Sunday, August 17, 2008

Save Us Mr. Warren!!!

Last night presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama spoke at the home base of noted book salesman Rick Warren. Mr. Warren, who claims the title of Reverend, is the leader of the 20,000-member Saddleback mega-church in Southern California. The event marked the first time both candidates have appeared on the same stage together as their parties’ candidate for the highest office in the land.

According to the CNN story on the event, Warren interviewed each candidate separately and each candidate faced questions on faith, leadership, and “worldviews”.

To be perfectly honest, I kind of passed in and out of the debate. I was kind of caught up in some reading. James Madison was the subject of the night:

Because the establishment in question is not necessary for the support of Civil Government. If it be urged as necessary for the support of Civil Government only as it is a means of supporting Religion, and it be not necessary for the latter purpose, it cannot be necessary for the former. If Religion be not within the cognizance of Civil Government how can its legal establishment be necessary to Civil Government? What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just Government instituted to secure & perpetuate it needs them not. Such a Government will be best supported by protecting every Citizen in the enjoyment of his Religion with the same equal hand which protects his person and his property; by neither invading the equal rights of any Sect, nor suffering any Sect to invade those of another.

I followed up my remedial work on Mr. Madison with a little Thomas Jefferson:
that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry, that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right, that it tends only to corrupt the principles of that very Religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed, these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and finally, that Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them
It is interesting to note that both Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments and Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom were written in response to Patrick Henry’s attempt to formalize the Anglican Church as the official church of Virginia. Our Founding Fathers specifically chose the Madison/Jefferson view of religion in the public square rather than religious-friendly constitutions from places like Massachusetts, Connecticut, or Delaware. Even more, the idea of including Jesus and Christianity was explicitly rejected during the Constitutional Convention.

(If you're interested in more of Jefferson's thoughts on religion in the public square, there's always the Danbury Baptists. You can also check the University of Virginia's excellent quote database.)

The reason I bring this up is because I have the bad feeling that both of our major candidates for president seem to have a view of public religion that is closer to Patrick Henry than Jefferson and Madison, and yes…this is a problem.

In the case of McCain, his religiosity can be dismissed as a purely political stance. In the 2000 campaign he famously remarked that the thankfully departed Jerry Falwell was an “agent of intolerance.” This time around, he needs that particular voting block so he’s taken up speaking at Bob Jones University and saying transparently insincere things like this:

And yes, I think that pretty much qualifies for a religious test. Sorry Mitt, no VP for you!

McCain is at Warren’s church because he needs to be there. Having a radically deformed view of what our Founding Fathers had in mind for religion is a pretty dominant characteristic of the group of people he needs the most. I get this and I don’t fault him for showing up where his base is.

On the other hand, Barack Obama is one of the 1st Democrats to wear his religion on his sleeve since Jimmy Carter. While we lefties are able to conjure all sorts of umbrage and poo-pooism when Michele Bachmann takes to the pulpit, I’ve noticed that a large portion of us let loose a prideful grin when Mr. Obama hops up on the stage at a South Carolina megachurch or gives a speech so thick with religious overtones that EJ Dionne hailed it as possibly “the most important pronouncement by a Democrat on faith and politics since John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech in 1960 declaring his independence from the Vatican.” Unfortunately, in today’s uber-religious political climate, if Kennedy were politicking today, he’d likely have to pledge his allegiance to the Vatican in order to placate the legions of Americans who would view him as nothing more than a godless Massachusetts liberal, which he probably was more than anything else.

Getting back to the Obama/Bachmann comparison, there is the little matter of Mac Hammond (and his personal endorsement) that makes a straight comparison not entirely accurate, but that shouldn’t stop us from addressing what is a troubling strain of liberal/Democratic thought that gives Obama’s piety a pass because it is viewed as inspirational and heartfelt rather than divisive and political. This is nonsense. Both Bachmann’s pious insanity and Obama’s bumper sticker self-help theology are equally inappropriate. If anything, at least the conservative view of faith is attached to something real and meaningful, like a religiously fueled distaste of homosexuality. Obama’s faith is obtuse watered-down drivel about butterflies, rainbows, and getting along. His god is an Awesome God and He tells him that we should have hope that all of us can band together and heed…well, Obama’s God isn’t much of a stickler about the details. He's also not much of an Old Testament God.

