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Spotlight illuminates a deeper look at faith

The phone rang, and a pleasant but insistent Pasco County woman was on the line. She seemed to think I was agreeing with Victoria Maynard, the woman at the center of last Sunday's column, and she was demanding equal time.

Victoria, a receptionist in a West Shore office, is a born-again Christian. She was in the audience last week at a congressional hearing in Tampa on a proposed constitutional amendment to permit prayer in school and other public places. Victoria _ no surprise here _ was all for it.

The column elicited curious responses, and not just from the woman who demanded equal time and didn't want anybody's religion shoved down her throat. I have been reminded how hard it is for us to talk about religion outside a church or synagogue.

There was a man thankful because "it's not often we read something good about born-again Christians." But then there were others who thought I was looking to be saved. Somebody sent a biblical tract. Somebody else sent congratulations for writing an inspirational piece and used the note as a chance to complain about "condom-based education." Another thought I was being hard on Victoria.

People think a job like this is a soapbox, that you can use it to wax grand and change the world. That's nuts. This column makes for a very small space. All you can do is scratch at a little piece of life and maybe shine a light that reaches past the surface of things.

So I went to that hearing not wanting to weigh in on prayer in schools _ the paper had sent an editorial writer who would, as well as a reporter _ although if anybody asked, I would have said the amendment is loony and dangerous. I went looking for somebody like Victoria to learn what could draw people so passionately to a certain kind of religion that they want to parade it everywhere. I went looking because they need to be understood before some of them, who are trying very, very hard, overrun our politics.

Victoria told a story about herself, a young woman, suddenly divorced, drinking too much, wrecking her life in the name of her loneliness and, frankly, despair. You've heard this story before. Maybe you've lived some piece of it.

She found a way out of her troubles through her faith. It now occupies every corner of her life. Every morning when she gets up, she listens to devotional music. The magazines on her coffee table aren't Glamour and Newsweek, but only Christian magazines. When she watches TV, she only tunes into shows with a Christian tilt.

Now I wouldn't live that way. It seems extreme. But I identified with her earlier struggle _ I've lived parts of that story, too _ and recognized how grateful she could be to find something that steadied her, not just her notion of God but the brick and mortar of her church, the words and warmth of other people in her church. If there are so many born-again congregations about, if religion has thrust itself onto the public stage again, it isn't just because Pat Robertson is a slick manipulator and whizbang fund-raiser but because people are so starved for community, for something to connect with other than the shopping mall just beyond their subdivision.

At the end of the column last week, I wrote that I envied Victoria's certainty a little, but mostly feared it. I fear it because when that certainty is mixed with politics, there is no room for compromise in public debate. There are instead people who shoot abortion doctors, people who think AIDS is God's payback to gays and, most dangerous of all, phonies who use religion to fuel their political ambitions.

Victoria Maynard's God is not the one whom Newt Gingrich consults. She doesn't march. She doesn't hold picket signs. Until that committee hearing, she had never been near any political event. When I asked why she favors the constitutional amendment for prayer in the schools, she expressed a fear you hear everywhere now, even out of mouths of people who don't share her religion or her social views. She is troubled by the social breakdown around her, what she takes to be a lack of morals. Prayer is the answer, she said.

I wouldn't agree, but I understand what she meant about shattered families, kids who swear better than they think, schools that don't work. I would also add the madness for guns, the people who think their anger is a social value, who think everybody but them should pay taxes.

Victoria Maynard isn't one of those people. There was no intention here to exalt or criticize her. I just wanted to aim a little light on her, to see what this one ordinary life might reveal to the rest of us.