Saturday, April 27, 2002
Frank Rich has a column in today's New York Times called "Religion for Dummies." Much of the column deals with the scandal in the Catholic Church. Rich is correct in his analysis that the Catholic Church hierarchy has screwed (no pun intended) themselves with their handling of it. Boston Cardinal Bernard Law needs to resign.
But later in the column, Law strays from the church scandal and starts attacking other "People of Religion," some who deserve it, some who don't.
It's depressing when the nation's spiritual mentors sound like businessmen fending off indictment, whether at Enron or Merrill Lynch — or, worse, like buck-passing politicians on the order of that preacher's son Gary Condit. In recent months, this seems to be a pattern. Not until weeks after the latest round of Richard Nixon Oval Office recordings were released — and only after a storm of reprimand — did Billy Graham take full responsibility for his anti-Semitic remarks about "the Jews." Even so, his son and successor, Franklin Graham, soon rescinded his father's mea culpa by asserting that the taped quotes had been taken out of context and meant to refer to "liberalism," not Jews. The younger Mr. Graham's disingenuousness is of a piece with Jerry Falwell's and Pat Robertson's pseudo-apology for their televised remarks in which they tried to pin the Sept. 11 attacks on the same all-purpose culprits (gays, feminists) whom some Catholic leaders now hope will take the fall for abusive priests and their enabling higher-ups.
I don't disagree with most of this analysis, except where Rich begins to refer to "all-purpose culprits (gays, feminists)." The crisis the Catholic church is undergoing right now is likely the fault of gay priests. Yes, I know that statistics show that most pedophiles are heterosexuals, but pedophilia refers to prepubescent children. Most of the priest sex scandals have involved post-pubescent boys. With that being the case, I think homosexuality in the priesthood is a valid issue to discuss.
And talking about feminists and other Catholic liberals, they have been on the TV using this as evidence to support for the ordination of women and allowing priests to marry. Now, the ordination of women is a whole separate issue that I'm not going to get into. But as far as this scandal being support for the argument that priests should marry. Do they actually believe that if priests who have a predisposition to sexually assault teenagers were married they'd keep their hands off?
But the abdication of personal responsibility by some religious leaders in America is only half of the confused moral equation since Sept. 11. If too many religious leaders sound like politicians right now, the flip side is that more and more politicians in power are rushing into the ensuing vacuum. They exploit the exigencies of war to sound like clergymen, seizing religious language to veil partisan public policies in a miasma of ersatz godliness.
Well, I can understand living in New York and being consumed with what's happening in Washington can breed a certain amount of cynicism. But Rich may have gone off the deep end. Whether he likes to admit it or not, Sept. 11 changed a lot of things. Maybe the references to the Almighty are honest and sincere.
With the exception of Tom DeLay — who this month announced that "only Christianity offers a way to live in response to the realities that we find in this world" — no politician in power has ratcheted up this rhetorical religiosity louder than John Ashcroft. In a February speech he declared, "We are a nation called to defend freedom — a freedom that is not the grant of any government or document, but is our endowment from God." So much, then, for that trifling document that defines our freedoms, a k a the Constitution. By wrapping himself in sanctimony as surely as he wrapped the Justice Department's statue of Justice in a blue curtain, our attorney general is trying to supersede civil law on the grounds that he's exercising the Lord's will whatever he does. Last week a U.S. district judge had to intervene and reprimand him for his repeated efforts to criminalize doctors who are obeying a law allowing physician-assisted suicide that has twice been approved by Oregon's voters.
Well, call me a Jesus Freak, but I agree with DeLay. There are other things that can help people to cope, but many Christians, myself included, believe that "only Christianity offers a way to live in response to the realities that we find in this world." Of course, we felt this to be the case before Sept. 11 too.
As far as Ashcroft's decision on Oregon's assisted suicide law, Rich has got it wrong. Doctors in Oregon are using drugs that are controlled by federal law to kill people. Ashcroft has a responsibility as the nation's top law-enforcement officer, to make sure that those drugs are used for therapeutic uses and not to kill. Ashcroft's position is a legal one, not a religious one. To say that Ashcroft made his decision based on religion is a lie. Though I will admit that his legal position does jive with his religious background, to say that his actions are controlled by his religion and not by the law is a slander. If it were true, however, I would expect liberals like Rich to call for Ashcroft's removal from office -- and they'd be right to do it.
I'd like to think that the Supreme Court will eventually uphold Ashcroft's position, but who knows what they'll do on a day-to-day basis. What I do know is that Rich and his ilk wouldn't be so quick to denounce the attorney general if he was attempting to overrule a state law that allowed corporations to dump toxic waste into rivers. It all depends on the law.
President Bush's penchant for stark religious terminology has waned in the international arena now that he has lost his innocence in the Middle East. He has yet to brand the Israelis, the Palestinians or, for that matter, the Saudis "evildoers." But on the domestic front he has joined Mr. Ashcroft in pumping up the volume of his preening sanctimony, referring to the Almighty so frequently that He is becoming his de facto running mate for 2004. The president's push to ban therapeutic cloning is typically cloaked in a stated reverence for human life, without any humble recognition of the fact that he is playing God in determining that the "life" of a blastocyst, a tiny cluster of cells, is worth more than the lives of those suffering from juvenile diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other diseases whose remedies could be hastened by the most comprehensive medical research.
There's the cynicism again. Of course, Bush often referred to God as he was running for president, so that hasn't changed. For that matter, Gore did the same. As far as weighing the value of a human blastocyst against all human suffering, where would it possibly end? If it's OK with a blastocyst, what happens in 10 years when scientists say they believe that they can grow organs by using a fetus? At which point is a human a human?
If we learned anything from Sept. 11, surely it is that there is a reason to worry when politicians hijack religion — just as we've learned from the church's scandal of the dangers that abound when religious leaders value political self-preservation over protecting the defenseless in their flock.
Hijacking religion, or speaking honestly about one's religious beliefs in the public square? Many liberals are fine with people practicing their religion, as long as they don't talk about it.
Maybe if the headline really reflected Rich's attitude it would have been "Religion is for Dummies."