The point here is that our Founding Fathers believed that religion in the public square was incompatible with personal faith. By introducing one to the other, both are poisoned and corrupted. Last night in the book salesman’s debate, we got a healthy look at all of the bad things that happen when religion is introduced to politics, and the other way around. On one hand, you have a man who clearly doesn’t give a shit about god; babbling on and on about some sort of meaningless fidelity to faith and Judeo-Christian values—whatever the hell that may mean. It’s pretty clear that neither his heart nor his mind are in it, yet everyone has to sit there and pretend that they care or that his faith-based statements have any religious or political value whatsoever. On the other, you have a man that clearly believes in god, but feels that he has to do so in a certain way to make his belief compatible or attractive to a specific group of voters. He covers his words in codes that are unnoticeable to your average social science college professor from New England, but resonate in the ears of anyone that has turned on TBN, cracked open a Left Behind or two, or knows the ins and outs of his or her local mega church (and other associated stereotypes). His faith is more of a Babbelfish that allows him to talk Bubba than it is a way of theologically relating to a group of people that probably have about as much in common with him, faith-wise, as Osama Bin Laden.

Last year, the Star Tribune quoted Obama as saying the following about faith:
Faith, he said, is "what propels me to do what I do and when I am down it's what lifts me up.'' The Democratic presidential candidate said God "is with us and he wants us to do the right thing,'' including breaking down the divisions between Democrats and Republicans and among religions.

When people work together, he said, there is "nothing that can stop us because that's God's intention.''

Yikes. Outside of him advertising to the entire world that a belief in the unknown plays every role in his life, Mr. Obama appears to be suggesting that Faith = Dr. Phil. It’s an all-purpose motivator that means everything at once and nothing when applied to specific details. Oh well, enough with the pot-shots and onto the finale:

Last night’s events were not about faith. They were not about theology. They were not about coming to grips with the ultimate ends of the universe. They were all about religion and politics going down on themselves like a bunch of drunken teenagers, leaving behind nothing more than a trail of insincere love poems and sloppy attempts at saying what you think your never-to-be-seen-again partner wants to hear.


Here’s the dirty little secret: no matter what happens this election, I am going to vote for Barack Obama because I’m a Democrat. How is this any different from someone voting for Michele Bachmann simply because they are a conservative Christian? That’s the rub: It’s all political. The problem here is that we pretend that some of our politics are more deserving of protection from ridicule than others, and since this is the case, it is in each and every politicians’ best interest to make as much of it as faith-based as possible…whether they believe it or not. Now that’s an Awesome God. When the rubber hit the road in last night's debate, Mr. Obama could quote Matthew until the cows come home, but Mr. McCain was still the one with the anti-choice record, support of conservative judges, and was the candidate who would carry on Mr. Bush’s crusade to make the world safe for Christian missionairies (you remember Mr. Bush’s trip to the Christian church in Beijing, don’t you? If not, go back and check out his interview with Bob Costas.) This basic connection between the audience and Mr. McCain could not be overcome no matter how well Mr. Obama knew the Bible, and it was clear that McCain walked away from this debate the winner: he had clearer answers, more precise answers geared towards the audience’s interests, and even a tid-bit about his failed first marriage to head off John Edwards at the pass.

Finally, the greatest sin of last night’s festivities was that none of the things that were mentioned needed religion in order to be conveyed to the American people. Altruism, helping ones neighbor, and even anti-abortion policy can all be explained away to your heart’s content without a book that was written by a civilization that could not possibly comprehend the modern world. Turning this around, most political decisions are as complicated as hell and they involve reasoning that cross all sorts of religious and moral lines/boundaries. Again, this is a mix that not only poisons the public square, but also corrupts the sanctity of both the sacred and the secular.

As the final question of the night, the book salesman asked each candidate what he would say to people who opposed the forum because it was held in a church. This question was not directed at a straw man. It was directed squarely at history. Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Madison in particular.

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