Church and state

An interesting piece by Kathleen Parker, who was deeply offended by the Saddleback "interrogation". (Thanks to Loretta, a recovering Catholic of this parish, for prodding me to blog about this.)

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...

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.

It's a fair point. Speaking as an atheist--but one who feels no desire to convert others to my lack of faith--I was indeed struck by the anomaly of my finding the event both interesting and informative, much more so than the other TV debates, even though the religious trappings ought to have made me uneasy. Parker 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?

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"?

In the end, I think Parker has chosen the wrong target. If presidential candidates profess faith, and promise to be guided by it in office, then their faith is a legitimate and indeed necessary area of inquiry. And I think Warren is to be congratulated on his courteous and informative probing. It is an error, in my view, to say this violates the principle of separation of church and state. The aim of that principle is not to stifle faith (or lack of it) but to assure that no one faith (or lack of it) is granted an official licence to stamp out the competition. This is a very frequent confusion. Nothing in the Saddleback event threatens anybody's religous freedom.

The proper target for Parker's displeasure, it seems to me, is the great American public, which insists that its leaders be God-fearing types (or at least say they are). That is certainly a species of intolerance; but the remedy is not to shroud candidates' faith in silence. Parker says:

And while, yes, everybody has some kind of worldview, it shouldn't be necessary in a pluralistic nation of secular laws to publicly define that view in Christian code.

Perhaps not, but it certainly is necessary that they define it in plain English--and if that worldview includes the belief that Christ died for our sins, then I for one want to know that, and to understand what (if anything) it implies about the candidate's likely conduct.