Being normal, being honest, and why religious people don’t want you to be


samson_sinecera_lg-940x624If you were a builder in ancient Rome, you would shop the vendors who sold marble or other building stone. Builders who wanted their work to last, who believed in the ethics of business, would look for vendors whose stone was known to be sine cera – without wax. Unscrupulous vendors would use wax to fill the flaws and cracks in their product. Marble that was sine cera was the most desired. Sine cera is the Latin expression from which we get the English word sincere.

The same principle should apply in life and living as much as it did in building and construction. But it doesn’t always…particularly in the world of religion.

It is impossible to be a normal person and be an esteemed religious leader so dishonesty, duplicity, and phoniness is not only tolerated, it is rewarded.  Religious people expect their leaders to be saints, to be superhuman, to be different than everyone else. It stems from the belief that in order to be esteemed and respected, one must be above the normal human frailties…or at least appear to be.

One leader told me that to be a pastor you cannot ever let anyone know who you really are or what you really think. People, he warned, must be kept at arm’s length. This attitude in religion has spawned a religious professionalism, a celebrity sort of status, that is, frankly, impossible to live up to.

The desired effect is intended to foster and promote leaders who live at a higher level than everyone else. It actually produces the opposite.


Because it encourages and promotes deceit. It has spawned the religious professional who had learned to talk just so, look just so, take on affected mannerisms and salt his speech with religious phrases promoted by just the right facial contortions that indicate one’s piety and their more-powerful-than-a-locomotive, able-to-leap-tall-buildings sort of life. Because the focus is on outward acts that demonstrate that one does the right things, individuality and honesty is not only discouraged, it is seriously punished. If you dare reveal what you really think, if you venture a doubt, if you express a degree of humanity that does not meet the standard of righteousness set up by that group, you will be pounced on mercilessly.

When one Christian leader dared broach this subject in his blog by writing about why leaders get discouraged he was hammered by congregants who insisted that if a leader were truly the spiritual giant they had hired him to be he would be above all such things, and he would never be discouraged. If he did, then they said, there was something wrong with him.

And that, my friends, is the problem. It should bother religious people that they have forced their leaders to hide, deceive, and lie, but it doesn’t. And I am not suggesting that leaders do anything illegal or even immoral. I am suggesting that the standards imposed upon them are both unnecessary and impossible.

One close friend recounted the time a visitor came to his church and introduced herself after the service. When the pastor introduced the visitor to his wife and children, the visitor was shocked that the pastor had children. “You have children?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied, “three of them.”

Seeing the look of shock on her face, he asked, “Is there something wrong?”

“Well, no,” she stammered, “I just didn’t know holy people did such things.”

It seems funny now, but you catch the thinking behind her perspective. That religious people would actually have sex seems somehow inappropriate to her. I am not, of course, rationalizing illegitimate behavior, and you know that. I am, however, suggesting that it should bother religious people that their leaders cannot be “normal” and thus we expect them to hide their normal side.

One parishioner once asked me what music my wife and I listened to when we, in her words, “want to visit never never land.” When I responded that we liked Sinatra she was shocked and said so. She thought we should listen only to Christian music.

Long before political correctness came to influence speech, theological correctness has been at work. Its child, religious correctness, has spawned a weird and creepy approach to life that immediately sets a religious person and a religious group outside the realm of normal everyday living.

So hiding, pretending, covering up, and other acts of presentation are promoted. Strange isn’t it, that in a religious world, so much deceit is practiced.

And it gets worse.

I am going to come at this from another angle which may sound like I am disputing what I just wrote in the paragraphs above. I have been suggesting that we allow leaders (and everyone else for that matter) to be normal. I am suggesting that our desire to have celebrities as leaders and that those leaders live the image of saintliness has encouraged hiding and deceit not only in those leaders but also in those systems and governing bodies that support them. In so doing, we have set the stage to cover up unseemly behavior and we have used whatever religious reasoning might be necessary to ensure it is never uncovered.

I’ve been around long enough to have seen most of the gimmicks and tricks out there…and there are plenty. I remember Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s shenanigans, Jimmy Swaggart’s crash and burn, and the schemes of too many more. The sad thing is that the ordaining body of the Bakker’s and Swaggart knew very well what was going on long before it made the headlines and they did nothing at all about it. When pressed to explain they said that they really wanted to step in but, after all, those ministers were doing so much good that they felt it better to just overlook things. The ends, after all, justify whatever happens while the means are being perpetrated. It should bother religious people, but sadly it does not.

Those two cases are highly visible ones, but the same is played out all over the place all the time and covered up for the same reasons. The drive to be successful (by whatever terms may be defined as successful) is primary. The need for celebrity and the promotion of illusion is sanctioned so much that we have borrowed from strength to compensate for weakness. It should bother religious people that the illusion of greatness is favored over the essence of greatness.

Am I suggesting that we condone such behavior? Of course not. Am I suggesting that we overlook such behavior? No.

I am, however, suggesting that the entire religious context is a construct that enables such behavior to thrive. In religious settings the “holy man (or woman),” the priest, the preacher, the person with the charisma to lead a group is subjected to dynamics of contradiction.

In most groups there is a list of things he or she can and cannot do. That list usually varies from group to group and from person to person within the group. The result is a minefield that the leader must negotiate every day, carefully stepping his way through the myriad of duties expected of him without setting off any explosions.

From the clothes they wear to the car they drive to the words they speak and the tone of voice they use to express them, we have molded and shaped a standard whereby the leader learns to play the role. Religious followers have a checklist of expectations and as long as those items are checked off, well, just about anything else can happen as long as they keep it quiet and hidden.

See what I mean? The religious construct has made duplicitous behavior possible. Indeed, it has made it acceptable. I’ll go so far as to say it has promoted it. As long as one plays the game, all is well. There are prominent faith healers who go out of state or out of country for medical procedures, hiding their dependence on conventional medicine lest followers might condemn them for a lack of faith. There are religious leaders who have learned to take a low salary but add to that substantial benefits that are hidden in other perks so as to mislead the faithful into thinking they live humbly when the opposite is true. The problem is not going out of country for a medical procedure. The problem is not the salary one earns. The problem is the dishonesty that is widely employed to hide it. And it would not be necessary if religion actually promoted normal. But it doesn’t.

Normal people listen to music they like not music they should like because someone else thinks they ought to like it. Normal people go to hockey games because they like hockey (I know a pastor in Toronto who has to leave the city if he wants to go to a hockey game because the people in his church do not approve.) Normal people live lives without that kind of performance anxiety that produces all sorts of rationalized and duplicitous behavior.

Normal people are not phony.

This it not a new phenomenon. It’s been going on for millennia because it is the religious construct that is at fault. Spirituality is not sinless perfection. Never has been, never will, never should be. Religion fosters the illusion that it is and that it should be when it cannot be….never…ever.

This should bother religious people, but it doesn’t seem to.


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