(Bernard Madoff)

If 2008 taught the world one lesson, it is that religious people are not morally superior to those who are non-religious. Indeed, faith often shelters the shameless and provides cover for the most corrupt among us.

Sanctimony was the sanctuary of Bernard Madoff, the con artist who bilked fellow Jewish people who never imagined this man of piety would mastermind a Ponzi scheme. A New York Times article summed it up: “…Jews all over the country are already sending up something of a communal cry over a cost they say goes beyond the financial to the theological and personal.”

The article quoted Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angles who said, “I’d like to believe someone raised in our community, imbued with Jewish values, would be better than this.”

Apparently, the rabbi has a short memory. In 2006, corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff disgraced the Jewish community. When he wasn’t stealing from Indian tribes and polluting Washington, he could be found in synagogues extolling his Jewish family values.

Many in the Jewish community seem shocked by recent events. They have the same befuddled looks on their faces as Christians ripped off by televangelist Jim Bakker. Or, the wide-eyed puritans in the pews who were stunned that Revs. Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard had a proclivity for prostitutes.

This is not to say that religious people are necessarily more corrupt. But, the myth that faith makes one less fallible and more pure must be punctured. This fable comes at a great cost to the holy who keep getting hosed. Charlatans are acutely aware that when religious institutions confer credibility, it is easier to con the credulous. Needless to say, churches, temples and mosques are often a refuge for reprobates. As escaped slave turned abolitionist Frederick Douglas noted in his tome “Autobiography,” the most devout Christians made the most brutal slave owners.

Clearly, there are many people of faith who live exemplary lives of upstanding morality. It is the assumption, however, that attending temple makes one less likely to succumb to temptation that is dangerous. Madoff would still have fooled many of America’ wisest investors had he not immersed himself in the Jewish community. But, without this powerful veneer of morality, perhaps investors would have looked closer at his scam.

In 1997, James Hedges, founder of LJH Global Investments, met with Madoff to discuss investing money for wealthy clients. He says that there were red flags for those who bothered to look.

“His whole tone during the meeting was curt, truncated, and he volunteered nothing,” Hedges told Barron’. “It was an extraction process to get him to answer anything. “…What it told me was that it was a fraud.”

A separate New York Times article discussed religious extremism among students in the nation of Jordan. Frustrated with dishonest “secular” politicians, these students wrongly assume that religious leaders are less corrupt and mindlessly regurgitate the slogan, “Islam is the answer.” They ignore the endemic corruption among Shiite leaders in Iran, the barbarism of Al Qaeda and the suffocating repression in Sunni Saudi Arabia.

Honesty is the answer — not Islam, Judaism or Christianity. If people of faith happen to be honest, it is really beside the point, not a prerequisite for morality.

The largest problem with religious leaders is that they have trouble apologizing for their sins — because they are supposedly speaking for God. So, if they apologize, it is akin to God having been wrong.

One example of such spiritual arrogance is Saddleback pastor Rick Warren, who clearly and unquestionably compared homosexuality to incest and pedophilia. As a result, gay activists accurately called him anti-gay. Now that his reputation has taken a hit, he put out a new video denying that he verbally assaulted gays. Wouldn’t a true moral leader simply say, “I’m sorry,” rather than offering slick PR from the pulpit?

San Francisco State University’s Family Acceptance Project released a study this week that found that young gay people who are rejected by their parents after coming out were more likely to attempt suicide, experience depression and use drugs than those whose parents were accepting. Will a single religious leader, including Warren, reconsider the harm they are doing to gay youth?

The U.S. has spent more than $200 million on abstinence-only programs, which promote ignorance over education in schools. A new study, reported in Pediatrics, shows that such programs are a fraud, with teenagers who pledged to avoid sex until marriage as likely to have sex as other students. The teens that took virginity pledges were also less likely to use birth control pills or condoms than those making no promise. Will a single religious “leader” have the morality to give up their dogma to prevent the deaths of teens that are having unsafe sex?

This New Year, let’ vow to judge people by their good principles and not their piety. As we learned in 2008 — they are not necessarily the same thing.