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A Cup of Really Hot Coffee with Gingrich and Santorum

BROOKLYN — The latest bulletin on “religious liberty” is about Saudi journalist Hamzi Kashgari, who’s just been bundled off, by the government of Malaysia, to Saudi Arabia. Once he’s “home,” he’ll be flash-tried and summarily beheaded for blasphemy against Mohammed. Kashgari’s offense was to circulate, through Twitter, his personal doubts about the divinity of the Prophet and the infallible truth of Islam.

If the United States were, like Saudi Arabia, a theocracy — where religion plays a vital role in government — this sort of crisis would probably crop up often. For instance, a guy who, in a reflective moment of his life, has questioned his religion and ended up with a new faith — someone, like, say, hmm, Newt Gingrich — might find himself swinging from the gibbet for his sins against state religion. Newt’s offenses, at the very least, could include blasphemy, adultery, polygamy and writing smutty secular fiction.

Ironically, Gingrich is now one of three men running for president who wants to stuff lots more God into U.S. government. One of these guys, Rick Santorum, has even mentioned beheading people. But the really scary aspect of this odd twist in public discourse is that two of the guys talking theocracy, Gingrich and Santorum, are Catholic.

This is happening in a nation which, as recently as the near-defeat of John F. Kennedy in 1960, trembled in fear of a Catholic president. Alarmists warned that JFK would be little better than a Vatican sock puppet. But now, suddenly, even Baptists — and a few ancient Zionists in Palm Beach — are seeing genius in papist dogma.

As an old papist myself, these developments scare the hell out of me.

Actually, into me. Because, when I began my Catholic career, at age 7, the first images the Church fed me were not the New Testament passages where Jesus befriended harlots and heathens, hugged lepers, suffered the little children to come unto him and heaped blessings on the poor, the meek, the hungry, the persecuted and the peacemakers.

No way! The first month of my Catholic education was all about Hell, and how I — a vicious little infidel — was teetering constantly on the brink of an eternal agony beyond my ugliest nightmares. The nuns had us draw pictures of the worst Hell we could picture — sinners burnt to a crisp, or torn to shreds of gory flesh — and then they said, “You think that’s bad? That’s not even Purgatory, kid!” A popular joke in 3rd grade at St. Mary’s was about a man sent to Hell and given a tour of its horrors. After proudly showing off a dozen forms of perpetual torture, Satan leads the damned man into a room where people, up to their necks in reeking excrement, are drinking coffee. As disgusting as this is, the man realizes it’s not as bad as those other torments. So he says, “I’ll do this.” However, as the man enters the sea of diarrhea and receives his coffee, the devil says, “OK, folks, your annual coffee break’s over. Everybody kneel down.”

I know. Not funny. Unless you’ve been through 7th grade with Sister Mary Ann.

I think Newt Gingrich finds it easier than me to trust the Pope because — in the conversion classes he had to take before making an honest woman of Callista — they let him skip the second-grade Hell lessons, which are hard to forget. I mean, for a month after hearing that joke, I held my breath every time I knelt down during Mass.

Years later, I had the first of many Hazmi Kashgari moments — when the Church decided it was no longer a mortal sin to eat meat on Friday. I said wait a minute, what about all those shnooks who are already in Hell for eating meat? Do they get out now?

In my questions to Father Rourke, I suggested there might be gradations of guilt on this issue. I mean, what about some guy who gets drunk Friday night and a Protestant offers him a cocktail weenie? He eats it but the next morning he wakes up, can’t remember a thing, lives 60 more years, and dies without knowing he had a mortal sin on his soul the whole time. He ends up cooking in Hell — clueless about what he did wrong. Couldn’t you let him out? Or the guy who, in a moment of weakness, eats a hot dog on Friday ‘cause it’s the only thing in the fridge and he means to confess the very next morning after 8 o’clock Mass, but on the way to church, he steps off the curb, gets run over by a bus and drops straight to Perdition. Doesn’t this guy deserve a break?

No, said Father Rourke. A mortal sin is a mortal sin, except when it’s ajar. (Ha ha.)

The mystery only deepened when I finally stumbled upon the Holocaust — which didn’t appear in most Catholic curricula. I knew about Hitler, of course, and I knew for sure he was in Hell — for starting the war and killing all those GIs (and a lot of Polish Catholics, too). But I didn’t know about Auschwitz until they ran a documentary at the Erwin Theater that I probably shouldn’t have been allowed to see, because it gave me bad dreams for weeks. But amidst my nightmares, I had a brainstorm. It hit me that every Jew murdered by the Nazis was stuck — down there in Hell — side-by-side with Hitler.

Because everybody who’s not Catholic goes to Hell. Forever. Ask any Catholic.

But I said wait a minute. It’s not fair. Hitler murdered six million people, gassed and shot them, bulldozed them into ditches and roasted them in ovens — women, children, old people, babies. And they hadn’t done anything bad. They were innocent.

Again, the priest said no. These non-Catholics were not innocent. They were Jews. All Jews go to Hell. Except for the babies. They go to Limbo.

A fact of history often overlooked by today’s partisans is that our Founding Fathers were the political offspring of the Enlightenment, an era whose motto was “Dare to Think” and whose best idea was that you could — you should — have a government without religion in it. At all. They had seen, and lived, the excesses of theocracy. They grasped the grotesque Catholic-school illogic of imagining Adolf Hitler and Anne Frank, neck-deep in crap, sipping coffee in the same incongruous corner of Hell. Of course, having suggested it, I can’t help but picture that very scene. As I do, it seems to me that Hitler’s agony — in that fix — would be infinitely greater. When the order comes to kneel down, Anne Frank would get the joke. Hitler? Not a chance.

Would Newt and Rick?

Silly question. They’re both going to Heaven.

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