God Save Us From All This Godliness

Separate the church from the state-of course. Don’t make religious belief a qualification for public office. That is the simple part, the one that most of us here in this non-fundamentalist city can agree on without being card-carrying members of the ACLU. But the matter grows more complicated in the high-foaming wake of the Clinton scandal, when every self-respecting, self-righteous groundhog is throwing its shadow on the White House lawn.

The truth is that an expression of piety has always been part of our public dialogue, and “In God We Trust” is no more ominous than a routine “Have a good day” from the telephone operator or the teller at the bank. I don’t mind in the least if someone really does trust in God, as long as he or she permits me my more wary precautions against the vagaries of providence. I went to a private school at which the Lord’s Prayer was said at the start of each assembly. It was sweet, it was lovely, it provided a link to a proud tradition. Never mind that I couldn’t say the words without hypocrisy. I liked the prayer-its beauty touched me, shaped me. Civilization creates many forms that are decorative, positive, appealing, but not necessarily the final word, the last truth, the one and only way. Our Presidential candidates pressing their godliness into each offered hand are not spoiling my day; this is simply form and does not affect our already troubled substance.

The problem here is that caught up in the edifice of faith-sticking to it nowadays like wallpaper to a wall-is this thing called “morality,” and some are making very public assumptions that faith and morality are joined at the hip, share one heart and can never be separated. This is dangerous and false. Morality exists without faith, and faith certainly exists without morality. We have no reason to doubt that faith inspired the Spanish Inquisition and co-existed easily with the instruments of torture that were employed. We have no reason to assume that all the plantation owners who went to church on Sundays for 100 years of American history did not have real faith in their God, and at the same time sold, whipped, exploited, starved and chased human beings as if they were chickens. Their faith was strong, I’m sure, but their morality was weak. The grandparents of these white Southerners who want God back in the schools denied black children the comfort of a cool drink from an integrated water fountain. The supporters of Jim Crow all invoked God’s will. The officers of the American nation who marched the Sioux and the Cherokee off to the Western plains were not godless men. They gave themselves reasons, they thought they were moral people, but they did a terrible thing; and no amount of prayer, before or after the events, could alter the fact that, while faith was truly present on those slaughter fields, morality-“do unto others,” etc.-was missing.

The armies of the world send their chaplains out to the battlefields, although “Thou shalt not kill” is surely a primary rule from God’s mouth to our ears. The soldiers at My Lai were not a group of atheists. The guards at Auschwitz, the stock swindlers at the savings-and-loans, the Mafia hit men were not necessarily godless men, they were simply men whose morality failed.

The threat of burning in Hell ever after should have been enough to keep souls from misbehaving, and we know at one time there was a bull market in indulgences. Still, human behavior has been and remains a scandal to the pure of heart. It is hard to control the wildness of man, his propensity for murder and mayhem, for building idols, for destroying what someone else has built, for breaking holy commandments like they were mere human hearts.

We have Jim Bakker and a dozen other well-known preachers-turned-prisoners whose faith did not fail them, though their morality did. We have fundamentalists of all stripes who will cheat on their wives, harm their children, desert their families, steal from their business partners. We have believers like Baruch Goldstein, who kills innocents for his God-given goal. It is not that these folks don’t believe in God. They do. It is that their souls are fallen, fractured, unhappy, corrupt, and the result is a long list of abuses, in the dark of home and in the public square.

Morality sometimes is supported by faith in God and His laws, but sometimes it just exists for its own sake. There are good people who give to others, who respect the laws divine and man-made, but who do not believe in a personal God at all-who may, in fact, believe in nature, in biology or in nothing so much as the human potential.

The danger in the political landscape today is that we assume that faith is the barrier to misbehavior when we know it is not-not for individual people or for their governments. To separate morality from faith is not to downgrade faith or its church. Human beings have always needed and wanted a way to believe in their immortality, in the meaning of their lives, in the special destiny of their tribe. Faith-when it doesn’t lead to murdering someone of another faith-is as good a thing as any human can have outside of a loving mate. But morality is something else, and the power to resist the sexy intern with the big lips is not programmed into believers or left out of doubters.

They say that America is a very religious country, awash with saved souls who truly believe. At least this is what they tell the pollsters. The polls now say just about everybody has faith, and so the politicians follow the crowd, as politicians are wont to do. This is all right, as long as we understand that religion is like a benign tumor that can change into something dangerous and destructive if exposed to the right pollutants. Religion doesn’t guarantee good character, and as much as I love Joe Lieberman for his pixie smile, I don’t think his religion promises me that if I vote for him, I’ll get a moral man. He better promise me that on his own.

The Republicans got so puffed up while condemning Clinton that they returned the country to Plymouth Rock. They forgot that, all over this great land of ours, real people are always making moral mistakes-fornicating, cheating, doing less than their best-not because they have no God, but despite the fact that they have a God. Likewise, morality-uprightness, goodness, love of others-is something humans can express without a metaphysical truss. In this season of so much God, we might remember that.