public life

So a bishop talks theology in a bar ...

"Atheocracy" is not the kind of word that gets tossed around very often in bars. Nevertheless, Bishop James Conley recently defined that term and defended its use while speaking in a pub in the heart of Denver's trendy Capitol Hill neighborhood. The goal, as always, was to use this "Theology on Tap" forum for an informal, frank encounter with young Catholics and others who might be curious.

"America today is becoming what I would call an atheocracy -- a society that is actively hostile to religious faith and religious believers. And I might add -- the faith that our society is most hostile toward is Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular," said Conley, who is serving as apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Denver until Pope Benedict XVI names a new archbishop.

"I think we all recognize that there is a new mentality in America, one that has grave risks for all believers -- and puts in jeopardy all faith-based movements for social change and renewal. An atheocracy is a dangerous place -- morally and spiritually. ... We risk becoming a nation without a soul, a people with no common purpose apart from material pursuits."

What happened next was as ironic as public discourse gets there days.

Although Conley was speaking in an isolated part of Stoney's Bar and Grill, some patrons in the establishment began making snide remarks. Eventually, one man aimed obscene remarks at the bishop.

On top of that, the management said some workers complained about serving the bishop and the crowd that came out to hear him on a cold weeknight. It seemed that allowing a bishop to talk theology while sharing a few beers with his flock was too controversial for some customers and bar staffers.

The story spread quickly in the Catholic blogosphere.

"It's a business decision and it's acceptable for them to make that decision," said Jeanette DeMelo, spokesperson for the archdiocese, in a statement to Catholic media. "The bar has a right to be what it is, a sports bar with a non-controversial atmosphere, which allows anyone and everyone to feel at home -- except Catholics in collars."

Lost in the shuffle was the content of the bishop's lecture, which he called "Atheocracy and the Battle for Religious Liberty in America." It opened with the faith-based frenzy swirling around Denver quarterback Tim Tebow and proceeded into discussions of G.K. Chesterton, the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, President John F. Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others.

The key, according to the bishop's printed text, is that it's getting harder to defend universal concepts of morality and human rights in a society in which far too many politicians, academics, jurists, media stars and others have traded neutrality on traditional forms of religion for openly hostility.

Recent popes have called this trend "practical atheism." Pope Benedict XVI openly addressed this issue during a gathering of world religious leaders last year in Assisi, noted Conley.

"The enemies of religion … see in religion one of the principal sources of violence in the history of humanity and thus they demand that it disappear," argued the pope. "But the denial of God has led to much cruelty and to a degree of violence that knows no bounds, which only becomes possible when man no longer recognizes any criterion or any judge above himself. ...

"The horrors of the concentration camps reveal with utter clarity the consequences of God's absence. … The denial of God corrupts man, robs him of his criteria and leads him to violence."

What the pope was describing, according to Conley, is the "moral and political landscape of an atheocracy." This trend then influences public debates on issues ranging from abortion to the care of the elderly, from same-sex marriage to the new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rules that require religious institutions to include free health-care coverage of contraceptives, sterilizations and abortifacient drugs known as "morning-after pills."

The stakes are high, stressed Conley, which means that these issues must be discussed openly -- even if some are offended.

"Without God, there is no basis for morality and no necessary protections for man," he said. "The strong decide what is right or wrong -- even who lives and who dies. ... That is where we seem to be heading in America today. A lot of people would argue that we are already there."

'God-o-Meter' Democrats

It wasn't easy being the token evangelical in the Howard Dean office during the 2004 White House race.

Other staffers called Mara Vanderslice the "church lady" and reminded her that the loudest cheers at Dean rallies followed attacks on the Religious Right. But what really stung were her candidate's answers to religious questions.

Round one: Dean confessed that he left the Episcopal Church when his parish blocked the construction of a bike path. Round two: He names the Book of Job as his favorite New Testament book. Round three: Asked about his plans to woo religious believers, Dean said he was waiting until the campaign hit the Deep South.

Ouch. That was business as usual until the "values voters" carried President George W. Bush back into office, said author Dan Gilgoff, who dissected the trials of Vanderslice in "The Jesus Machine," his book on James Dobson and the Christian right. That election shook the Democrats and helped them realize that they needed some candidates who were not afraid of faith.

Meet dyed-in-the-wool United Methodist Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who openly testifies about making his profession of faith at a United Church of Christ altar. God talk is back, for the Democrats, while key Republicans face unique faith challenges.

"Part of it is the candidates in the field this time," said Gilgoff, politics editor at the website. "In particular, with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton you have two people who have been very vocal about their faith and don't mind talking about it. For Democrats, you could say this was just the luck of the draw."

Meanwhile, in the Republican pews, Rudy Giuliani has a troubled Catholic past, Mitt Romney is struggling to answer Mormon questions and various GOP kingmakers -- sacred and secular -- have questions about Fred Thompson, John McCain and the Rev. Mike Huckabee. The Republicans are trying to preach to a powerful, but troubled, choir.

Everyone knows the stakes are high. Voters who reported attending services more than once a week supported Bush over John Kerry by a margin of 64 to 35 percent and, for those attending once a week, the gap was 58 to 41 percent. Americans who never attended services backed Kerry, 62 to 36 percent.

