I REALIZE IT'S HARDER for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a liberal Episcopalian minister to resist attacking Republicans. Still, there's something fantastically disingenuous about the Rev. George Regas' protests that, contrary to what the IRS suspects, he didn't give an impermissibly virulent anti-Bush sermon at All Saints Church in Pasadena a couple of days before the 2004 election.
The issue came up last week after All Saints received a letter from the IRS warning that its tax-exempt status could be in jeopardy because of Regas' politically charged sermon. But Regas insists that he did not "cross the line" by endorsing one candidate over another.
True, he opened the sermon by saying "I don't intend to tell you how to vote," presumably with his fingers crossed. But it's virtually impossible to read it as anything other than an anti-Bush tirade aimed at sending parishioners to the polls two days later to vote the president out of office.
Although Regas called his sermon "If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry and President Bush," he didn't imagine Jesus sitting there awkwardly on a third stool, like Ross Perot, but as a presence directly criticizing only Bush, never Kerry. (Although you'd think, just out of curiosity, Jesus might have asked what really happened on those Swift boats.)
Instead, Regas' Jesus scolds the president: "President Bush, you have not made dramatically clear what have been the human consequences of the war in Iraq," adding, "now the latest figures say 100,000 Iraqi fighters, women and children are dead." And: "Jesus turns to President Bush again with deep sadness. 'Is what I hear really true? Do you really mean that you want to end a decade-old ban on developing nuclear battlefield weapons?' "
Leaving aside the odd notion of Jesus getting information by checking "the latest figures" (wouldn't he just know?) or hanging around the water cooler ("Is what I hear really true?"), Regas' Jesus is quite a policy wonk. According to the sermon, Jesus is pro-choice, against the Iraq war and vehemently disapproves of the Bush tax cuts (that "50% of the tax savings goes to the top 1% of the wealthiest Americans" would "break Jesus' heart," according to Regas). He's in favor of good prenatal care, "dignified jobs" (does carpentry count?) and affordable housing.
I'm curious what he thinks of gerrymandered voting districts, electricity regulation and making it easier to fire bad teachers, but maybe Jesus isn't really into California politics.
"How Jesus mourns the death of those 3,000 people killed on 9/11," Regas continues. "But Jesus also mourns the death, devastation and loss in Afghanistan and Iraq and Sudan and Israel-Palestine...." Then he conjures up Jesus again: "At the time of the trauma of 9/11," Jesus says, "you did not have to declare war. You could have said to the American people and the world, 'We will respond, but not in kind.' "
Just how Bush should have responded, Jesus doesn't say. But I'd like to know how Regas would have channeled Jesus' foreign policy ideas about Pearl Harbor, for instance, or the Holocaust. Presumably Jesus would have thought the latter, at least, merited some kind of action -- if only to keep it from leading to what Regas calls "Israel-Palestine" instead of just Palestine.
"Mr. President," Regas' Jesus continues, "the consequences of arrogance, accompanied by certitude that the world's most powerful military can cure all ills...." And blah-blah-blah-blabbity-blah. This Jesus is awfully wordy, not at all like the terse prophet you may remember from the Bible. Regas apparently thinks Jesus would sound rather like Cindy Sheehan blathering on to the Huffington Post, or maybe like one of John Kerry's speechwriters.
And yet the retired rector insisted a few days ago, on The Times' Op-Ed page, that his sermon "did not cross the line" between religion and campaign politics because "peace and the alleviation of poverty are core values" of his congregation. But peace and the alleviation of poverty are core values of any congregation, and there are plenty that are liberal yet manage to address these issues without attacking particular political parties or candidates.
Now, I hope no one takes this the wrong way, because some of my best friends are Episcopalian, but when it comes to reflexive anti-Bush cant, even the most progressive Pasadena churchgoers are pikers compared to the average Westside Jew. Yet I've never heard anything comparable to Regas' rhetoric at my synagogue -- from the congregation, sure, but not from the pulpit.
Somehow the sermons there manage to deal with peace and poverty without electioneering. And if Regas actually thinks his didn't cross a line, I wonder what part of "render unto Caesar" he doesn't understand?