It is time in our political and religious history torestore the defrocking by which the church once ousted clerics from itsranks.

As in stripping a military man of his stars and bars in front of theregiment, the ecclesiastical ritual publicly removed such signs andseals of office that the offender, be he simple priest or complicatedarchbishop, might possess.

This unambiguous and brutal procedure clearly separated church fromstate by taking away the uniform whose symbolism was used as cover bymen whose goals were less holiness, charity, and good works than power,influence, and money.

Unfortunately, the separation of church and state in this countryhas been boiled down from great existential questions about good andevil to mild civic insensitivities about whether you can put a crib or amenorah on the village common.

You hear a lot about the separation of church and state when someonecomplains about a prayer before a football game. That, however, is nomore a religious act than the invocation at a political fund-raiser.Making a fuss about pre-game prayer distracts us from a far more seriousconfusion of church and state that constitutional lawyers and most editorialwriters ignore.

It is time to confront such personalities as Jerry Falwell, JesseJackson, and Al Sharpton and, in as public a rite as possible, to stripthem of the title "reverend," which they use shamelessly to give vaguetheological support to their fundamentally political activity.

It is ironic, indeed, that Martin Luther King Jr., who drew on thegospel value of his ministerial calling to transform the conscience ofthe country on race has, in almost all textbooks that tell his story,been de-frocked. He is referred to more often as Dr. Martin Luther Kingand the source of his spiritual energy in the Baptist tradition issuppressed.

Why do we deny Martin Luther King, perhaps the greatest clergyman inthe nation's history, the religious identity through which he definedand presented himself to America when we preserve it as an enhancinghonorific for men who are full-time partisan politicians?

Perhaps for the same reason we won't tolerate prayers beforefootball contests where they at least match sincere youthful ambition,but accept them at Congressional prayer breakfasts where the dronedblessing, like the syrup covering their waffles, coats their wafflingconsciences.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell is the good gray dean of men whose livescenter on politics more than the pulpits from which they preach.Let us grant his sincerity but not deny that his sonorous mixing ofpolitics and religion meld finally into a message in which it is hard toseparate the yearning for grace from the craving for clout.

The unctuous adding of reverend in every reference to Jesse Jacksonmisleads us about a man who would be better off if he defined himself asa pure politician than as a sometime preacher. He uses religion on bothoffense and defense in what even he recognizes as the game of politics.

Jackson, for all his flamboyance, is not a hypocrite, and he knowsthat when he makes his daily partisan accusations, he is playing a gamefor power not for piety.

Drop the title, Jesse, and stand on your own, as a spellbindingspeaker seeking glory as much for yourself as for the Almighty. If itis a game, invoke the football principle and forbid the use of reverendas we do prayer before the kickoff.

The Rev. Al Sharpton is another celebrated character whose claims toministerial authority are as cloudy, according to The New York Timesdisclosures of his recent legal deposition, as his claims to taxexemptions for various parts of his house. Sharpton claims goodrelationships with both God and Mammon, despite the Bible's warning thatyou cannot serve two masters.

Sharpton does not fool himself, however, in his calculated outragesbecause he understands the dynamics of modernity. He knows that themedia will drink deep from the dangerous spring of his politicalimagination. He understands that the more you dislike him, the more hisfollowers will believe in him, and that is the belief he really caresabout.

Taking reverend away from the unblessed trinity of Falwell, Jackson,and Sharpton would be a fine step in maintaining a healthy separationbetween church and state.