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Render Unto Caesar

wonder what was going through the minds of men like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell during the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Shortly afterward, our state's two most prominent conservative ministers appeared together on Robertson's "700 Club," where they blamed the disaster on a litany of those they denounce: the ACLU, gays, abortion-providers, secular humanists, fans of Harry Potter.

To Falwell's credit, in the face of massive criticism, he apologized. I don't think, however, that he and other right-wing preachers delving into politics worry that when they speak about matters political, they might be paid a visit by an IRS accountant in a green eyeshade. Yet this is exactly what the government has done in the case of the left-leaning All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif.

Our Virginia fire-breathers had best watch out: They may be next.

Let's compare a few statements by our Virginia ministers and those of the Rev. George Regas from his October 2004 sermon at All Saints, "If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry and President Bush." The IRS claims that Regas "took a position in opposition to candidate George W. Bush and in support of candidate John Kerry."

Rev. Regas' sermon imagines Jesus first speaking to Kerry and Bush, and the Christian Savior scolds both of them, noting: "I will tell you what I think of your war —The sin at the heart of this war against Iraq is your belief that an American life is of more value than an Iraqi life." Jesus then gets a bit more personal with Bush, blasting him because, "Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine. Forcibly changing the regime of an enemy that posed no imminent threat has led to disaster." Later, Jesus notes, ostensibly to both candidates, "President Bush asks and gets income tax reductions where 50 percent of the tax savings goes to the top 1 percent of the wealthiest Americans."

While the sermon never endorsed a particular candidate, it veered so close to the line that it violated the spirit, if not the letter, of tax law, as have many statements by Falwell and Robertson. Regas' only "sin" was to be in an actual pulpit rather than the de facto pulpits of TV and the Internet. Yet ministers retain their persuasive power in public appearances, and they should uphold a higher standard than, say, editorial columnists for alternative weekly papers.

Consider Falwell's remarks about Hillary Clinton, during a private (as if that could be true today) meeting of the Values Voter Summit. The Rev. Falwell quipped that "I certainly hope that Hillary is the candidate. ... Because nothing will energize [conservative Christian voters] like Hillary Clinton. ... If Lucifer ran, he wouldn't."

In the end, for the influential men and women who wear ministers' robes, does it matter that a pulpit could be any platform where there they draw upon their ethos as religious leaders? One must consider the Pope's recent poorly chosen words about Islam as part of this parade of foolishness, even though those words came during a speech at the University of Regensburg. Today, with a 24/7/365 news cycle hungry for a story and religious tensions at the boiling point worldwide, ministers who honor Jehovah, Allah, the Buddha, Krishna or the Mother Goddess must all consider the inflammatory, even violent, impact of statements that attack not beliefs, religious or secular, but those who hold them.

In calling for this standard from the leaders of our faiths, the standard must itself not be partisan. I began researching this column outraged that the IRS, probably at the behest of undeniably vindictive, and often petty, members of the Bush administration, singled out a progressive church for punishment. In the end, however, I must criticize the Rev. Regas, even though I share his beliefs and agree with him that "the Religious Right has drowned out everyone else."

It is refreshing to read in the L.A. Times the words of Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, calling the IRS attempt to punish All Saints "an appalling intrusion and it smacks of intimidation." Now, if only Mr. Land's other remark, that "churches should not endorse political candidates," could be heeded by members of all faiths.

How about these tests: In public, let ministers denounce abortion, but not the politicians or parties who support abortion rights. Or let them denounce the plight of those working two jobs without health care, but not the candidates or parties who pass tax breaks that favor the wealthy. That would mean no thinly veiled endorsements called "voter information cards" in the back of pews. It would mean no public remarks by religious leaders about a party or individual candidate in any gathering larger than, say, a family dinner.

Jefferson wisely intended the wall between church and state to be tall and broad. Cracks in that wall can lead it to fall in a heap, a twisted rubble-pile known as theocracy: Think Cromwell's England, witch-burning Salem, Mullah Omar's Taliban, Osama bin Laden's dream of a reborn Caliphate.

Let ministers condemn the perceived sin and not the perceived sinner. But when they do as Regas, Falwell or Robertson have done, let's pull out the ledger books, the eyeshades, the calculators, and the tax tables and ask them and their churches to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's. S

Joe Essid teaches writing at the University of Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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