney's wife contributed $150 to Planned Parenthood in 1994, a group that supports abortion rights. The campaign confirms the donation, but she says she doesn't remember anything about it.

It's an issue, because now Romney opposes those rights and says states, not the Supreme Court, should decide on abortion law. The flip-flop crowd is screaming. Watch for fireworks when Romney gets in a war tomorrow night from a group that opposes abortion rights.

And who knew? The AP asked presidential contenders to name their hidden talents. Among the answers, Mike Huckabee, celebrity voice impersonations. Bill Richardson, a master of boxing trivia. Dennis Kucinich hits just as well against right-handers as left-handers.

And the best answer, Tom Tancredo. He says after 30 years in politics, he has no talent that has not been exploited.

And my hidden talent, knowing when I'm done. That's "Raw Politics" -- Anderson.

(END VIDEOTAPE) COOPER: Tom, thanks. Don't miss "Raw Politics" and the day's headlines on the new 360 daily podcast. You don't even need an iPod. You can watch it on your computer at CNN.om/AC360podcast. Or get it from the iTunes store, where it's a top download.

Still ahead O.J. Simpson goes into a steakhouse. What happened next is getting applause all across the country. We'll have details on that in our "360 Bulletin".

But first, many of you have read his blog. Now meet a teenager who is fighting cancer and is inspiring people around the world. That story is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: We want you to meet an extraordinary person. His name is Miles Levin. He's a teenager who's sharing his battle with cancer with the world. Miles is doing it with his blog, and it's full of humor, honesty, and the kind of courage that makes him an inspiration to all of us.

CNN's Carol Costello reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GRAPHIC: I'll try to explain why this is the best thing that could ever happen to me. There is only one path to greatness, and it runs through hell.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Miles Levin blogs away nearly everyday.

M. LEVIN: Frankly, I'm not convinced beyond convincing that there is a God. It would make a lot of sense that there wouldn't be.

COSTELLO: He doesn't have too much time: two years at the most.

M. LEVIN: What has happened to me is no more than a random DNA transcription error.

COSTELLO: But it's not. Cancer is killing him. He has so little time to make life matter.

M. LEVIN: I am 16. I have cancer. But there's been some sort of cosmic mix-up here; you've got the wrong guy.

COSTELLO: Instead of letting cancer get him down, he began to write. His candor, his gentle humor have become a touch-stone for thousands around the world who visit him online.

M. LEVIN: Before cancer, I wasn't really outstanding in any way. A nice guy perhaps, but I didn't have my act together at all and perhaps never would.

COSTELLO: Of course, when he began his blog, he had no idea he would hear from people in Asia and Brazil.

(on camera) I like how he says, "Sorry about my English."

(voice-over) Sam wrote to him, "Hey, buddy, you're in my thoughts and in my prayers. You're not a marshmallow guy like me. Talk to you soon."

Miles has blunt descriptions of what it's like to have cancer. His poetry in space landed on TV and on the radio.

LARRY KING, CNN ANCHOR: What really scared you was not the dying but to have no impact. My friend, you've had a major impact. Every morning when I start my show, I say make each and every day count. Each day is a gift. And certainly, nobody knows that better than you, Miles Levin.

COSTELLO: Recently, Miles made a trip to his school, Cranbrook (ph). He'd been absent for months, fighting his cancer. But with his blog, it was as if he were always there. His classmates raised money and began wearing T-shirts with his slogan, "Keep fighting, stop struggling."

ALEX PAVLOFF, MILES LEVIN'S CLASSMATE: I value every moment of my life because of what I've read on there.

COSTELLO: For Miles' family, especially his mother, his wisdom brings peace and wonder.

NANCY LEVIN, MILES' MOTHER: Some days, I still think I'm going to be able to get up and some days that I find a sense of peace and protection.

COSTELLO: A perfect child, a perfect life. So would you say that you've lived a full life then?

M. LEVIN: Yes. I'm in a place now that a lot of 78-year-old men find themselves, and that is looking at their life retrospectively. And it's a different view from here.

COSTELLO: His voice has become weak from cancer. But what he has to say is clear and loud and being heard around the world.

M. LEVIN: I have come to believe God put me on earth to get Stage 4 Aveolar Rhadbdomyosarcoma. Why? So that I could show the world how to have Stage 4 Aveolar Rhadbdomyosarcoma. Or rather, how to do closet to the worst thing that could possibly happen to me with as much strength and grace as I could manage. I promise to continue to be the best model I can.

COSTELLO: For as long as he can.

Carol Costello, CNN, Detroit.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Miles' story has generated an outpouring on the 360 blog. Here's just a small sampling of the e-mails coming in.

