I saw my old friend Browne recently. The subject eventually turned to the politics of religion and the religion of politics. I asked him what he thought about the current Anglican debate over homosexuality, and I wondered aloud if it had anything to do with the obvious unmanliness of the clergy—the final phase of what Ann Douglas called “feminization.” Somewhat hesitantly he confessed that he hadn’t been in an Episcopal church for a number of years. I assumed that he had gone back to his family’s ancestral Methodism or Calvinism, but no. He simply didn’t go to church. “I had my children christened and confirmed. I did my duty, and it’s up to them now. The truth is,” he declared, “I can no longer stand the effrontery of clergymen.”

I made the best case for going to church I could think of at that late hour and quoted George Herbert at him:

Judge not the preacher, for he is thy judge
If thou mistake him, thou conceiv’st him not:
God calleth preaching folly: do not grudge
to pick out treasures from an earthen pot:
the worst speak something good; if all want sense,
God takes the text and preacheth patience.

But I could see that I was making little headway. I was reminded of a conversation I’d had a year or so ago with another former Anglican—a distinguished social philosopher who tried to explain to me how he had spent 10 years in an unsuccessful attempt to be a regular communicant. In the end, he gave it up. The clergy, he insisted, were insupportable: vain, pretentious, poorly educated, and politically incorrigible were the more polite charges. To this list, my friend Browne adds the worst: “Their sermons are boring. Sam Johnson went to plain prayer services—no sermons—to set a good example. He didn’t want people to think he went to church only to be entertained by the sermon. Small chance of that, these days.”

These are familiar tales of the Episcopal Church—PECUSA, as it is sometimes known to initiates. However, I might just as easily have chosen examples from Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic, and Presbyterian friends. These days it is hard to find a thoughtful person who is really satisfied with his church, and the cause of the disgust is almost always the clergy.

“Some of the lower orders of clergy are occasionally not too bad,” Browne concedes, “but the executives are the greatest offenders against public decency around: bloated Catholic bishops with hard eyes and fatuous voices, well-tailored Anglicans with fatuous manners and old money, Hollywood-coiffured evangelists who made their money with the old-fashioned techniques of a street Arab: begging and stealing.”

I pointed out the obvious and honorable exceptions. There are Anglicans in the South—even bishops—who recall happier times for the Church. One of the youngest is an ecclesiastical historian of sound principle and upright character. You can still meet an occasional two-fisted Irishman or mule-headed German among the sniveling epicenes that are now manufactured by the nation’s Catholic seminaries; and, to be fair, some of the best men we both had known included clergymen: Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, and at least two Anglicans. One of them was a simple man who had worked on the railroad. Recovering from an accident, he decided to investigate the claims made by the various Christian sects. After a period of study and deliberation, he chose the Episcopal Church. It sounds bizarre, but he believed it and lived in that belief as a faithful priest who ministered to mission churches, working a second job to support his family. Even in the most politicized churches, e.g., the Methodists, there are hundreds of decent men who go quietly about their work of baptizing, serving communion, preaching the gospel, and counseling all those who are troubled in mind, body, or estate.

What a contrast with the Trollopean characters who sit in bishops’ chairs today. The Anglican clergy no longer hunt foxes, but they are quick to adopt all the other enthusiasms of the American upper class. They issue forth from their exclusive neighborhoods to lead demonstrations against apartheid; freed forever from the obligation to defend their country, they huff and puff over world peace and nuclear disarmament—while at the same time calling for jihads against Chile and South Africa; living comfortably on tax-sheltered incomes, they summon the rest of us to a life of fasting and humility—for what? Service to the Lord? No, service to humanity, to social and economic justice, and to all the other code words for the principalities and powers that rule this world.

