By Tom Lamia
Hypocrisy: It comes at you in waves of indignation and self-satisfaction on cable news, where spokesmen (and they all seem to be men) for religious organizations give us their views on politics and government. Oddly, these views often seem contrary to the fundamental principles of their religions. Are they hypocrites?
All religions have fringe elements with radical views, so the occasional promoter of speaking in tongues or snake handling, carried away by spiritual fervor, may be extreme, even a heretic, but he is not a hypocrite. He believes in his message, but has an honest difference of opinion on the true faith. Not so those who allow political ends to take precedence over their beliefs so as to excuse immoral behavior.
Spreading the word of God has always been a hazardous undertaking, of course. It is less hazardous when done within close knit ethnic, social and religious communities. There was a time in this country when religion was apolitical, or so it seemed. Billy Graham ministered to every President and there was no political test for his compassion.
Unfortunately, many evangelists today have joined the Republican Party. In return for money and votes they demand the help of elected representatives to make specific social and sexual conduct illegal, shameful or difficult. They do this, as they plainly say, in the service of their religion. The irony, often, is that a religion that preaches tolerance, promotes intolerance of those who engage in legal, constitutionally protected, social and sexual conduct (same sex marriage, abortion, adultery, marital infidelity) on moral grounds. When these views are the basis and rationale for legislation, they run up against the First Amendment’s bright line between government and religion. But, is it a bright line?
In the 1950s, as a public elementary school student, I recited the pledge of allegiance to the flag to start each day. That pledge was ingrained in me from repetition. It expressed basic patriotism. Although a clergyman wrote the pledge, it had no religious content. In 1954, “under God” was added to the pledge by an Act of Congress. The added words were taken from Lincoln’s reference in his Gettysburg Address to “one nation under God.” The words are not in the published text of the speech, but reporters present heard them. Did this reference cross the First Amendment line? If so, no one noticed. References to God and Christianity in government were commonplace in the nineteenth century and continue to be.
Even seventy years ago when the pledge was amended, religious references were widespread in government proceedings. An outspoken atheist, like Madalyn Murray O’Hair, attracted prosecutorial attention, but the public generally was safe from government interference. It was a time when abortion, homosexuality and other conduct considered immoral were either state crimes or clandestine activities, or both. Religion’s work was being done by society at large at the state and local level. Religion did not take political sides.
Now it does. An example: David Brody is the “White House Correspondent” for the Christian Broadcasting Network. He is a lobbyist for a certain slice of the Christian religion: fundamental, evangelical and political. Brody makes no apologies for condoning unchristian behavior in those who support his political objectives. He opposes immorality in any form and in any degree when assessing social and sexual practices, but is an apologist for politicians who engage in such practices when they support his organization’s views on legislation. Those views include opposition to the usual list of depraved behaviors, such as those engaged in by many politicians. But if a politician pays lip service to and supports Brody’s agenda he is safe from criticism. The ends apparently justify the hypocritical means. In defense of this inconsistency, Brody offers the commendable Christian principle of forgiveness for sinners. But to be forgiven requires acknowledgement of the sin and contrition for it. It is hypocritical to extend forgiveness where there is no repentance.
Today, partisanship and religion have progressed together. The House Speaker Paul Ryan recently dismissed the House Chaplain, Father Patrick J. Conroy, for unstated reasons. After Father Conroy thought about it for a week or so, he challenged Speaker Ryan’s action as unjustified and probably discriminatory. Ryan backed down and reinstated Father Conroy. Rumor has it that Ryan was under pressure from his Moral Majority constituency to appoint an evangelist as Chaplain. Like “under God” in the pledge, the employment of a “Chaplain” by the House is on its face a violation of the First Amendment. The tradition of overlooking such constitutional line crossing is well established and is in no danger of change.
Dr. Samuel Johnson is credited with having said, in 1775, “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” By this remark, he did not mean to denounce all patriots—only the false ones. Dr. Johnson’s sentiment applies equally well to religion, as many before me have noted. I do not condemn all religious commentators in politics—only the hypocritical ones.