Theological dictators

Posted: Jul 08, 2003 12:00 AM

Thomas Jefferson - whose greatest work, the Declaration of Independence, was celebrated for the 227th time last Friday - observed in 1774: "The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time."

That was one of those rare church-state moments that rings as true as the Liberty Bell before it cracked. And yet we witness people in the world and, I fear, increasingly in our country, who believe and act as if God not only gave us life but also required us to be in bondage.

There is something that has always bothered me about "religion," and it applies to a lot of faiths, not just the one with which America must contend and, in the case of the most radical among them, fight. It is the notion that God needs puny, fallen and imperfect human beings, who are around for an average of just 70 years, to carry out His will. Does this make sense? A God who is said to have created the universe out of nothing and who controls the keys to life and death (not to mention hell and heaven) must rely on human beings to execute judgment - such as homicide bombers in Pakistan and Moscow - and deliver blessings? What kind of weak, dysfunctional God is that? Why can't He stand up and fight like, well, God?

This attitude is not unique to certain people who claim to speak for Islam. Like many other faiths, Islam comprises people with different beliefs, interpretations and lifestyles. Certain fundamentalist Christians behave similarly (without the homicide bombers), telling people what they can and must not drink, should and should not wear and, again, depending on interpretations, whether they must or must not change their government to more accurately mirror what they see as the Kingdom of God.

It is sometimes confusing to the uninitiated. One cleric says you should pray so many times a day, abstain from pork and have nothing to do with people who don't believe as he does. Another says pork is OK, but you can't drink anything with alcohol in it. Cough medicine with a 12 percent alcoholic content apparently makes the approved list.

The question remains: Why should I listen to a man (and it's always a man, isn't it?) with something on his head, or around his neck, or in a robe or a suit? He is just like me. He gets angry. He sins. He is fallen. He will die. Why does he get to speak for God and I have no say in the matter? Am I not allowed to read "holy writ," think for myself and behave accordingly? Are ordained people necessarily better spiritually than those who are not ordained? Recent Catholic and Protestant church scandals would seem to suggest otherwise.

When Jefferson spoke of God giving us liberty, he said a wise thing. He echoed the Old Testament prophet Joshua, who said, "Choose this day whom you will serve ..." and he added "as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24:15). God gave him a choice, and he exercised it, but he didn't impose that choice on others. There are benefits for choosing wisely and consequences for choosing wrongly. But liberty, not conformity, should be supreme.

Admittedly, this is a biblical notion. So is "Vengeance is mine, says the Lord." When a mere human takes on the role of God, dispensing vengeance and judgment, and thus assuming the role God reserves for Himself, he becomes guilty of that worst of all sins: pride. He is saying that only he knows what God wants. No human can fully know that because we all "see through a glass darkly."

It's going to be difficult to win consideration for Jefferson's noble observation in Pakistan and Russia and in many other places, but we should try. As Dinesh D'Souza wrote in The Washington Post (July 4), virtue has great power, but not if it is imposed - only when it is chosen.