Religion + sex: Something wicked this way comes

At last report, Bishop Eddie Long, senior pastor of a megachurch in the Atlanta suburbs and noted righteous homophobe, was being sued by four young men whom he allegedly selected for special spiritual mentoring and blowjobs.

Oh. My. God. The man is a hypocrite! He's like those right-wing Bible-thumping pols who cheat on their wives with Argentine hotties and their best friends' wives! He's like the televangelists who can't keep their hands off the ladies (or the cash box)! Who could have guessed they were all hypocrites?

How could anybody possibly be surprised?

Never mind why anyone should have believed a word spoken by a self-styled "bishop" who flashed lots of bling and preached a gospel of prosperity through Jesus. (Really? Could Jesus have been any clearer about what he thought of wealth?)

It's more than Long's crappy taste and self-serving distortion of the gospels that should have tipped off observers, though. Why, at this late date, would anyone listen for one minute to an authority figure who puts a lot of energy into denouncing homosexuality—or any other form of sexual expression between consenting adults? Or, for that matter, between well-informed teenagers?

Here's universal truth for you: Someone who talks a lot about people having sex has a problem, and one aspect of that problem is thinking way too much about the subject. Biology being what it is, people with such fixations are probably, sooner or later, going to act upon them, sometimes in startling and even criminal ways.

The latest exposed sins of the righteous range from slapstick farce (South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford "hiking the Appalachian Trail") to real-life gothic horror (the ongoing Catholic Church scandals). The latest country to emerge onto the map of those revelations—a map that's growing inexorably month by month and year by year, like maps of the New World in the age of exploration—is Belgium, where the suicides of at least 13 people are being blamed on victimization by priests.

It's the Irish orphanages that most haunt me, however. I remember seeing an ultra-noir BBC drama some years back centered on revelations of dreadful abuse of young boys in an orphanage, and I thought at the time that it was an imaginative, overheated storyline that exploited the audience's emotional reaction to seeing children hurt in an unsavory way.

Tragically, it turns out that such fictions—they're practically a sub-genre in Britain—are based on rumors that have been circulating for years. These terrible murmurings were fully substantiated by an independent commission that collected testimony and evidence for nine years before last year issuing a report detailing the "endemic" beatings, starvation and "ritualized" rape of children in church-run industrial schools and orphanages in Ireland—institutions through which more than 30,000 children passed over a period of 60 years. The report, which runs 2,600 pages, documents the abuse of more than 2,000 individual children.

I have not been able to shake a clip I heard on the radio more than a year ago, of a sobbing middle-age man, a former inmate of one of these unspeakable places, describing the predation by priests he endured as a child. There's a lot to be said about the climate in which such institutions could be tolerated—in places where there are too many children, some children aren't cared for (and where, by the way, was the government?)—but the fierce strain of sexual repression peculiar to the Irish Catholic Church has plenty to do with it.

I'm not anti-religion or even anti-church. What I do think is wrong and bound to lead to disaster is the reduction—anytime, anywhere—of focusing all the intense feelings we have about right and wrong on sexual behavior. Interesting recent work on ethics has focused on the idea that there are just a few pillars of morality, and that the relative value individuals place on the various pillars corresponds to their politics. One version of the key values list is: fairness, not harming others, purity, loyalty and respect for authority. People who lean to the left (like me) tend to be more deeply moved by fairness and not harming, while people who lean to the right value purity, loyalty and authority more profoundly.

From my point of view, any discourse about morality that's wholly focused on the latter three—to the exclusion of fairness and not-harming—is so distorted as to be actually evil. And maybe even from the devil himself.