Winning Souls and Winning Votes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Miami. -- I learned the power of religion -- I don't mean just the allure or mystique, but the combustive, life-altering force -- some 20 years ago, from a monk assisting at weekday mass in the Cathedral of St. John-in-Lateran in Rome. A priest had begun the introductory prayers in Latin: "I will go unto the altar of God." And the monk responded, "to God who gladdens my youth."

Juventutem meam, he said, distinctly and with feeling. My youth.

He was 81.

From that day, you'd never catch me writing that religion is out of place in civic life, in politics, in governance, or in anything else. To those whose lives are fueled by belief -- to people still young at 81 because they're scarcely at the threshold of eternity -- there's no corner of life where faith is irrelevant. You might as well tell them the sky has no place in civic life. It's not something you can just lay aside.

This is a useful thing to understand if you worry, as I do, that religion is being abused in American politics.

I'm not especially worried about any harm that religion might do to politics, which most of the time is just a silk-tie version of professional wrestling, hardly something whose innocence needs defending. I'm worried about the harm that politics is doing to religion, about the way in which real faith is being distorted, merchandized and degraded as a way of gaining power in a mean and phony age.

This isn't, I know, an invention of modern America. It was surely worse in the past, when Christianity was tortured into justifying segregation and anti-Semitism, demonizing Native Americans, opposing the gold standard, alternately supporting and denouncing the New Deal, and hunting down supposed communists.

But back then, at least, fake religion was crude, brazen and ugly. You saw the fangs on the dragon, and you knew what you were up against. People of real faith recoiled, and voices of prophecy managed, now and again, to inspire reform.

Today, the cool glow of television has bathed guerrilla religion in the blue haze of rapture.

Savvier in the ways of marketing and electronic seduction, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the American Family Association's David Caton and Operation Rescue's Randall Terry, among others, have learned to coo and smile and meow the scriptures until their real message -- "despise thine enemy; vilify those with whom you disagree" -- seems to hum with the harmony of angels.

Ten years ago Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, a devout if beleaguered Roman Catholic, sniffed the early signs of this trend. In a speech to the theology faculty at the University of Notre Dame, he begged for a refocusing on religion's real civic mission: to build a faithful society by nurturing faithful souls, not by denouncing those who disagree. So far, his early warning has floated out there mostly alone, and to an alarming degree forgotten.

This is what Governor Cuomo told the theology professors in 1984: Once religions try to suborn government into enforcing their doctrines, they will lose their true followers and lure a congregation of society's most extreme and repressive elements.

And governments are notoriously fickle: A religion that wields the state's power today could find itself the target of another religion's political ascendancy tomorrow.

"We know," Mr. Cuomo said, "that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might someday force theirs on us."

This campaign season, we have seen the million-member Christian Coalition gathered in Washington for a triumphant annual convention. The Rev. Pat Robertson sized up the group and its political fortunes this way:

"We are seeing the Christian Coalition rise to where God intends it to be in this nation -- as one of the most powerful political forces that's ever been in the history of America. The nation is saying we're right."

While anointing the Christian Coalition in Washington, God was also allegedly busy down the road in Virginia, helping the Rev. Jerry Falwell hawk a videotape that accuses President Clinton of every manner of social and sexual perdition, including murder.

Everywhere, candidates promise to harness the power of government to promote teachings that formerly required no armed enforcement. Their platforms sport school-prayer, anti-abortion and anti-gay-rights planks, among other things.

When politicians seek to mandate holiness and criminalize sin, they raise an embarrassing question: Have churches failed so completely to inspire people with their beliefs that they must rely on the government to impose obedience by force? Will children not pray unless publicly coerced? Have the rules of marriage, family and child-bearing so little spiritual appeal that bailiffs must take over from the clergy? Must police and lawyers and courts compel what churches and synagogues have failed to teach?

Here's how Governor Cuomo put it 10 years ago: "Are we asking government to make criminal what we believe to be sinful because we ourselves can't stop committing the sin? The failure here is not Caesar's. This failure is our failure, the failure of the entire people of God. . . . Better than any law or rule or threat of punishment," he went on, "would be the moving strength of our own good example, demonstrating our lack of hypocrisy, proving the beauty and worth of our instruction."

Here, then, may be the first simple test of religions that make their way into politics -- which they have every right to do: Do they seek to inspire a better society by teaching and example? Or would they rather force the martial hand of government into coercion and punishment?

And this corollary: Is the message preoccupied with the "beauty and worth" of virtue, or is it fixated on the alleged perfidies of nonbelievers?

All too often, it's the latter. A preoccupation with other people's presumed sinfulness may be the surest sign of guerrilla religion in the 1990s. A gay activist in Fort Lauderdale illustrated the point recently: "You know where you'll hear the most talk about gay sex?" he asked. "Not in bars. Not in discos. On the religion shows. They go on and on; they're obsessed with it."

I suspect that whatever shows he was watching, they weren't about religion. Still, they were about something that claimed to be religion, and that is the point.

Much of what claims to be religion in modern America is a creature not of faith but of politics. It has less to do with winning souls than with winning votes. Yet its slogans infest the language of faith and creep like toxic runoff into the vocabulary of honest seekers.

In September, President Clinton spoke to the National Baptist Convention in New Orleans. In a section on instilling and encouraging values, he quoted Martin Luther King Jr.: "Whom we wish to change, we first must love."

Politics, chock-a-block with prophets of division, is hungry for apostles of love. Religion can supply them, if it will. But if it tries to join politics as merely another warring interest, it will be chewed up and homogenized like all the other interests, until its message is silent, its inspiration dried up and its eternal youth grown feeble and bitter, far from the altar of God.

Tony Proscio is associate editor of The Miami Herald.

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