When “Elmer Gantry” was first published, it created a furor that rippled through the American conscience and through our churches. The portrayal of a lecherous minister so offended the typical American churchgoer that author Sinclair Lewis received several written death threats.
The message of Christianity is peace. That message has often been lost to those who claim to be adherents – as must have been the case of those who “in God’s name” threatened the writer’s life.
As we look through twenty-one centuries of history, the church often appears to us to be less a home for saints than a hospital for sinners. And some of those sinners are in serious need of life support to sustain them.
My father attended church on a regular basis. But I think that I should hardly describe him as a zealot. On more than one occasion I heard him say, “Religion has been the cause of more wars than anything else.” But he would continue by asking the rhetorical question, “Can you imagine, if we didn’t have religion and some belief in a higher moral justice, how barbaric mankind might be?”
There are many people of faith who follow and practice their beliefs in quiet dignity. We do not hear of them. They are not the subjects of the evening news and the tabloids take no interest in their lives. Good new is, in essence, no news.
But bad news is news and bad news sells. And it would be hard to deny that even more so than when “Elmer Gantry” was published, there is a great deal of bad news to report about the clergy of this country.
I needn’t detail here the list of immoral acts that some clergy have committed as the media have done an excellent job of reporting on those. Or have they? Well, they’ve done an excellent job in covering the acts of pedophilia of Roman Catholic priests in a number of American dioceses. And they’ve monitored the inefficient response of the diocesans in either attempting to cover up those crimes either by transferring the priests in question or by ignoring the problem completely, hoping that it would go away on its own.
Those responses by the hierarchy are both insufficient, ignorant and morally suspect. But if we didn’t intuitively know that the media have taken great pains to point that out to us – over and over. Perhaps they consider that their rightful role as the source for reporting on the “new moral justice.”
But this “new moral justice” seems to apply only occasionally and with specificity – targeted not at the clergy “in toto” but selectively. And interestingly, one might argue, that there are racial overtones both to the reporting and to the lack of it.
If you look historically at both the white and black communities, it would be accurate to say that black Americans saw in religion the hope for a life in a future world far better than they knew in this one and attended their churches more regularly and perhaps with greater fervor than their white counterparts.
The focus of black churches lay more personally in the person of the minister conducting the service than with the priest at the altar. Any priest would do to execute a “valid liturgy” – but within the black churches people came to hear the preachin’ and to be roused by the Holy Spirit. No self-respecting black church did not have an adequate supply of “fallin’ out fans” on hand to accommodate the ladies of the congregation when, moved by the Word of God, they came near to fainting.
There is no question that the minister in a black community not only represented an example by which congregants should model their lives but was one of the few success stories to which the impoverished members of his community could look to give them hope. In today’s parlance, he was a “Big Kahuna.”
If you subscribe to my theory of “selective coverage” by the media it should not surprise you that the scandals which were extensively reported among the more conservative (translation:“White”) churches received that coverage and the appropriate amount of bashing.
But in the more “liberal” wings of the black churches, the misdeeds of ministers have been briefly reported and quietly buried. Black church goers have, like so many others, been led to the “liberal altar of free stuff” and have greedily drunk from the Kool Aid of a false communion that has been consecrated by their own clergy.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, an aide to the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was at one time a fierce and sincere advocate for the black community. Early in his career he recognized that legalized abortion was little more than a license to minimize the number of black Americans and was, in essence, selective population control. His opposition to abortion was so fervent that in 1975 he planned on drafting a Constitutional Amendment banning the practice.
This is a different Jesse Jackson than we see today. He has had to endure the embarrassment of admitting that he fathered an illegitimate child – an epidemic problem in the black community – but in his defense, he at least made the effort to pay the mother child support. And he has had to deal with the shame that his son, my former Congressman, now awaiting sentencing together with his wife, brought on the family for the misappropriation of $750,000 in funds raised for his election campaigns.
It was a different Jesse Jackson who in 1969 realized that when he spoke of “us and them” he was not framing that remark as a statement about blacks and whites, because he was a man who preached about reconciliation between the races, but who was talking about those who had economic security and those who lacked it.
“When we change the race problem into a class fight between the haves and the have-nots, then we are going to have a new ball game.”
The truth is that whether or not we agreed with Mr. Jackson back in the ‘60’s, it was hard to argue with his honesty. Given the one hundred eighty degree changes in his views (and this might be surprising as most conservatives and a fair number of ministers believe that truth is immutable), it is hard to ascribe much relevance to what Rev. Jackson has to say now.
One of Jesse Jackson’s colleagues when they came together in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was the Rev. Al Sharpton. Sharpton does not have the baggage of changing his opinions as does the Rev. Mr. Jackson. He is now and always has seen race as the basis of every inequity which has ever occurred throughout American history.
Sharpton was ordained a Pentecostal minister at the age of ten. It was at this time that his father abandoned Sharpton’s mother and their children to have an affair with Sharpton’s half sister.
Over the years of his career, Sharpton has, through his National Action Network, promoted organized demonstrations in response to incidents which have occurred throughout America (and most frequently in his native city of New York) where he believes the American judicial system has failed its black citizens. Of course, the most notable of these has been his recent effort to pressure the Justice Department into further prosecuting one George Zimmerman.
But if we look at the issues that this now liberal Baptist minister has taken on, there is one thing that the objective observer must conclude. It is that in virtually all of the cases that Mr. Sharpton has championed, there has been no evidence of racial motivation nor has there been any evidence of racially motivated law-enforcement neglecting the rights of our black citizens.
At some point, we all need to re-read the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” and I would offer that to Mr. Sharpton as a summer reading project as well.
Robert Browning penned the words:
“God’s in his Heaven —
All’s right with the world!”
Those either must have been happier days. Or perhaps the poet’s love for Elizabeth Barrett gave him a rosier view of the world than what most of us held.
The reality that we confront, because we have adopted the morality of secularism, is that in so many ways the people now occupying planet Earth appear to be more dysfunctional than ever. We have thrown off the old standards and have eagerly stood hours in line to sign up to take the oath that we will adhere to the new ones. They are far simpler to comply with as there are none. We shouldn’t be surprised at the results.
Maybe Dad was right.
“Can you imagine, if we didn’t have religion and some belief in a higher moral justice, how barbaric mankind might be?”
Unfortunately, I think we’re all finding out the answer to that question.