Where are our religious leaders when our need for them is desperate? At the very time when they should be the most vocal, they seem tongue-tied. What a change has overcome them, and at the most inopportune time imaginable.

Since Moses, religious leaders have shown no reluctance in telling politicians what to do. What is called the "prophetic ministry" has often been resented by those of us who are in government, but it has been an important counterbalance to the excesses of power politics. While governments have attended to the practical needs of military strength and factional accommodations, religious groups have insisted on the claims of peace and social justice. But, rather suddenly, it is the politicians who have championed a just and stable world order, while responsible church leaders have been mute in the midst of truly dangerous religious fanaticism.

Consider the global response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev have met in Helsinki to issue a joint condemnation of aggression. The United Nations Security Council, including the United States, France, Britain, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, has adopted nine separate resolutions offering not only a united front against a specific aggression but the hope of a new world order based on international law. Meanwhile, the heretofore secular Saddam Hussein attempts to cast his ambitions as a religious crusade, and Iran's religious leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calls for a holy war to free the Middle East from the Western infidel.

Indeed, in most if not all of the world's trouble spots, religious extremism is at the heart of the problem. In Israel, Moslems throw rocks at Jews and Jews shoot back at Moslems. In the chaos of Lebanon, religious factions are so numerous it is difficult to keep track of them.

In Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant Christians bomb each other as they have for decades. Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan face off against each other, offering the prospect of nuclear weapons if necessary to prove their points. And within India, the Hindus fight the Sikhs. In East Timor, Moslems slaughter Catholics. In Sudan, Christians, Moslems and animists kill each other.

All of this killing is done with the absolute certainty that God wants it so. If thine enemy offends thee, rub him out. Indeed, it is believed that to lose one's life in God's cause is to die a martyr's death and win a reward in heaven.

We in the West, enjoying a passable degree of religious tolerance, have tended to dismiss news accounts of holy wars as shocking occurrences in exotic places. Yet, when swastikas are painted in a Jewish school in Maryland, the distant is brought home. And, when fanatics across the world arm themselves with nuclear and chemical weapons and with the ballistic missiles to deliver them, exotic places are hours away and local upheavals become global emergencies.

The notion that God demands blood does not just pop into the head of the average person. Bloodshed is an acquired religious taste. It is acquired because it is taught by the ayatollahs of the world, by the Ian Paisleys and the Meir Kahanes. It is taught, and it can be untaught. But it cannot be untaught by silence.

Where are the voices of interfaith reconciliation in all this turmoil? For Christians, the concept of the Prince of Peace is largely a Christmas card slogan. The loudest voices are those of religious crackpots, while church councils debate who should be ordained and what should be deleted from hymnals and what resolutions should be dispatched to members of Congress.

It is well and good that religious bodies express their views on a variety of political subjects. But it is not well and good that the various faiths remain mute in the face of religiously inspired calamity. As a matter of urgent world necessity, religious leaders must speak loudly and clearly on what their faith demands and what it condemns. One would hope that the most insistent demands from all faiths would be for humility and reconciliation and love. One would hope that the strongest condemnations from all faiths would be for intolerance and hatred and holy wars.

If the Security Council can bring together the United States, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China for a common expression of commitment to international law, surely religious leaders can devise a forum for a common commitment to religious peace. Granted, religious councils have been dilly-dallying about ecumenism for generations without much to show for their efforts. But perhaps a few nuclear warheads in the hands of fundamentalists can spur good people into action.

Specifically, here is one suggestion that may save a lot of lives. The pope should issue an invitation to an interfaith selection of widely recognized religious leaders. He should present a draft document stating that violence in the name of religion is contrary to the will of God. He should seek the active support of as many leaders as will join with him for such a document. Finally, he should call for the creation of a standing forum of religious leaders to address issues of religious violence. In short, just as the Security Council addresses political causes of international conflict, so religious causes of conflict could be addressed by a council of religious leaders.

Would such an invitation be rejected by some of its recipients? Probably. But some would surely accept, and even a small start is worth trying. Where religion is the problem, it is up to religious people to seek the answers.

The writer is a Republican senator from Missouri and an ordained Episcopal priest.