My colleague E. J. Dionne Jr. has written an open letter to Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura [op-ed, Oct. 5] taking him to task for calling organized religion "a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people." Dionne body-slams Ventura with a roster of unweak-minded people, starting with Martin Luther King Jr. and ending with Mother Teresa. It is an impressive list, but a sad one as well. All Dionne's religious leaders are dead.
The ones who are now prominent -- those with the name-recognition that King or Reinhold Niebuhr had in their day -- are in a category all their own. I am referring to the TV preachers of the political and religious right, none of whom, it seems safe to say, are in any danger of winning the Nobel Prize for anything. Gone are the great progressive clergymen of yesteryear. It's as if they linked arms in some dramatic civil rights march and walked straight into oblivion. Their like has not been seen in decades.
Instead, the ones now in the forefront are reactionaries, both politically and theologically, who do not seek to expand human or civil rights but to constrict them instead. What's more, they impose -- or attempt to impose -- their quaint notions on others. In some cases, their views are so retrograde, their thinking so inexplicable, that it is simply asking too much to accord them the respect normally due religious leaders. If this is what Ventura was saying, he is right.
Recently, for instance, we had the spectacle of one GOP presidential candidate after another coming to address the Christian Coalition. This group is headed by Pat Robertson, who has written or uttered some shockingly bizarre things, including his celebrated warning to the city of Orlando that it would suffer a natural catastrophe if it allowed gay organizations to put up their flags. The flags went up and, for some reason, Orlando did not go down. Back to the book, I guess.
I cite Robertson on account of his fame and because he is representative of the sort of religious leader Ventura had in mind when he opened a big mouth to Playboy magazine. But I might as well have chosen Jerry Falwell or Donald E. Wildmon or any of the theological and political fundamentalists who have the Republican Party, in particular, in their thrall. Only Jesse Jackson is in their league as a celebrity, but Bill Clinton had to first dis him over Sister Souljah before proceeding to the nomination. No GOP presidential candidate has yet treated Robertson with the scorn he so deserves.
Contrast Robertson or Falwell with the religious leaders of old. The ones cited by Dionne were often engaged in the worthy task of expanding rights. They fought racial segregation and religious bigotry. Sometimes they put their lives on the line. Occasionally they went to jail. It was news -- big news -- when the Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, a leader of the Presbyterian Church who was known as "Ike's Pastor," was jailed in a Baltimore civil rights protest. The white, establishment churches were late to the struggle, but when they finally moved, so did the nation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the result.
Religious leaders such as King, Niebuhr and even Blake set quite a standard. They asked you to be better than you were -- stronger, braver. They demanded that you challenge your own thoughts if you were prejudiced and, later, that you challenge your own government if you thought it was wrong. Some of them had made difficult intellectual-cum-moral journeys themselves. They led by example.
But the current crop of religious leaders -- the famous ones, that is -- does not ask very much of us. They don't ask us to accept homosexuality and they refuse to deal with the consequences of their rhetoric. Just as the churches of Europe came to recognize that traditional, religion-based antisemitism contributed to the Holocaust, so these homophobic preachers ought to understand their role in violence directed at homosexuals.
They also do not ask us to accept and understand modernity. They reject it almost in its entirety. For instance, if asked to reconcile religion and science, they simply endorse the former and reject the latter. This is what happened in Kansas over evolution.
Dionne was right to whack Ventura for his flip denigration of faith in general. Still, I would have been happier if we could come up with the names of contemporary religious figures who have the stature and fame to stand up to the religious right. None comes to mind. It's not that good people are not doing good things; it's rather that for some reason, the public at large is unaware of them. The national pulpit has been left to the religious right. The service is fine. It's the sermon that's scary.