Some months ago, Ellen Goodman published a column about child-spanking ["Sparing the Rod Won't Spoil the Society," op-ed, June 9] that I have been thinking about ever since -- not because of the spanking part, but because of her theological point of view.
For openers, she pictured Brother Lester Roloff, a Texas radio-preacher who runs homes for wayward children, as "waving his Bible" over those in his care, and as being so credulous as to believe that the Bible is the word of God. And she maintained that he was reading his own interpretation into things by choosing to take literally Proverbs 13:24, where it says, "He that spareth his rod, hateth his son." And so it was the back of the hand for Mr. Roloff, and soon Miss Goodman was praising the wisdom of those who wrote Sweden's anti-spanking law, and telling us pretty authoritatively that corporal punishment proceeds out of rage, is useless in imposing discipline and has the net effect of teaching children that "violence is okay." It was a well-written column, vibrant with indignation, and what had hooked her on the story in the first place, she said, was Mr. Roloff's presumptuous "headlong plunge" into such a serious matter as child-raising.
Now, I hold no brief for Mr. Roloff. Moreover, it seems to me that Miss Goodman's contempt for his Christian fundamentalism is a legitimate point of view, and that the public forum is the right place to express it. But even so, I can't help wondering just where the countervailing notion -- that the Bible is indeed the word of God -- might be expected to appear, in the perhaps-unlikely event that some yahoo espouser of that idea might momentarily become literate enough to pick himself up off the floor of some hillbilly dive, lick the tip of a grimy pencil stub, and laboriously print out a reply.
The only answer I can come up with is the Letters to the Editor. And with that rises a vision of Johnny Carson, shifty-eyed and psychotic in a mackinaw and hunter's hat, doing a satiric turn on one of the "Tonight Show's" "Editorial Reply" comic skits. For the rule of things in our country seems to be that you do not express "religious opinions" in the public forum unless you're a crank in the throes of a fit.
But the more I think about it, the more it seems that we really have got some other rule than that. For instance, if Miss Goodman's point of view isn't a religious opinion, I have never seen one. So the real rule is that some religious opinions can be expressed, others not. And thus, while it is everlastingly legit to fricassee all the Elmer Gantrys of this world, it is forbidden to state in any truly public forum any such fantastical idea as, say, that the Judeo-Christian faith rests on truth. For it was long ago determined that this particular brand of foolishness belongs in "religious publications" or on "sermonette." And this is a rule that is pretty well kept, for I cannot recall, offhand, having ever seen even the name "God" in any newspaper column or on any television commentary, other than as a light expletive, or a reportorial description of what other people believe.
This is because our world of public discourse (like that of television drama and "serious" literature) has its own official creed, media theology, whose prime tenet is that God, if he exists at all, is entirely indifferent to human affairs, impotent to act, and uninfluential in human conduct -- as out of it, in short, as Miss Goodman might like Brother Roloff to be. And so it is unthinkable that any sane newspaper columnist or television commentator would be so heretical as to state that, for instance, "God teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves." Just as it is impossible to imagine a character on a television drama or in a work of contemporary fiction being profoundly affected, and guided in his personal deportment, by what he believes that God expects of him. Thus media theology creates "media-life."
In "real life," however, many Americans do live lives like that, tens of millions of them do; and this in turn has a profound effect on stances they choose to take in matters of public policy. But discussion of these elemental views is systematically excluded from the public forum. And we writers do this because we know enough to censor ourselves. Thus our deepest spiritual heritage is kept insulated from the realm of our public discourse, and appears only in watered-down form, as the derivative ethical ideals. And this in spite of the fact that many debaters in the public arena -- including, I would surmise, Miss Goodman herself -- are people to whom the banished God is a keen and piquant reality.
The historical roots of this ennui-manufacturing repression go down deeper than any column written by Miss Goodman, whose only fault that I know anything about is being a swell writer. For the 17th century, up to its nose in the gore of religious wars and persecutions, taught the next century to beware of the religious controversies that had partly engendered them. And so when Ben Franklin, the grandfather of American journalism, was drawing up the family rules, he decided to play it safer than Cotton Mather had; to stick to the morality and to leave the G-o-d in the composing case.
This worked well for Ben, whose sense of humor was no less sharp than his appetite for venery. But it has made for dull debate, and since then, things have been less lively and less fun; getting rid of God has not liberated us from the everlasting sermonry, and having the Bible waved at us sometimes even seems pleasant, in retrospect, to those who are being belabored about the head and shoulders with Dr. Spock and the codified laws of Sweden.
Nevertheless, we've learned to keep our traps shut about God, and tend to concern ourselves obsessively, instead, with every twitch and belch of Government, which is the new God. This is called "the inevitable process of secularization, too massive to change." But it is boring, damn but it's boring, as we pip and squeak about GNP, under the eyes of a religious theocracy (ourselves) that is no less oppressive than that of Salem. Given such orthodoxy, and such certitude, it is no wonder Miss Goodman is dismayed that Brother Roloff should be so disrespectful as to speak out about anything at all.