Debbie in Denham Springs, Louisiana, writes, "I feel like a monumental jackass for all the things I overlook, because I'm too busy mooning about my insignificant problems. Maybe that sounds like an overused sentiment, but what can I say? I don't think I've ever encountered a more beautiful soul than yours."

Tammy, also Louisiana, says, "How amazingly selfless and brave and honest. I think Miles Levin has figured out what some people never do about life. I don't know. Maybe sharing his fight to live and his acceptance of the unacceptable was part of his destiny. Maybe his life was about teaching others to live, not just survive."

Was and still is, Tammy.

And this from Lorie Ann in Buellton, California: "I think we all need to stop looking to the future and relish the moments, minutes and seconds, all right now. You so beautiful captured that feeling with your words. My thoughts are with you."

And ours are with him, as well.

As always, we welcome your feedback. Just go to CNN.com/360blog. Follow the links and weigh in.

Still ahead tonight, more of the story that is getting a lot of bloggers' attention, what presidential candidate Mitt Romney says the Reverend Al Sharpton said about his Mormon faith.

Plus, dispatches from the edge. Tonight, a land of stark contradictions. Rich soil filled with diamonds and gold; yet many are dying. We'll have an update.

And our "Shot of the Day". How would you like this guy roaming around your back yard? Well, find out what happens next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Here at 360, we've made a commitment to keep you informed about the parts of the world that often go unnoticed. We take you right into danger zones, because we feel it's important to know the truth, to know the reality of our world.

Recently, a new report from the Save the Children organization caught our eye. It says that every year more than 10 million kids die around the world before the age of 5. Some of the highest number of deaths are in the central area -- central Africa, specifically the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Tonight, we take you back there as part of our ongoing series, "Dispatches from the Edge".

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) COOPER (voice-over): There are moments in the Congo when you find it hard to believe that a place like this really exists. In the Congo, you can feel the earth. You smell it, the rawness, the thin line between life and death.

There's some things you see, some things you hear that simply are unbelievable. Women gang raped who now have to hide because of the stigma they face. You look in their eyes. There's nothing you san say. "I'm sorry" sounds so small.

Everywhere you go, you're surrounded, curious kids, smiling stares. They run alongside your car, yelling "Mazungu, mazungu," white guy, white guy. You can't help but laugh.

There is corruption. There's fighting, rebel armies that rape and loot. Decades of rulers here have failed the people.

But the people are the strength of this land, the burdens they bear every day, uphill and down. I know I'm not as strong as them. Men, women, children. Here, no one gets a break.

It is unconscionable, when you think about it, that this land, which is so rich, remains so poor. In the ground, there's gold. There's diamonds, tin and coltan. You can chisel it out with simple tools, sometimes even with your bare hands.

But the riches are squandered. They're siphoned off, lost for good. They have been for generations.

The mountains, the forest, lush, green, but threatened. The mountain gorilla is their best hope for a future. You can sit within feet of them. They're as curious about us as we are of them.

There is something about the Congo that gets under your skin: the pulse of life, the throb of pain. Millions have died here, though few seem to have noticed. How many more millions will it take before something is done?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: We filed that dispatch last October. Since then, in just the last few months, in fat, some 113,000 people have had to flee from that area in Eastern Congo because of warfare. That's where the government army is fighting Rwandan rebels based in the area.

Families are literally on the run. This week, we read a story that a mother buried her 6-year-old son in a forest. He died of starvation because of the fighting.

The U.N. warns today, quote, "The next six months are going be a disaster. It is going to be catastrophic." It is a troubled country, and we have been warned.

You can read more about my reporting from the Congo and other places in my book, "Dispatches from the Edge". It is just out in paperback this week. It's now in bookstores everywhere and has a new chapter, if you read the hardcover, which talks about my experiences in the Congo this past year.

In a moment, something to make you smile, "The Shot of the Day". An unwelcome visitor to one neighborhood. We'll show you what happened to this big beast.

But first, Erica Hill from Headline News has the "360 News and Business Bulletin" -- Erica.

ERICA HILL, HEADLINE NEWS: Anderson, President Bush went to Greensburg, Kansas, today to get a look at the devastation from last week's deadly tornado, which killed ten people and flattened most of that town.

President Bush says he was moved by the strength of the survivors, who are willing to do what it takes to rebuild.

Vice President Cheney spent the day in Iraq on an unannounced visit. Cheney was at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad when an explosion shook windows. At a news conference, he didn't talk about it directly but did say that everybody recognizes there are still serious security problems. He also said he believes there is a greater sense of urgency among Iraqis for progress.

The Federal Reserve deciding not to change a key interest rate, instead letting it stand at 5.25 percent. In its statement, the Fed made note of a slowing economy but said its No. 1 concern remains inflation.

