I went to the Democratic faith-off last night to see Edwards, Obama and Clinton expose their religious life to a religious-left audience. It felt to me like that scene in Coriolanus when the great leader is forced to go into the town square and let the hoi polloi examine, discuss and judge his war-scars. It was a spectacle at once spiritually crass, politicallly vulgar and democratically corrosive. It didn't help that the theologically-challenged moderator, CNN's Soledad O'Brien, asked questions like: "What's the biggest sin you've ever committed?" Just when you think cable news cannot get any dumber, someone like Ms O'Brien slinks onto a stage.
But the implications of the debate were more worrying. We have had terrible problems grappling with the religious right these past few years, but we may have just begun to adjust to the power and emergence of the religious left. The rhetoric would have done evangelical statist, Michael Gerson, proud. And when you see three leading Democratic candidates fall over each other to endorse faith-based initiatives, and insist, in Clinton's words, on "injecting faith into policy," or, in Obama's words, basing politics on a "Biblical injunction," you realize that George W. Bush really has had a legacy. He has decisively increased the religiosity of public debate - as well, of course, as its fatuousness. How can we "end poverty" in the next ten years, asked Jim Wallis? Umm: didn't LBJ already try that? And, given the certainty and self-righteousness all around me, why not just end poverty, illness, and illegitimacy in the next ten months? Why not end tyranny as well, while we're at it? (Oops: we just tried that. Never mind.) Jeez. Some people just keep putting boundaries on the power of God. When merged with government, what social ill can it not solve?
Both the religious right and the religious left make me feel more profoundly conservative. And between them, they have helped throttle the principle of limited government until the body politic is turning blue.