Progressive Revival

In his quest to prune the overgrowth of Christianity to reveal to root of the faith, Martin Luther famously reduced the number of sacraments from seven to three, discarding Holy Orders, Last Rites (now known as the Anointing of the Sick), Matrimony (still a sacred vow between two people) and Confirmation, and leaving three: Baptism, Holy Communion, and Confession. That last one has fallen into disuse (something Lutherans share with Catholics), but many subsequent Reformers did away with it altogether, and decommissioned Communion as a sacrament too, leaving, at most, Baptism as the foundational and commonly accepted outward expression of inner grace.

Saddleback-Tablet.jpgNow, under the guidance of America’s new Pastor-in-Chief Rick Warren, even baptism is apparently an option. Or, perhaps, it has been supplanted by a baptism of political conviction. That was clear by his exchanges with John McCain at the Saddleback Forum on Saturday, and from the Monday morning analyses that followed. (The art at right is from The Tablet of London, where I attempted to explain to befuddled Brits what exactly was going on at Saddleback, and why.) 

After watching the Forum, my initial reaction was one shared by many–that McCain did better than expected, and Obama not as well as expected. Obama by no means fared poorly, but I thought some of his answers, especially on abortion, dod not come out as clearly as I would expect at this point. Of course, Obama was in a bind, playing an away game and having to mind his home (pro-choice) base. All the blather about McCain getting advance word on questions because he was outside the “cone of silence” is really blather, for now. McCain has surely been boning up on “Christianity for Dummies,” and if indeed he was tipped off, it’ll be the biggest mistake of his campaign. McCain was more forceful–something everyone likes in a preacher as well as a president–and Obama more thoughtful, reinforcing his image as a brainy guy who is, as TNR’s Michelle Cottle says, “too cool” for the passionate cauldron of politics–or faith.

Yet when I went over the transcripts this morning it became obvious that Obama won on paper. Indeed, he shredded McCain, and with one hand tied behind his back. Warren’s questions were conservative softballs tossed into McCain’s wheelhouse in front of a hometown crowd that neither Warren nor McCain were going to disappoint. Warren’s follow-up interview with Beliefnet’s God-o-Meter made it clear where Warren and his fellow evangelicals stand: He said abortion is Issue No. 1, disagreed with Obama on it, and invoked the analogy of abortion and the Holocaust, and evangelicals to Jews:

If an evangelical really believes that the Bible is literal–in other word in Psalm 139 God says ‘I formed you in your mother’s womb and before you were born I planned every day of your life,’ if they believe that’s literally true, then they can’t just walk away from that. They can add other issues, but they can’t walk away from the belief that at conception God planned that child and to abort it would be to short circuit the purpose.

Interesting. The problem is that Obama went into the Saddleback Forum in good faith, agreeing to play along with Warren’s premise–and promise–of engaging in a thought experiment: How would your faith guide your decisions as president? Given the complexities of the issues confronting America, and the complexity of American society, that requires nuance and moral reasoning, which Obama seemed to provide, even though Warren directed him not to give his “stump speech.”

McCain, on the other hand, did give stump speeches, offering up re-meat slogans (read the CNN transcript here) and applause lines, and substituting tried-and-true stories for introspection. And Warren didn’t call him on it. Take this exchange:

WARREN: Let’s deal with abortion. I, as a pastor, have to deal with this all the time, every different angle, every different pain, all of the decisions and all of that. Forty million abortions since Roe v. Wade. Some people, people who believe that life begins at conception, believe that’s a holocaust for many people. What point is a baby entitled to human rights?

MCCAIN: At the moment of conception. (APPLAUSE). I have a 25-year pro-life record in the Congress, in the Senate. And as president of the United States, I will be a pro-life president. And this presidency will have pro-life policies. That’s my commitment. That’s my commitment to you.

WARREN: OK, we don’t have to beleaguer on that one. 

Gee, thanks Rick. Warren then proceeded onto the layup of “defining marriage.” Worse still, at a later point, Warren asked McCain if he still favored embryonic stem cell research. McCain said that “For those of us in the pro-life community this has been a great struggle and a terrible dilemma because we’re also taught other obligations that we have as well. I’ve come down on the side of stem cell research.”

Instead of asking McCain how his avowal that he is a pro-lifer who believes life begins at conception squares with his view that human embryos–conceived life–can be used in lab experiments, Warren instead moved onto a question about evil, another layup that McCain answered with a black-and-white, us-and-them blast at radical Islam. Nice. 

The real kicker, however, was the difference (the chasm) between Obama’s standard but thoughtful answer about his Christian faith and his relationship with Jesus–the kind of God talk and Scripture-citing that the Saddleback crowd should swoon for–and McCain’s response to Warren’s opener:

WARREN: First, you’ve made no doubt about the fact that you are a Christian. You publicly say you’re a follower of Christ. What does that mean to you and how does faith work out in your life on a daily basis? What does it mean to you?

MCCAIN: It means I’m saved and forgiven. We’re talking about the world. Our faith encompasses not just the United States of America but the world. Can I tell you another story real quick?


The crowd laughed, but it’s not that funny on reflection.

After giving an interview in 2007 in which he announced he was a Baptist and no longer an Episcopalian, as he was also telling people, McCain tried to cut off further discussion by saying: “I have attended North Phoenix Baptist Church for many years, and the most important thing is that I’m a Christian. And I don’t have anything else to say on the issue.” That would actually be a welcome throwback to the kind of Eisenhower reticence rather than piety, but of course McCain has continued to assert that he is a Christian–while at the same time confessing that he has never been baptized. According to this excellent Pew resource on McCain’s religious record, McCain in April of this year called his decision about baptism a “personal thing,” and defended his decision to forego baptism saying, “I didn’t find it necessary to do so for my spiritual needs.”

McCain’s personal story is affecting, and he certainly seems to be on a journey of faith. But not to probe his understanding of how he is a Christian without baptism or sacramental membership in a Christian community is a dereliction, especially given the setting on Saturday and the Christian right’s repeated questioning of Obama’s own bona fides. Not only do some 10-15 percent of voters still think Obama is a Muslim, in large part because of GOP propaganda, but others think he is the Anti-Christ or, as Cal Thomas has declared, a “false prophet” who is not a Christian.

How is it that Barack Obama–baptized, confirmed and communicated–is not a Christian and John McCain is? At The Immanent Frame, evangelical Christian and Calvin College philosophy prof James K.A. Smith supplies part of the answer when he argues that evangelicals are defined theologically by their sociology–that is, evangelicalism would be better understood as “a sort of ethos, a sensibility, a contingent set of practices and institutions within which one lives and moves and has her being. ‘Evangelical’ is an identity forged at a level more visceral than doctrinal.” In his reading (which is worth spending time on to fully digest), “it takes one to know one” when it comes to evangelicalism–not baptism or other sacraments.

From that point of view, McCain carried the day, with folks as diverse as Michael Gerson and William Kristol. And beyond. As Mark Silk of SpiritualPolitics put it, “McCain said enough in the way of magic words to enable pro-lifers to profess themselves satisfied that he’s one of them.”

Those are the magic words, the shibboleths, that offer safe passage into the tribe. And indeed McCain may be one of them, and will likely be rewarded come November. Certainly my Catholic, sacramental bias is showing here. Yet I still find it passingly strange this is what Christianity has come to in America. That we have arrived at a new version of “Cuius regio, eius religio”–that the the faith of the rulers determines the faith of the people, or, in a democratic model, the dominant faith determines the faith of the rulers. It’s Rick Warren’s world today. We just live in it.

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