Most Americans, especially the beneficiaries, take these privileges of clergy for granted. We leap easily from the later Middle Ages, when an almost universal church rivaled the power and authority of emperors and kings, to the present secular age as if there had been no Reformation, no American Revolution, no Constitution. Conservatives frequently sneer at Jefferson and Madison for their anxieties about established churches, but it is from the comfortable distance of 200 years of disestablishment. Perhaps we worry, those of us who are believers, too much about the encroachments of the state upon the freedom of religion and too little about the churches’ intrusion into politics. A few years ago the liberals were fond of asking if we wanted Jerry Falwell in our bedroom. For most Americans the answer was no, but there is another, more pressing question: do we want the Catholic bishops—bulging with tax-exempt and taxsheltered wealth—interfering in affairs of state and national defense? It is not just conservative Catholics who see the bishops as a lobbying force against the national interest. Many Protestants and secularist liberals are fed up with the political pretentions of these armchair politicians, and the church is now facing legal actions that would drastically alter its tax status.

In fairness to Mr. Falwell, I should point out that as head of the Moral Majority he was only claiming the rights of a private citizenry in a democracy. But the Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican bishops—acting with all the courtesy and restraint of Iranian Mullahs at a NOW convention—do not trouble themselves about the rights and duties of citizenship. Because they have mumbled certain formulae (whether they believe them or not) and chosen to wear exotic costumes, the higher clergy lay claim to a wide variety of political rights that transcend both law and public interest.

I sometimes wonder what things would be like if Mr. Jefferson’s proposed “wall of separation” had been built and buttressed by federal statutes and local tax codes. Before the days of income taxes the issue hardly came up, but it is time for a second look. Why are donations to churches automatically tax-exempt, and why are most of their earnings sheltered? It is true that similar exemptions are given to groups whose stated purpose—charity, education, the arts—correspond to some public commitment. In this light, religion, even viewed as a merely social phenomenon, is of such manifest public utility that it can safely be included with public sculpture and government schools.

Still, atheists and secularists do have a point when they argue that religion is, in the modern world, more controversial than education. They wonder why nonbelievers should pay higher taxes to make up for what is lost through religious exemptions. Carried to an extreme, this line of reasoning would set up a cafeteria tax structure in which citizens paid only for government activities of which they approved. Even the libertarians’ minimal state could be regarded as coercive because it would compel us to support the warmongering activities of the State Department. If religion goes, the surgeon general and his sex pamphlets might be next.

Religion has always played a particularly significant role in American life, ever since the Jamestown settlers conducted the first Thanksgiving. Churches perform valuable charitable services, and if we are worried about tax subsidies for religion, we might also consider the amount of money we would otherwise spend on educating the children who attend religious schools. These are good, practical reasons that must be taken into consideration, but religious leaders typically go much further and claim their privileges as a right. In recent zoning disputes, some churches have declared themselves exempt from any local restrictions that might hinder the free exercise of religion. Today it is zoning; tomorrow it will be health codes; next week it could be polygamy. Some churches are already notorious for violating antigambling ordinances. (In the Beatles’ first movie, Paul’s Irish grandfather goes to a casino and insists on saying “bingo” instead of “banco.” It’s a natural mistake.)

Freedom of religion is a vast umbrella that may be used to shelter Islam and Buddhism, Voodoo and Santeria, Christian Science and the Unification Church, along with the branches of Christianity and Judaism with which the framers of the Constitution were familiar. One man’s humbug is another man’s revelation, and in contemporary America it is getting harder and harder to distinguish between a Methodist prayer meeting and a Black mass, between Kosher butchers and the ritual sacrifice of goats and chickens in a Chicago housing project. In a country where Satanists go on talk shows to defend their point of view, can we really exclude Oriental cult leaders from the rights and privileges enjoyed by Jesuits? If the draft were reinstituted, it would be impossible to decide on the bona fides of every shirker who nominated himself High Priest of the ancient rites of Baal.

Perhaps we ought not to try. After all, the Constitution does not automatically exempt priests or other “conscientious” persons from military service. In the nation’s first 100 years, various religious groups, like the Quakers, won certain privileges from state legislatures, but even in the Civil War the Episcopal Church failed to secure draft exemption for its ministers. It has only been in the 20th century that such exemptions have been routinely granted, but the federal courts have consistently maintained that it is a privilege rather than a right. Right or privilege, it was exercised with an unwholesome frequency in the last years of conscription. In many denominations it is a standing joke to suspect the vocation of any clergyman who attended divinity school during the Vietnam War.

