Beneath the Finger of God


Jeff Kouba


I am not Catholic. I come from the Protestant side of the aisle. I am mindful, though, that the Catholic Church has carried the banner of Christianity for many centuries, and has inspired some of the world's greatest art.

I will never forget my trip to Rome and the Vatican. I visited St. Peter's, and marveled at the grandeur of that church. Colored marble covered vast spaces, and great domes towered high overhead. Looking up at those domes with their gold and magnificent paintings, it was like looking up at heaven, just the intended effect I'm sure.

And while it cannot compare to the size of St. Peter's, the Sistine Chapel is every bit as awesome. It is humbling to stand beneath that ceiling. In most of us, the beauty of the universe swirls around in chaotic forms, like cream in a cup of coffee. But in a precious few, that beauty coalesces and bursts forth in genius. Michelangelo's brilliance is overwhelming in the Chapel.

The subject of the art in the Chapel is powerful. One entire wall depicts The Last Judgment in stark images. Overhead, the ceiling depicts themes from the Bible. I made my way to the center of the Chapel, and right above my head, there it was, one of the most famous paintings in all the world. God the Creator reaching out towards Man, their fingers not quite touching. Who would not be moved to silence beneath that?

Yet, I learned something about human behavior in the Chapel. Before we entered, we were asked to remain quiet and to refrain from taking photographs out of reverence for the place. As we came down the narrow stairs to the entrance of the Chapel, a sign stated the same request.

However, there was a constant hum of conversation in the Chapel, and many people walked around either taking pictures or recording the moment with a video camera. From time to time, the guards would shush everybody, and the Chapel would be quiet for a short time, but inevitably the murmuring would begin again. It struck me as indicative of the human condition that people could not remain silent even for a short time in the presence of the sacred.

As a Protestant, I have great respect for the Catholic Church and its heritage, so I am disappointed by the way religion has been made a part of the current presidential campaign. George W. Bush made a visit to Bob Jones University in South Carolina, and still hasn't heard the end of it. That visit has become an excuse to continue to flog the religious right.

The president of Bob Jones has been quoted as describing the Catholic Church as a cult. While Catholics and Protestants differ on a number of points of theology, that is absolutely going too far. Bush has stated in no uncertain terms he does not subscribe to the views of Bob Jones University, and yet the John McCain campaign has been at the very least careless in its inferences that Bush is an anti-Catholic bigot.

McCain has also gone further in attacking Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, and in doing so may have cost himself any chance at the Republican nomination. Enemies of the religious right continue to make the mistake that the religious right is a homogeneous group, and that Robertson and Falwell speak for them all. The truth is there are a great many people in this country who consider themselves conservative and Christian, and who have no connections whatsoever to Robertson and Falwell. These people, though, hear such attacks as aimed at them personally. McCain's strategy of angering a significant portion of the Republican base is a misguided way to pursue the Republican nomination, and indeed, he has now dropped out of the race.

The national media and the secular world tend to view the religious right as something resembling a grape, a squishy body centered around a nut in the middle, and the only good that comes from it is when it dies and rots. The religious right knows Al Gore will continue these attacks in the general election. Gore is shameless when it comes to demagoguery, and conservative Christians expect such behavior from Democrats. It is doubly distressing then when it comes from Republican quarters.

The religious right should not pursue strategies designed to make everyone like them. It isn't going to happen. Instead, they should recognize that many people are like those I saw in the Sistine Chapel. They are unconcerned and unaware that they are just beneath the finger of God, and so close to being touched by it. Conservative Christians of all denominations should simply continue to claim their right to participate in the political process along with everyone else.