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Religion at risk of losing its moral authority

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 24, 2002

These are difficult times for organized religion. The moral foundation of the church is cracking, and religious leaders have only themselves to blame.

The Roman Catholic Church has been shaken to its core by scandal. We now know that some church leaders, including Cardinal Law of Boston, protected pedophile priests, kept reassigning the child molesters to new parishes and tried to buy the silence of their young victims.

Recently released Nixon tapes, meanwhile, revealed a disturbing side of the Rev. Billy Graham, who is widely acknowledged as the world's most respected Christian evangelist. In an Oval Office meeting with President Nixon and his chief aide, H.R. Haldeman, Graham can be heard joining them in Jew-bashing. Graham says he doesn't remember making such remarks but expressed regret.

After the Sept. 11, church attendance soared as stunned and confused Americans turned to religion for comfort and guidance. However, in too many cases they discovered their religious leaders had little to offer other than making excuses for the terrorist attacks and invoking God's name to oppose U.S. military retaliation.

On this Palm Sunday, many Christians will be in church. But many others will not. Their faith has been shaken, and not just by sex scandals and coverups. For some, religion has become almost irrelevant to their struggle to cope with the post-Sept. 11 world.

The Associated Press reported last week: "A perception that religion is playing an increasing role in American life rose sharply after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, but that feeling has faded, a new poll says."

The poll was conducted just before the Easter season by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The center's director, Andrew Kohut, was quoted as saying: "Religion was in the air after Sept. 11 in a way that hadn't been the case for a long time and may not be the case for a long time in the future. I've never seen such a dramatic change disappear so quickly."

We should not be surprised given the response to Sept. 11 from leaders of some of the major denominations. The Southern Baptist Convention expressed unreserved support for the war on terrorism. Roman Catholic bishops reaffirmed the "just war" teachings of Christianity, declaring that the United States and its allies have "a moral right and a grave obligation to defend the common good against mass terrorism."

However, other religious leaders and organizations have sounded like apologists for the terrorists. They have tried to change the subject. They have urged the faithful to try to understand the terrorists' grievances against America. They have preached reconciliation, and some have even questioned America's moral authority to wage a war against terrorism. To listen to some religious leaders, you would think that America is what is wrong with the world.

The General Assembly of the National Council of Churches adopted a statement that spoke of the "tragic events of Sept. 11" -- an earthquake is a tragic event; terrorism is an act of war -- and lamented the "escalation of violence" by the United States and its allies. The council called for "an early end to the bombing campaign (in Afghanistan) and for all parties to collaborate with the international community" to end the violence. It apparently never occurred to these morally confused religious leaders that the war in Afghanistan would ultimately save lives and liberate Afghans from the repressive, brutal rule of the Taliban.

The bishops of the Episcopal Church issued a statement that tried to change the subject from terrorism to world hunger, reminding us that American affluence "stands in stark contrast to other parts of the world wracked by crushing poverty which causes the death of 6,000 children in a single morning." They urged us to wage "reconciliation."

Episcopal Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold wrote: "Many are speaking of revenge. Never has it been clearer to me than in this moment that people of faith, in virtue of the Gospel and the mission of the Church, are called to be about peace and the transformation of the human heart, beginning with our own. I am not immune to emotions of rage and revenge, but I know that acting on them only perpetuates the very violence I pray will be dissipated and overcome."

Some church leaders even suggested a moral equivalence between the terrorist attacks and the U.S. military response. According to Faith & Freedom, a publication of the Institute of Religion and Democracy in Washington, Vernon Broyles, a senior staffer with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., dismissed "terrorism" as a pejorative word used by Americans to demonize their enemies and justify war.

Broyles wrote: "While it may seem politically helpful to call them (the Sept. 11 terrorists) "barbaric' in their acts against the "civilized' world, it is appropriate to ask why the incineration of several thousand people in the attack on the World Trade Center was a "barbaric act of terrorism,' while the incineration of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are seen as a "necessary act of war by a civilized nation.' "

Is it any wonder that many Christians are confused and disillusioned and maybe a little angry? They want to be both patriotic and faithful to Christian teachings. Church leaders need to help them understand that they can be both, not make them feel guilty for wanting to defend their country.

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