AUSTIN, Texas -- When it comes to religion, I've always believed it's more important to walk the walk than to talk the talk. I come from a tradition (Episcopal) that considers it rather in bad taste to wear your religion on your sleeve, presumably from Matthew, Chapter 6, Verses 5 and 6:

        "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward.

        "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly."

        Of course, I also had some Baptist input and so am fond of making a joyful noise unto the Lord. Texans even like to sing hymns around campfires while drinking beer -- I'm not sure if that counts.

        I long ago learned to shy away from the stink of sanctimony. We are all familiar with pietistic hypocrites and spiritual humbugs wearing dog collars. I doubt the clergy is more afflicted with canting Pharisees than the legal profession is with sleazy chiselers, but neither type is exactly rare.

        When you throw politics into the religious mix, or vice versa, you get some real beauts in the hypocrisy department. Just to take a recent example, Jack Ryan of Illinois, the one who had to drop his campaign for the Senate after his divorce papers revealed he had forced his wife to go to sex clubs with him, was one of the "family values" crowd who opposes gay marriage because it's such a threat to the institution. Please. And although Bill Clinton was too polite to mention it in his book, quite a remarkable number of Republican leaders who were hell-bent on impeaching him for his folly were themselves adulterers.

        Back in the 1950s, when the late Rep. Bob Eckhardt was still in the Texas Legislature, a bill to cut off all state aid to illegitimate children was under debate. After listening to some of his "Christian" colleagues explain why illegitimate children should be left to starve, Eckhardt rose and said, "I am not so much concerned about the natural bastards as I am about the self-made ones." I consider that one of the most Christian things I've ever heard said during legislative debate.

        I sometimes think we've gotten ourselves into a pointless argument in this country, as we rather often do, by exaggerating the extremes. We are not faced with a choice between imposing some Christian version of Sharia law on the one hand, or "driving religion out of the public square" altogether on the other.

        Two hundred years of not terribly rigid separation of church and state has given us one precious gift. As a quote attributed to James Madison (never been able to find the correct citation on it) put it, "The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries." Religious strife is still soaking the soil with blood, isn't it, in Kosovo and elsewhere.

        To the extent that politics should be based on moral and ethical considerations, of course it has religious foundations. But dragging God into partisan politics is, in my view, a sin.

        Is it Christian to cut money for Head Start? Is it Christian to cut poor children off health care? Is it Christian to cut old people off Medicare? Is it Christian to write memos justifying torture? Is it Christian to cut after-school, nutrition and AIDS programs so multimillionaires can have bigger tax cuts?

        Historically, the Bible has been used to justify some stupefying crimes, including slavery and genocide. I see no indication we are any better at divining the Lord's intent now than we ever were.

        As regular readers know, I call upon the Lord rather frequently myself, often for patience in dealing with those who presume to speak in His name. To whatever extent each of us is affected by religion, I suppose we inevitably bring that into the public sphere. But I seriously question the wisdom of doing so in any organized or deliberate fashion. Drag God into politics, and you'll ruin His reputation in no time.

        Again, this may be a matter of taste, but I have seen too many Psalm-singing, Bible quoting, Holy Joe hypocrites in politics to think these frauds improve the moral tone of our public life. Getting snookered by some canting humbug is even more depressing than getting snookered by a plain old crook.

        Beware those who make a show or a parade of their piety: Keep watching for the ones who walk the walk.

         To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.