Do we really need moral instruction from politicians?

Essay by Martha Quillen

Politics – November 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

I SPENT THE LAST TWO WEEKS of September rescuing spiders. As soon as it got cold, they started moving in, and I diligently started fishing them out of the kitchen sink and the bathtub.

But at the same time, Ed and I were painting the exterior of a little rental house we own, and there the situation seemed hopeless. Suddenly, spiders were lodging in every crack, and they wholly ignored the wet paint. Though I did my best to flick them away, it was a veritable spider Armageddon.

One day, I left for two minutes to get more paint, and came back to find four daddy long legs plastered to a wadded-up piece of masking tape I’d tossed aside. After I pried them loose, three of the spiders wandered off on their ten remaining legs, handicapped but ambulatory. But the fourth spider just waved his two surviving limbs in shock.

Then, a short time later, I flipped a plump little web-spinner away from the wet wall, only to have him land on my paint brush. Knowing he couldn’t possibly live encased in latex, I rushed that spider over to the sprinkler and dropped him in a puddle.

That’s when I realized how ridiculous I was getting. First, I suspect most people don’t waste much of their time rescuing spiders (which are hardly an endangered species). And second, I’m totally hypocritical.

When I got through painting that wall, and saw that my freshly painted siding was adorned with dirty scalloped edges of gray webbing, I took a broom and swept the entire mess away; thereby, no doubt, endangering hundreds of spiders.

But my quirky behavior is traditional and cultural, coming from my mother, who claims that spiders bring good luck. Plus, my mom credits spiders with eliminating all of the creepy crawly insects she abhors. Often when I talk to her, my mother reminisces about growing up in Michigan — where (according to her) there were no bugs.

Michigan, of course, does have bugs. Where we lived, there were houseflies, horseflies, and fruitflies, tomato horn worms of a size to rival rattlers, clouds of miller moths, plus mosquitoes nearly as big as bats (and plenty of both).

And though technically not insects, spiders came in a rather appalling variety. I especially recall the exotics that lived in Michigan and Ontario (where we lived at different times) — those rare but repulsive fuzzy blue spiders, and the big, bright red spiders that were as slick and shiny as cherries, and the arachnids we called Banana spiders, which looked like huge Bumblebees with eight fat furry legs.

In Canada, our blackberry bushes were so spider infested you couldn’t pick a berry without having a half-dozen spiders crawling onto your hand. My mother claimed those nondescript gray spiders kept the leaves healthy and the fruit perfect. But even so, I didn’t always appreciate them.

Looking back, however, I’ve got to admit that crawling insects were exceptionally uncommon in houses where I grew up. Ants almost never came in. Housewives panicked at the sight of a beetle, and roaches sounded more like a sci-fi invention than a reality. For that, my mom honored spiders, those voracious hunters of creepy crawly pests.

Now, my mother lives in Texas, a land where scorpions hide in carpets and roaches prevail. There, she has her house fumigated so often I’m surprised any living creature perseveres. And she looks back at Michigan’s spiders with genuine nostalgia.

Thus, even though I know it’s a little crazy, I keep saving spiders.

BUT ON TWO OCCASIONS, I’ve encountered people who were deeply offended by my actions. Both times, I merely snatched a spider from imminent death at their hands and offered to take it outdoors. But they came unglued. Then, they both felt compelled to tell me — again and again — how grotesque my behavior was.

Upon reflection, I’m inclined to agree — because if I ever meet anyone who rescues wood ticks, I’ll be convinced I’ve encountered a psychopath.

Yet, even so, as September waned into a cold, wet winter with our rental house half-painted (and me expending far too much time on spider rescues), I realized that spider salvage is actually the kinkiest behavior I can lay claim to. And although spider rescue may be weird, Clinton, Packwood, Gingrich, Dole, Chenoweth, Hyde, and a host of other eminent personages, have all indulged in behavior more destructive to their families.

So considering that, I wondered why I had to put up with so many politicians intent on improving my family values.

In Washington, divorced congressmen rail against divorce, while congresswomen with children denounce working mothers, and adulterous senators rant about family values. And very few of them seem in the least bit embarrassed by their hypocrisy.

Right off the top of my head, I can think of several Bible verses that would indicate our congressmen should worry more about their own transgressions, and less about ours. But I won’t include them here, since as they say — and our congressmen aptly demonstrate — even the devil can quote scripture.

I’m jesting. In actuality, I think many of our leaders are sincerely religious men.

But lately our politicians have been mixing politics and religion so liberally, it seems they’ve forgotten all about our nation’s principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state.

Currently — even though it’s fashionable to denounce our big, intrusive government — everyone seems to be clamoring for more government regulation over our moral standards. Most Americans seem to want their government to oversee the internet, television and movies, and to provide more tobacco regulation, stiffer drug penalties, new medical ethics, more family intervention policies, more AIDS and abstinence education, more legislation regarding reproductive rights, and more divorce regulation. Obviously, despite all of our talk, we don’t think we have enough laws to make our neighbors behave.

So more and more frequently, we opt for taking moral choices out of homes and churches and putting them in the government’s hands.

When morality is the political issue, however, religion inevitably jumps on the bandwagon. And in the past, the amalgamation of politics and religion has often inspired disaster — including witch-burnings, crusades, an Inquisition, Klan killings, and the wholesale annihilation of heathens.

