It is time in our political and religious history to restore the defrocking by which the church once ousted clerics from its ranks.

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

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

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

You hear a lot about the separation of church and state when someone complains about a prayer before a football game. That, however, is no more a religious act than the invocation at a political fund-raiser. Making a fuss about pre-game prayer distracts us from a far more serious confusion of church and state that constitutional lawyers and most editorial writers ignore.

It is time to confront such personalities as Jerry Falwell, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton and, in as public a rite as possible, to strip them of the title "reverend," which they use shamelessly to give vague theological support to their fundamentally political activity.

It is ironic, indeed, that Martin Luther King Jr., who drew on the gospel value of his ministerial calling to transform the conscience of the 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 King and the source of his spiritual energy in the Baptist tradition is suppressed.

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

Perhaps for the same reason we won't tolerate prayers before football contests where they at least match sincere youthful ambition, but accept them at Congressional prayer breakfasts where the droned blessing, like the syrup covering their waffles, coats their waffling consciences.

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

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

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

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

The Rev. Al Sharpton is another celebrated character whose claims to ministerial authority are as cloudy, according to The New York Times disclosures of his recent legal deposition, as his claims to tax exemptions for various parts of his house. Sharpton claims good relationships with both God and Mammon, despite the Bible's warning that you cannot serve two masters.

Sharpton does not fool himself, however, in his calculated outrages because he understands the dynamics of modernity. He knows that the media will drink deep from the dangerous spring of his political imagination. He understands that the more you dislike him, the more his followers will believe in him, and that is the belief he really cares about.

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

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