And O.J. Simpson not exactly getting a warm welcome in Louisville. When he came to town for the Kentucky Derby, the owner of an upscale steakhouse there kicked Simpson out of his restaurant after telling the ex-football star he's sick of the attention he was getting.

The owner says people applauded when Simpson left, but his lawyer claims it was all about racism and says the owner, quote, "screwed with the wrong guy."

Strong words, Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, goodness.

Moving on from that, time for "The Shot of the Day". Residents of Hampton, Connecticut, got a surprise yesterday morning. This 200- pound black bear roaming their streets, their backyards, going through their garbage cans. There he is. Yes, he was hit with rubber bullets.

He climbed up a tree and then was hit with a tranquilizer dart and went to sleep. There you see him sleeping. Carefully removed from the tree. Maybe not so carefully, OK, slowly lowered down.

HILL: Back in the woods, right?

COOPER: He went back to the woods. HILL: He's kind of cute with the little tongue hanging out there of his mouth. It was actually kind of -- that reminds me of another bear.

COOPER: Oh, yes?

HILL: One of your favorite bears, I think. Do we have it? There it is. There it is, a little throwback from, what, 2003, I think it was. A couple of years ago. That guy also doing OK, I hear.

COOPER: Bear on trampoline is good. But I see your bear on trampoline and I raise you a bear that just fell to the ground, actually into a net. A couple months ago, I think it was, Maplewood, New Jersey, a 400-pound black bear shimmied 50 feet up a tree. They tranquilized. It fell safely into the net there.

HILL: Thankfully.

COOPER: They think it came from a nearby wildlife preservation. So...

HILL: Good to know that all the bears who provide us with such interesting video, all doing all right.

COOPER: And they're all plotting their next attack on our civilization.

HILL: Pretty much, or they may be coming after us for replaying that video over and over.

COOPER: We will remain ever vigilant, Erica. Thank you very much. We want you to send us your "Shot" ideas. If you see some amazing video or some bears shimmying up a tree, get out the tranquilizer dart, get out the camera. Give us a call. E-mail us at CNN.com/360. We'll put some of your best clips on the air. If they involve a bear, it's a guarantee.

Just ahead, Mother Nature hammers the country from one end to the other. Fires in California and in Florida, flooding in the Midwest. And something big swirling off the coast. More than three weeks before hurricane season even begins. What is going on? We'll have the latest.

Plus, the clash between faith and science. Where do you stand? A 360 special, "What is a Christian?" Coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Cavemen and dinosaurs living side by side? That question and others from the intersection of God, faith, and hard science. A 360 special, "What is a Christian", coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: You're watching the only live newscast on cable right now. Tonight, entire towns flooded, others facing a wall of flames. Extreme weather from one end of the country to another.

Also, the defense secretary's new word on Iraq. Is he lowering the bar and raising the possibility of declaring victory and getting out? We'll investigate that.

Plus, allegations of bigotry leveled at Al Sharpton by presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who says Sharpton took a swipe at his Mormon faith.

All that coming up, starting with the wrong weather in all the wrong places. Hot and dry in Los Angeles, and where tonight, the blaze in Griffith Park is coming under control. Officials there allowing nearby residents back into their homes. They expect full containment by late tomorrow.

Much worse all across Florida, fires now burning in 54 of the state's 67 counties. It's gotten so bad that today Governor Charlie Crist actually welcomed Andrea, the first named storm of the hurricane season, which is arriving three weeks before the season actually begins.

"I just hope it's wet," the governor said. "I want it to come in here as soon as it can."

In the Midwest, on the other hand, everyone from governors on down is hoping for just the opposite. Reporting for us tonight, CNN's Ed Lavandera.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Big Lake, Missouri, normally has a population of just about 125. Right now, its population is 1, Don Gilmore.

DON GILMORE, BIG LAKE, MISSOURI, RESIDENT: Population one, the stubborn one.

LAVANDERA: We found Gilmore as two officers with the Missouri state water patrol gave us a tour of the flood damage. When the floodwaters poured in, people were urged to evacuate. Gilmore refused to budge.

(on camera) Your wife took off.

GILMORE: Oh, yes. Peace!

LAVANDERA: Is she coming back?

GILMORE: Oh, yes, she calls me every day and I report in.

LAVANDERA: Most people here haven't seen this damage up close, like this. As we floated through town, we saw dozens of homes, partially submerged. Some places swamped in five to six feet of water. Chin-high on this wooden statue. Big Lake flooded after several levees along the Missouri River were breached. Cleaning up will take months. Patio decks are floating in the middle of the lake.

GILMORE: Floating upright with seats. Looks like it belongs out there.

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