Even today, the combination still commands its toll in murder, terrorism and ethnic-cleansing. More often, however, this unholy synthesis merely incites injustice, hardship and anguish.

IN THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY, the Calvinist, Oliver Cromwell became lord protector of Britain, and diligently worked toward giving England, Scotland and Ireland a high-minded, Puritan society. In 1642, Cromwell shut the theaters, consequently causing untold misery for England’s poets, playwrights, and dreamers.

But in 1660 the monarchy was restored, and Charles II returned to England, bringing along his mistresses and his indulgent moral viewpoint. A Protestant who openly contended that God wouldn’t damn a man for a little pleasure, not-so-good King Charley fathered at least fourteen illegitimate children.

A slippery character, Charles also broke England’s Protestant Triple alliance with the Dutch United Provinces and Sweden, and vowed to become a Roman Catholic in order to ally himself with France — but Charles kept his vow to France a secret from his countrymen who weren’t wildly enthused about Catholicism. In the end, Charles didn’t actually join the Roman Catholic Church until he was on his deathbed.

Throughout his life, Charles embraced a rather opportunistic perspective regarding religious matters, and he definitely encouraged a wholly different social environment than the one Cromwell had established.

TO THE CITIZENRY, this enormous shift of manners and mores must have been confusing, unpleasant, and for some downright intolerable. Yet both Cromwell and Charles were enlightened men for their times, advocating religious tolerance and trying, albeit not always successfully, to allow the people to follow their own beliefs.

Whereas, generally in those days, as soon as a ruler took command, he expected the people to forget their old beliefs and follow their leader.

Although Christianity takes a bad rap for such goings on, try as I might, I can’t find much scriptural justification for imposing religious observances on the unwilling, or slaying Saracens, or wiping out the wicked with Torquemada.

I figure that’s because the New Testament sanctions religious devotion rather than spiritual tyranny. And devotion can’t be advanced by forcing unwanted rites and values onto a disbelieving public.

On the contrary, real reverence comes from an individual’s commitment to his faith, and faith can’t be imposed or mandated; it has to be heartfelt.

So why are so many modern religious organizations, politicians, and individuals trying to legislate their religious principles, rather than actually trying to inspire them?

Personally, I don’t think all of this mixing of religion and politics bodes well for America. But worse than that, I don’t think our current religious rhetoric is doing much for religion.

In our society, we worry about whether the proliferation of movie and television violence has made us immune to the real thing. But we seldom worry about what blithely imparted piety, pro forma prayer, and hasty invocations can do to religion.

Yet obviously, we’re not supposed to be offering our prayers to each other. Or mumbling them without thought. Or displaying our beliefs like fine clothes to impress our friends (or to garner votes).

The Bible is not a political weapon. Prayer shouldn’t be a political tool. And scripture is not a sound bite.

And personally, I’m sick of all the self-righteous drivel our politicians treat us to.

As I see it, Trent Lott has got a lot of nerve utilizing his Christianity to censure homosexuals — when the GOP has practically made covetousness a party platform.

Lest Lott forget, the admonishment against homosexuality is in Leviticus, a book few modern Christians adhere to. Whereas the denunciation of covetousness is a commandment.

And I was appalled when President Clinton confessed his sins to me — because in my view, I have no right to judge his sins, nor absolve them. (When it comes to sin, all I can do is hope that when Clinton confesses to a higher authority, he doesn’t quibble about that authority’s definition of adultery.)

IN THE PAST FEW YEARS, politicians have raved more and more about our immorality. They’ve claimed as their province our sexuality, parenting, marriage, and family values. But I can’t see that it’s done much good.

We don’t live in a kinder, gentler nation. And in spite of all the Christian oratory, we’re not treating each other any better, or turning our cheeks, or forgiving one another’s transgressions more often.

Instead, we’re at each other’s throats, and giving into road rage.

Which isn’t too surprising — since politics offers us a cheapened version of religion. It’s easy. We can denounce President Clinton, or we can forgive him. We can disdain homosexuals, or we can support them. We can insist on premarital abstinence, or we can advocate more sex education. And no matter which way we go, we can feel better about ourselves — and holier, and more righteous.It’s great. We don’t have to do anything whatsoever — except pretend that our natural inclinations and opinions make us better than our neighbors.

NONETHELESS, I suspect real virtue comes not from worrying about our neighbors’ sins, but from recognizing our own transgressions and doing something about them. And that’s hard — especially when it means we can’t just excuse ourselves by comparing our sins to the wicked offenses of others.

But difficult or not, I think most Americans are fairly virtuous — when they’re not being led astray by indignant politicians who thrive on encouraging anger, contempt, self-righteousness and greed.

Although communing with spiders may be wholly absurd, it does give one time to reflect. So while I was painting, I thought about how Americans regard sin, repentance, redemption, and religion. (Actually, it was impossible not to think about that, with so many ministers, newscasters and columnists discussing Clinton’s sins rather than his inappropriate conduct or alleged crimes.)

And I could only conclude one thing about religion in America:

In spite of all the brouhaha over our depravity, most Americans must be confessing their sins pretty regularly — because some of our politicians have got to be a penance.

–Martha Quillen