It's hard for outsiders to follow all of this, which is why Gilgoff and editors at and Time have created a digital guide for politicos who want to follow this contest to win the hearts of religious voters. The result is the "God-o-Meter" (, which, according to its creators, is pronounced "Gah-DOM-meter." If readers click on the head of a Democratic or Republican candidate, the site delivers his or her ranking on a 10-point scale between "secularist" and "theocrat."

"Our definition of 'secularist' is someone who sees no role for religion in public life and policy," said Gilgoff. "The 'theocratic' position is pretty much the opposite of that."

But there's a theological twist here. The "God-o-Meter" applies this "theocrat" label to liberals who want to see their religious convictions shape public policy (think global warning and health care) to the same degree that it does to conservatives (think abortion and the redefinition of marriage). Thus, at mid-week, theocrat Clinton had a seven rating, the same as Giuliani, and Obama's rating had soared to nine. Romney, meanwhile, was edging close to "secularist" territory, with a five rating.

The key is that the "God-o-Meter" tracks 20 criteria drawn from campaign tactics, such as whether a candidate "frames issues in religious or spiritual terms," "delivers a speech ... in an overtly religious setting" or openly "discusses his/her personal faith and how it would influence his/her presidency." A candidate would lose points, for example, by making "a remark offensive to an important religious constituency" or by declining to "discuss his/her personal faith life when asked, e.g. by a debate moderator."

Right now, words and symbolic actions are enough.

"There is going to be a test later, in terms of whether the Democrats are willing to compromise on any of the hot social issues in terms of actual laws and policy positions," said Gilgoff. "But all of that is a long way down the road. Right now, the Democrats simply have to find a way to start talking to the evangelicals and listening to what they have to say. ... What do they have to lose?"

Hypocrites are us

Talk about bad timing.

On the day after former Congressman Mark Foley entered an alcohol rehab program, his beleaguered staff received a package. With reporters watching, they unpacked a framed copy of one of his most famous pieces of legislation -- a bill requiring a crackdown on sexual predators, including those who exploit minors online.

And all the people said: "Hypocrite!"

"It's hard to talk about the Foley story without talking about hypocrisy," said journalist Jeremy Lott, referring to the congressman's spectacular fall after discovery of his explicit digital messages to teen-aged male Capitol pages. "I mean, Mark Foley's a hypocrite, the Republicans are hypocrites, the Democrats are hypocrites and lots of journalists are hypocrites, too. Right now, I can't think of anyone in the Foley affair who isn't being accused of being a hypocrite by somebody and lots of the anti-hypocrites are being hypocritical, too."

It helps to define your terms, which is what my former colleague at does in his edgy book "In Defense of Hypocrisy." Lott starts with the American Heritage Dictionary, which, in its most recent edition, defines "hypocrisy" as the "professing of beliefs or virtues that one does not possess."

Meanwhile, the word "hypocrite" has a slightly different meaning when used in news reports about the sins of politicians, preachers and other community leaders. When journalists talk about "hypocrites" we are usually referring to people who publicly condemn an act that they practice in secret. The classic example is the minister who preaches family values while committing adultery with the church organist.

Then there is the common anti-hypocrite, which Lott defines as a person who, at every opportunity, loudly condemns the actions and beliefs of those whom he considers hypocrites. But here is the key. The true anti-hypocrite vents his rage on an entire class of people -- usually moralists, clergy or religious believers -- and then proudly uses his disgust as a way to rationalize his own behavior.

The Foley drama offers a spectacular cast of hypocrites.

* Foley gets the "hypocrite" verdict because of his highly public work on behalf of exploited children. The Republican congressman also stayed in the closet, thus helping conservatives and the dreaded Religious Right in their battles against gay rights.

* GOP leaders are being accused of hypocrisy by those who claim that they ignored Foley's indiscretions in order to retain the services of a charismatic legislator in hip South Florida, where it would be hard to elect an ordinary Republican.

* Republicans are calling Democrats hypocrites because they screamed about Foley's actions but have not, in the past, reacted as strongly to the questionable affairs of powerful Democrats. The classic case focused on the late Rep. Gerry Studds of Massachusetts, who remained in office after the revelation that he had a homosexual relationship with a teen-aged congressional page.

* Republicans are calling some journalists hypocrites because they received tips about Foley's actions, but sat on the story for months until they were able to pile fuel on this pre-election bonfire. Then there are the gay-rights activists who may or may not have used the media to yank Foley out of the closet in order to help Democrats take control of Congress.

Many of these people are practicing what Lott calls the "saint or shut up" strategy when it comes to talking about public morality. They argue that only squeaky-clean people -- like Jimmy Carter, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and the pope -- have the right to make pronouncements about hot issues. Everyone else is supposed to keep quiet or they will be accused of hypocrisy.

The problem is that sin, and thus hypocrisy, is part of the human condition. Anyone who believes anything struggles to live up to those beliefs in the harsh light of day.

There are even times, argues Lott, when a little hypocrisy may do some good. Take, for example, the faithful who fail to notice that a bride is pregnant as she walks down the church aisle. Everyone knows, but pretends not to know, because the bride and groom are doing the right thing.

"It's a good thing when sinners continue to oppose sin, even if they are still struggling with sin in their own lives," he said. "Sometimes, hypocrisy is what allows sinful people to be decent while they try to do what's right."