Any nitwit can call himself or herself a pastor in America and hang a sign outside a so-called church. That’s a price we pay for religious freedom. And if the Rev. Wingnut or Pastor Loosescrew combines a flair for self-promotion with immunity to shame, a certain brand of fame can follow. I cringe to remember the hours of television and acres of newsprint given to the late and appalling Fred Phelps, of the self-styled Westboro Baptist Church, who loaded his congregation of brainwashed and intimidated family members into vans and hauled them around the country, tormenting grief-stricken families.
But religious freedom does not require thoughtful Christians of goodwill to sit silently while charlatans, hustlers and theological bumpkins try to press the imprimatur of our faith on the sacrilege of accused childmolester Roy Moore.
This self-righteous popinjay, running as a Republican for the U.S. Senate, has inspired mostly silence from the respectable pulpits of Alabama. It seems we Christians are well practiced at averting our eyes from the lurid sideshows beneath our big tent: the willfully ignorant Young Earth creationists, the cartoonish faith healers, the tearful televangelists caught with a hand in the till or a prostitute on the side.
We tell ourselves this has nothing to do with us, that it’s bad manners to speak too loudly about religion, that it is more than enough each imperfect day simply to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.
But we have reached a point where silence is no longer enough. A growing number of Americans have no religious affiliation and only a passing interest at best. Unless they hear otherwise, they may draw the conclusion that flamboyant radicals such as Moore are the essence of our faith.
Despite our imperfections — “our manifold sins and wickedness,” to borrow from the Book of Common Prayer — we are better than that. We are a church for the likes of William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Jr. A church for Michelangelo and J.S. Bach. A church for Anne Bradstreet, Flannery O’Connor and Annie Dillard. We are a church that builds great colleges and universities and hospitals. A church that ministers to gang members in East L.A., Ebola victims in West Africa and dying neighbors in places large and small around the world.
Mainstream Muslims have been hearing for years that they must repudiate the hateful fringe perverting their religion. Surely the same applies to us Christians. Stirring up hatred for gays, liberals, Muslims and other supposed infidels, Moore bears a familial resemblance — the nonviolent side of the family — to the jihadists of the Islamic State. He brandishes a revolver instead of a broadsword, but he shares their delight in condemnation, division and (evidently) fantasies of virgins.
It’s a travesty that Moore and his sanctimonious ilk have been allowed to hijack “conservative Christianity.” I imagine William F. Buckley Jr. — that grinning apostle of joy — spinning in his grave. Buckley was an evangelist for an authentic Christian conservatism, a rich intellectual tradition traced by Russell Kirk in his 1953 masterpiece, “The Conservative Mind.”
This tradition — which today finds such able defenders as Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson — prizes humility over utopianism, natural law over social engineering, prudence over urgency, individual freedom over collective designs. It’s not the only lens through which Christians can read the Gospel, but it is a thoroughly respectable one.
Compare that with the nitwittery of Jim Zeigler, state auditor of Alabama, who offered a scandalous exegesis in defense of Moore. According to Zeigler, the mall-skulking Moore, chatting up teens and signing their high school yearbooks well into his 30s, resembles Joseph at the manger in Bethlehem. The history of sinners frantically thumbing their Bibles for a friendly passage out of context is as old as sinners and Bibles — but that is about as low as it gets.
Moore’s campaign has bragged of 50 pastors signing a letter of support. In Bible-Belt Alabama, that’s not a large number. Still, until voices are heard from the thousands of pulpits so far silent, that rump faction can claim to speak authoritatively. Surely Alabama Christians care more for Scripture than to let it be a fig leaf for Roy Moore’s naked power trip.
I think of the Apostle Paul, the very model of evangelical Christianity, who was saved from his own Moore-like pharisaical hatreds by an encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. He taught the young church in Corinth that the greatest Christian virtue is love, which “does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”
What would Paul make of Moore’s vanity and the rages of his aggrieved supporters? Millions of Christians, the silent majority you might say, have the answer in hearts moved by tenderness and mercy. Now we’re called to bear witness.