Separation of Church and State -- Part 2: The Tartuffe Factor

Read Part 1, "Separation of Church and State," here.

The Founding Fathers believed that religion was and must remain a private matter, because bringing the volatility of "religious enthusiasm" into politics would destabilize our new nation. They feared the political effects of interdenominational hostility, the polarization caused by doctrinal differences, and the demonization of dissenters.

But there was a second reason why the Founders feared that bringing religion into politics would have a divisive effect on our young nation -- the rise of political and religious opportunists, who would inflame political issues to further themselves. Religion would become both a theatrical performance and a political tool as charlatans hypocritically showboated their piety to manipulate the crowd for political gain.

Religious hypocrites would disguise their lack of convictions by putting their finger in their mouth, holding it high in the air to determine which way the political wind was blowing, and telling their audience what it wanted to hear. These individuals well understood the art of inciting "enthusiasm" or hysteria toward some plan of action and labeling it "the Will of God."

The Founders would have blanched at a government official returning to constituents and pandering to their religious prejudices to gain a following or court popularity. Not that an official couldn't take part in a religious service, but only as a private citizen and not as a member of government, lest people think that he were lending the power and prestige of his office to their church or religion.

The jury is still out as to whether the Founders were deists, Christians, or a little of both; whether they were believers of either persuasion from conviction or prudence; whether they themselves knew their degree of commitment, or the extent to which over time their beliefs may have changed.

However, they all knew their Bible because it played such an important role in their 18th-century world. They knew of Christ's admonition in Matthew 6 about not playing the hypocrite by standing on the street corner and making a public display of oneself by praying to God, for one would already have received one's reward by the praise of the crowd. Instead, one should withdraw to one's room, close the door, and in privacy pray to God.

As experienced men of the world, the Founding Fathers also knew how some politicians or government agencies might use religion on an impressionable audience to seek power, votes, or advancement. Some of the Founders were also highly educated, even erudite, men, especially Thomas Jefferson, whose library contained a Who's Who of great authors, one of whom was the French playwright Moliere, and one of whose plays was Tartuffe, the incarnation of religious hypocrisy.

It is both an uproarious romp into the icy regions of a terrible inner emptiness devoid of conviction, as well as a manual for observing the bobbings and weavings of unctuous sanctimony raised to high art.

In that great patrician school of Parisian sophistication, it was thought that the only way to effect moral reform was not by sermons, but by being laughed at, since few can survive the acid of ridicule. Many don't mind being thought a scoundrel, but no one a fool! Castigat ridendo mores ("Comedy corrects manners") was the essence of Moliere's art that skewered human folly in its many guises.

The caustic mockery of his characters and the gales of laughter that broke forth from his audience were much more effective in laying bare human absurdity than any sermon in Notre Dame. Moliere was and always has been a moral institution for the French, as they see and laugh at themselves in his characters, and go away chastened.

Jefferson and his colleagues well understood that some members of government might be tempted to play Tartuffe with their constituencies. One Tartuffe or a group of them could do untold harm to the nation by abusing religion for political ends. The 18th century was an age of taste and decorum, moderation and dignity, with everything in its proper place. Religion especially could not be allowed to be cheapened and vulgarized, manipulated and manhandled by demagogues toying with people's religious convictions.

But what would the Founders have made of the Separation of Church and State as politicians today shamelessly pander to the Religious Right with its toxic brew of pressure politics and fire and brimstone? Of politicians who prostitute themselves to corporate lobbyists from whom they should be protecting the people? Of those who betray their oath by making common cause with the nation's exploiters? Of those who forsake the ideals on which our nation was founded? Of those who come to Washington not to help the sick and the hungry, but to make their plight even more tragic?

Gone are the days when political giants, statesmen, and demigods walked the earth and held our nation's destiny in their adult and capable hands. We are now at the mercy of political pygmies, charlatans, and buffoons who plunder the treasury for the rich and powerful.

There is no limit to their unbridled ambition in saying whatever must be said for ingratiating themselves into the good graces of an audience. So profound is their religion of being re-elected that they would wax rhapsodic on the metaphysical subtleties of Hottentot theology if they thought it would gain them the votes on the south side of town or a district of the rich and powerful.

Even some Supreme Court Justices, who should be above the political fray, are beholden to the golden palaces of their sovereign Liege Lords and Ladies, whose dark money funds their convictions.

The internal affairs of religion are the concern of religion and not of the state. Government should never meddle in church matters, but once a pastor uses the pulpit to deliver a political speech or "suggest" how a congregation should vote, it is no longer a house of God but a political rally.

The clergy by and large honor this church/state distinction and don't abuse their position by endorsing candidates or issues, but some most decidedly do. As if God were a Democrat or Republican, a Libertarian or Socialist, a Green or Tea Partier, when a place of worship has only one purpose: "My House shall be a house of prayer!"

The fact that pastors are not permitted by the U.S. Government to use their churches for political rallies or discuss upcoming bills would suggest that they are flouting both the letter and spirit of the principle of Separation of Church and State.

What are sermons in some churches are hate speeches in others. Pastors who preach against anti-discrimination ordinances designed to protect the civil rights of gay and transgender residents may or may not be protected by the Separation Clause, but clearly such speech is about hating, bullying, and demonizing these residents, as well as denying them their civil rights. This is behavior more in keeping with a Klan meeting, but shocking on the part of pastors in what purports to be a religious service.

This is really what is going on in Houston, and not the hullabaloo created to distract public attention from the underlying moral issues -- discrimination and denial of civil rights by pastors, who cunningly recast themselves from victimizers to victims.

A hate fest is an insult to God and a disgrace in a church. Pastors should be role models who show their people a better way, not be Good Ol' Boys who sanctify the prejudices of their congregations or be taken captive by the very mentality from which they should be setting them free. Making people feel good about their hate and wallow in self-righteousness while doing it is not what a pastor should be about, for as the pastor, so the flock!

Pastors can say whatever they want within their church, but if they cross the line between Church and State, they no longer qualify for tax-exempt status. Everyone should abide by the rules of political discourse and avoid the stealth of gradualism and the slippery slope, where things become murky with no clear demarcation between what is and isn't protected speech.

Distinctions dissolve and each sphere comingles, and people one day wake up to a religious theocracy, when it is no longer the rule of man, but the rule of some men's image of "God," a creation of one denomination, which seeks to impose its theology on everyone in a religious dictatorship. History will have then come full circle and create the very conditions the Founders sought to avoid.

The beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right names, said Confucius. The name the Founders had for theocracy was "religious enthusiasm," the fear of which led them to include the Separation Clause in Article One of the Bill of Rights. They were concerned not only for their own time, but for our time as well, and therein lies their timeless and timely wisdom.

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."

-- T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets