Wednesday, August 20, 2008

An Un-American Litmus Test

This from Kathleen Parker in today's Washington Post:
    Pastor Rick's Test
    The Candidates Submit, and a Principle Suffers

    By Kathleen Parker
    Wednesday, August 20, 2008; A15

    At the risk of heresy, let it be said that setting up the two presidential candidates for religious interrogation by an evangelical minister -- no matter how beloved -- is supremely wrong.

    It is also un-American.

    For the past several days, since mega-pastor Rick Warren interviewed Barack Obama and John McCain at his Saddleback Church, most political debate has focused on who won.

    Was it the nuanced, thoughtful Obama, who may have convinced a few more skeptics that he isn't a Muslim? Or was it the direct, confident McCain, who breezes through town-hall-style meetings the way Obama sinks three-pointers from the back court?

    The candidates' usual supporters felt validated in their choices. McCain convinced and comforted with characteristic certitude those who are most at ease with certitude; Obama convinced and comforted with his characteristic intellectual ambivalence those who are most at ease with ambivalence.

    The winner, of course, was Warren, who has managed to position himself as political arbiter in a nation founded on the separation of church and state.

    The loser was America.

Indeed. This is neither the first nor the last time that a candidate for elective office will feel required to unzip and prove he's the bigger "Christian." And to what end? If I can convince you that I'm as "good" a "Christian" as you are, then you'll vote for me? Is this any way to run an election...for water commissioner, let alone president?

She continues:

    His format and questions were interesting and the answers more revealing than what the usual debate menu provides. But does it not seem just a little bit odd to have McCain and Obama chatting individually with a preacher in a public forum about their positions on evil and their relationship with Jesus Christ?

    The past few decades of public confession and Oprah-style therapy have prepared us perfectly for a televangelist probing politicians about their moral failings. Warren's Q&A wasn't an inquisition exactly, but viewers would be justified in squirming.

Which is precisely why I decided early on to shine it by. What could any of them--Obama, McCain, Warren--possibly have to say that would be of any use to me at all? I do not vote for or against anybody on the basis of religion, and I concluded long ago that the whole "pro-life/pro-choice" dichotomy is a blind developed by people who are too lazy to examine nuances. (You would be just as well off to decide you will support only those candidates whose middle names begin with a letter in the second half of the has just as much relevancy.) I know I will vote for Obama, I will not vote for McCain, and I'm not going to join Warren's church.

Besides, I knew the whole thing was going to be endlessly discussed over the ensuing days and weeks, so even though I watched none of the silly affair, I really feel like I was there in the audience.

That's not a good thing, by the way. When I first heard of the Saddleback Civil Forum, I felt uneasy. I believe strongly in the separation of church and state, and I believe it's in the best interest of both church and state to rigorously maintain that division. And as someone who strives to be something like a Christian, I deeply resent evangelicals' usurping of the term to mean people who think/believe/speak like we do.

So this resonates:

    What is the right answer, after all? What happens to the one who gets evil wrong? What's a proper relationship with Jesus? What's next? Interrogations by rabbis, priests and imams? What candidate would dare decline on the basis of mere principle?

    Both Obama and McCain gave "good" answers, but that's not the point. They shouldn't have been asked. Is the American electorate now better prepared to cast votes knowing that Obama believes that "Jesus Christ died for my sins and I am redeemed through him," or that McCain feels that he is "saved and forgiven"?

What, indeed, does it mean? Well, it means that we are so narrow and so intellectually slothful that we seek only the right buzzwords--the shibboleth--on which to base our conclusions. "Candidate X failed to acknowledge Jesus as his 'personal savior,' so that means he's not a real Christian."

It's an odd thing about Christianity: I find that the people who go around thumping themselves on the chest and bragging about what fantabulous "Christians" they are are the people who need to be kept an eye on at all times.

And of course such "Christians" invariably confuse religion and spirituality, spirituality and faith, and faith and morality. They insist that "faith" is that which drives an individual's actions, when in fact it's morality that guides us, with or without "faith." Writes Parker,

    Warren tried to defuse criticism about staging the interviews in his church by saying that though "we" believe in the separation of church and state, "we" don't believe in the separation of faith and politics. Faith, he said, "is just a worldview, and everybody has some kind of worldview. It's important to know what they are."

In short, it's important to know if they speak "our" code. To "prove" they're "Christian enough" for "us."

It's helpful, perhaps, to remember at this juncture that Article VI of the Constitution of the United States says " religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." [Found at]

Parker concludes:

    For the moment, let's set aside our curiosity about what Jesus might do in a given circumstance and wonder what our Founding Fathers would have done at Saddleback Church. What would have happened to Thomas Jefferson if he had responded as he wrote in 1781:

    "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

    Would the crowd at Saddleback have applauded and nodded through that one? Doubtful.

    By today's new standard of pulpits in the public square, Jefferson -- the great advocate for religious freedom in America -- would have lost.

As have we all, thanks to Pastor Rick and his followers.

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