Church and State

Is it time to stop rewarding politicians' pious platitudes?

"And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily, I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet..." —Matthew 6:5-6

We've had a lot of Republican politicians praying on the street corners in recent years, modern-day Pharisees who take to the pulpits in election years to decry the moral decay in the country and to condemn anyone who disagrees with them on social issues. Too many of them are hanging out in that whited sepulcher where our freedoms go to die, otherwise known as the U.S. Capitol.

But so many of them have been involved in scandals of late, it makes you wonder.

As voters, should we be wary of a candidate who focuses his campaign on his religiosity, who beats his breast about social issues and decries moral decay? Perhaps we should encourage these topics be dealt with by ministers, rabbis, and priests. Let's encourage the candidates to focus on the proper role of government over which they have control and encourage them to shut up about their moral superiority. Or legislating against people with whom they disagree.

One wonders if these flawed public figures join prayer groups and hang with fellow zealots because they recognize personal flaws and try to remove themselves from temptation. Given the number of hypocrites in Congress, one begins to wonder whether all the praying on the street corners might be a symptom of flawed individuals trying to provide themselveswith cover. And a support group.

I hope you read the News Sentinel story about the house on C Street in Washington, where Congressman Zach Wamp and others live with U.S. Sen. John Ensign, who has admitted to an affair with a staffer and payoffs to her and her husband. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who served in Congress with the group, has stopped by for Bible study and to get guidance on his affair with an Argentine woman. The house is the center of a network of evangelical Christian legislators who have a great deal of influence on Capitol Hill.

Ensign, that stalwart of family values, was able to get elected to the Senate thanks to his family fortune, made in the gambling business. No irony there. His parents owned several casinos. His parents also reportedly paid the staffer and her husband $96,000 to shut up and go away. It didn't work.

Wamp had a troubled youth. He began his first race for Congress in the pulpits of district churches, confessing his sins and youthful drug use and offering his dramatic testimony. His sincerity and his prodigal-son persona propelled him into office. One can understand his sympathy for other flawed politicians and he is no doubt an empathic listener during Bible study and confession time. Wamp is presently running for governor in the Republican primary.

It's interesting how Tennessee attitudes toward religion in public life have changed. In the original state constitution, Article IX, Section 1, preachers are forbidden to serve in the Tennessee General Assembly. That's because "their profession dedicated to God and the care of souls ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their functions..." It was sound advice then and it's sound advice now. Not that preachers ought to be banned from public service, but rather the attitude that if your mission is to care for souls and serve God, you don't need to be doing it in politics.

Sin is not the exclusive province of either political party. What most of us find disturbing, however, is not the sin. We understand it. All have sinned and fallen short, the New Testament tells us. What we find particularly disgusting are politicians who get elected and reelected mouthing Biblical platitudes and family values, and attacking the private lives of others while they are busy getting it on with a staffer or a south of the border mistress.

They do it because it works. They'll stop when we stop voting for those who use pulpits and Bible verses and sanctimonious testimony in their quest for public office.