AUSTIN, Texas -- The Lord Impersonator is back again. This fella reappears every couple of years and causes no end of trouble. The jokester goes around persuading feeble-minded persons he is the Lord Almighty and that they are to do or say some perfectly idiotic thing under his instructions.

One of the worst cases we've had in Texas was the time the Lord Impersonator convinced 20 people in Floydada to git nekked, get into a GTO and drive to Vinton, La., where they ran into a tree. Seein' 20 nekkid people, including five children, come out of a GTO startled the Vinton cops. The nekkid citizens all said God told them to do it.

Quite a few people have been mishearing the Lord lately. The Rev. Pat Robertson thinks the Lord told the people of Dover, Pa., they shouldn't ask for His help anymore because they elected a school board Robertson doesn't like. And Rep. Richard Baker of Louisiana said right after Hurricane Katrina that "we finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did it."

I kind of doubt Katrina was designed by the Lord as a form of urban renewal. I think it's a big mistake for us to go around putting our own puny interpretations on stuff that happens and then claiming the Lord meant thus-and-such by it. It is my humble opinion that some folks should do a lot more listening to God and a lot less talking for Him.

In that category, I put a whole passel of politicians -- including that God-fearing professional patriot Rep. "Duke" Cunningham of San Diego. Cunningham resigned his office after pleading guilty to having accepted $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. "Duke's" big cause in Congress was to get a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning. Which do you think is more unpatriotic: burning a flag to indicate desperate dissent against American policy or getting elected to Congress and selling out for a Rolls Royce and some antique commodes?

Rep. Tom DeLay, who is under indictment in Texas, is another fine parser of the Lord's intent. According to Mother Jones magazine, DeLay appeared at a prayer breakfast just after the tsunami that killed 240,000 people. "DeLay read a passage from Matthew about a nonbeliever: '... a fool who built his house on sand: the rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house, and it collapsed and was completely ruined.' Then, without comment, he righteously sat down."

Some Christians seem to me inclined to lose track of love, compassion and mercy. I don't think I have any special brief to go around judging them, but when the stink of hypocrisy becomes so foul in the nostrils it makes you start to puke it becomes necessary to point out there is one more good reason to observe the separation of church and state: If God keeps hanging out with politicians, it's gonna hurt his reputation.

I've always hoped that people like Tom DeLay and Duke Cunningham (and Reps. Bob Ney, Richard Pombo, Dana Rohrabacher, John Doolittle and William J. Jefferson (a D) and Sens. Bill Frist and Conrad Burns) were really stonewall cynics at heart, secretly sneering at the rubes who buy into their holier-than-thou posturing. But I'm afraid they're not.

I'm afraid one actually has to allow for the denial and self-delusion that make it possible for people to be both self-righteous and sleazy at the same time. We are all capable of fooling ourselves in a grand variety of ways.

Another reason why religion and policy make such a bad mix is that religion brings the dread element of certitude into what needs to be a constant process of questioning. In the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh quotes a former Defense Department official who served in Bush's first term: "The president is more determined than ever to stay the course. He doesn't feel any pain. Bush is a believer in the adage, 'People may suffer and die, but the Church advances.'"

Look, certitude is the enemy of clear thinking. "Never be absolutely sure" is a useful motto, and sailing through our current policies in Iraq without a shadow of a doubt is both foolish and dangerous. I would be far more reassured if I thought the president were second-guessing every move we make than I am to find out he hasn't a shadow of a doubt. For one thing, it shuts him off from considering alternatives, and boy do we need some alternatives.

So here we sit, watching a great, stinking skein of corruption being fished to the surface of Washington, while the town is simultaneously filled with a great babble about God, prayer and morality. Corruption trails head off in all directions -- lobbyists, wives, jobs, perverting intelligence, outing agents for petty revenge -- all this and a Prayer Breakfast every day.

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