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JOSEPH N. BELL

The War Against Sin Offers Variety of Enemies

September 21, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

In a blinding flash of light the other day--reading about the Rev. Lou Sheldon of Anaheim leading his troops in protest of the Gay Pride Festival in Santa Ana--I realized that the Rev. Sheldon and I are soul brothers. We're both against sin. Both dedicated to wiping it out, wherever we find it. Only thing is, we disagree a lot on what constitutes sin. And also on what to do about it.

Take, for example, one sin on which we agree. Both of us would like to rid the world of unwanted pregnancies. I'd like to do it with a thorough, professional and objective program of sex education that recognizes human urges and frailties and deals with them in an atmosphere of ethical and moral behavior. The Rev. Sheldon would like to deal with unwanted pregnancies through abstinence--which is rather like dealing with indigestion through starvation. Or a headache by decapitation.

(It might be instructive to point out that the Rev. Sheldon's hometown of Anaheim once had the finest sex education program in the nation. It was torn down by people who shared the Rev. Sheldon's current views--and today Anaheim has the second highest ratio of teen pregnancies in Orange County.)

Now whenever anyone goes out into the field to fight sin--and this is just as true for me as it is for the Rev. Sheldon--we come up against one basic question: What is sin? The obvious authority, for many, is the Bible. But the problem is that just about anything you consider sinful can be validated there. Including hypocrisy, which Jesus came down on pretty hard. (The Rev. Sheldon was quoted at the gay-pride protest as saying: "We believe all men are created equal. A homosexual can get a driver's license." And his followers insisted that their love for gays was behind the protest.) So what we sin fighters are left with is defining sin by our own personal lights.

The Rev. Sheldon hasn't expressed himself on some of the sins I worry about a lot, for example: confiscating the property of homeless people, failing to provide proper medical care for many millions of citizens in the richest country on earth, spending $335,000 of public money to spiff up a ranch in Orange County to entertain President Bush in what turned into a private Republican bash. But no matter; there is plenty of sin to go around.

For example, the Rev. Sheldon--who cites his conversion to Christianity at the age of 16 as his license for "holding the line against sin"--sees sin in striptease dancers. He cut his sin-fighting teeth closing down a carnival girlie show in South Dakota some years ago. If I had been living in that town, I would have been pretty upset because I got my early sex education (we didn't have it in school then either) from carnival shows. (The mind boggles to consider the Rev. Sheldon's wrath when "Oh, Calcutta" plays in Anaheim in February.)

The Rev. Sheldon is also against abortion (while opposing sex education that would reduce the need for abortion) and pornography. And there we're in trouble again. He finds pornography in sex; I find it in violence. He finds the theory of evolution sinful; I find efforts to indoctrinate public education with narrow religious views sinful.

But the Rev. Sheldon's major thrust these days is, of course, against what he defines as the sin of homosexuality. He would apply the abstinence theory to homosexuals, sending them off to colonies where they might be re-programmed.

In the Rev. Sheldon's world, homosexuals would come home cured and ready to take their place in the sinless society he envisions. It isn't clear which group of sinners he would colonize next: perhaps striptease dancers or irreverent journalists. Or ministers who preach love instead of hatred.

So what kind of a world would it be if either the Rev. Sheldon or I were able to expurgate the sin we are dedicated to fighting?

In the Rev. Sheldon's world, there wouldn't be much fun because we would all be exactly alike, shaped irrevocably in his mold. I'm reminded of a Bill Mauldin cartoon I have over my desk. It shows a young family standing outside the barred door of a heavy stone building. A sign over the door says "Police State," and the young mother is saying, "My it looks peaceful and safe in there." The Rev. Sheldon would create a philosophical police state in which none of us would have to think any more.

In my world, by contrast, there would be plenty of fun, but also a great deal of confusion because of a wide variety of people doing a wide variety of things and not always pleasing one another. We would have to think for ourselves, and some of our decisions might be painful and full of doubt. They also might be exciting and exhilarating. Peace and safety would always be goals, but they would not be had at the price of authoritarianism.

If you choose to weigh the merits of these worlds, don't kid yourself that either the Rev. Sheldon or I have a direct pipeline to God--any more than you do. If you follow the advice of either of us without thinking it through for yourself, you are guilty of the only really unpardonable sin in my book.

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