What earthly or heavenly good it does to exempt Unitarians and free-thinking Methodists from the draft is anybody’s guess. I can’t even imagine the rationale that would justify special treatment for liberal seminarians who profess, more or less, nothing. Even for serious Protestants, there is no obvious reason why ministers should be accorded special treatment. At the heart of the Reformation is an attack upon the metaphysical status of the clergy. While the Protestant minister must be a man of virtuous conduct and correct principle to carry out his duties, the priest—Catholic, Orthodox, or even Anglican—is what he is in spite of his character. He can bind and loose souls, exorcise demons, and act in persona Christi in the mass. As a holy man, his purity is of as much (perhaps more) concern as his morals, and he must be kept free from the taint of blood. Such a person should not be in a position to make war or even to sit on a jury in a capital case.

That, at least, was the ideal. History records more than a few examples of Catholic bishops—even a Pope—leading armies into battle, and in the last century some Orthodox priests in the Balkans were as much partisan commanders as priests. While I would not necessarily recommend drafting the clergy, it is a pleasant speculation. What would it be like if we reinstituted national military training for all able men? I can see it now. Marine Boot Camp at Parris Island, SC, in August. As the DI gets to the end of roll call, he bellows: Arbuckle, Fatty, Most Reverend; Greenstreet, Sidney, Most Reverend. Between them this pair of typical bishops weigh in at half a ton, and one would pay a good deal to see them wallowing through an obstacle course in the summer heat. “Come on, your excellencies, get the lead out. MOVE.”

Back in the barracks the bishops could explain their views on social justice and world peace to recruits from Arkansas and Alabama. “Tell that to the Marines” is an old Army response to any ridiculous story, but even the sensitive Marines who complained about Clint Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge would have trouble swallowing any of the Catholic bishops’ declarations. It is precisely these political statements and activities that are undermining all our natural respect for the clergy.

The bishops and denominational leaders had better make up their minds on what their proper business is—politics or the faith. If it is politics, then they should register as lobbying agents or run for office. Frankly, it does not matter which side they are on. Defenses of free enterprise and democracy are as out of place in the pulpit as tirades against Reagan and nuclear weapons. If Christianity can be reduced to a capitalism or Communism, it is a very paltry sort of faith. The truth is, the Church has flourished under the Byzantine Empire, the French monarchy, and the predemocratic American republic, and today it is as strong in Communist Poland as it is in democratic America. In both cases, I suspect it is in spite of, not because of, politics.

There is something suspicious in the conduct of men who abandon the highest vocation and descend to the level of political shills. Like the Rev. Richard Price, they celebrate bloody revolutions and give speeches on equality. Burke’s answer to Price’s sermon on the French Revolution was his famous Reflections, in which he made an observation that is far more relevant today than it was in the 1790’s:

Politics and the pulpit are terms that have little agreement. No sound ought to be heard in church but the healing voice of Christian charity.

The alternative is some form of state religion. If we can judge from the examples of the Russians, the English, and the Swedes, state churches experience all the corrupting influences that usually accompany excessive wealth and power. A little suffering is good for the faith. Persecution forces us to choose between God and Mammon, but established churches are more tolerant: Why not God and Mammon? The result, in England, has been a series of revolutions against the establishment, represented by the figures of Wycliffe, Cranmer, Sir Thomas More, the Puritans, the Anglican bishops who resisted James II, the Wesleys, et al. The English Church has had more than its share of great men, but in most cases they have found themselves at odds with the political opportunists who served as bishops.

My friend Browne, by the way, is working on a play written in answer to Jean Anouilh’s Becket and Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. In his Henry II, we will be treated to a politicized and faithless cleric who used his ecclesiastical office as a base for schemes and plots against one of the most effective rulers in the history of England. Reduced to despair over his friend’s betrayal and his interference with every plan for reforming the government and strengthening the realm. King Henry II finally uttered the line that increasing numbers of Americans are already thinking in their hearts: “Will no one revenge me of the injuries I have sustained from one turbulent priest?”