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One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The following is cross-posted at On Faith.

I approached Rick Warren’s Saddleback Civil Forum with much anticipation, but without a clear idea of how he would handle the sensitive issues at the intersection of religion and politics.  I believe Pastor Warren set an example of civility that I hope others will follow, but at the same time some of his questions crossed a line that makes this election seem as if we are electing a pastor-in-chief rather than a commander-in-chief.

Pastor Warren’s opening statement, if not his questions, reflected precisely the thought of the founders of our nation and explicitly conveyed the spirit of their intent in the religious liberty clauses of the Constitution.  Preventing institutional entanglements between religion and politics or the institutional subservience of one to the other is a necessity that differs dramatically from personal perspectives on politics and politicians influenced by an individual’s faith or lack of faith.  From my point of view, the forum could not have started with a more important statement.
However, as the forum continued, primal distinctions between faith and politics became blurred and, in some instances, were erased.  A question about a candidate’s commitment to Jesus seems of little relevance to a religiously pluralistic nation made strong by a secular government that appreciates religion but gives no preference to religion over non-religion.  For the most part, I found Pastor Warren’s questions creative and helpful and his attitude a refreshing encouragement of all that is civil.  However, his inquiry about personal faith and his citations from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures well could have left the wrong impression.  Many people in this nation do not turn to those scriptures for wisdom or to faith for guidance.  Questions essential in a church are not particularly helpful in a conversation a church sponsors to help educate diverse voters in the nation.
In response to Pastor Warren’s questions on religion, both John McCain and Barack Obama seemed compelled to offer confessions of faith as a credential for their attractiveness as a candidate for the White House.  But, that should not be the case.  There is no religious test for public office according to our Constitution and we have no business trying to establish what the Constitution forbids.
As I said in email I sent to the members of the Interfaith Alliance: “After watching the Saddleback Forum on Saturday evening, I did not see a clear winner but I did see a clear loser – it was people like us. While I appreciate Pastor Rick Warren’s civility, I believe questions like: ‘What does it mean to trust in Christ?’ have no place in a political forum.”
The format on Saturday night was good as were many of the questions, especially those related to the Supreme Court, for example, but the strong religious foundation of the forum and the heavy religious slant obvious in its inquiries sent the wrong message about the rule of faith in the crucial decisions that must be made about our national leaders.  But, then, the forum was held in a church, a fact, which, in itself, raises some questions and presents some difficulties when you really think about it.

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posted August 18, 2008 at 6:15 pm

But wasn’t this forum for the evangelicals considering whom to vote for? Therefore, religious questions needed to be asked!

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Reaganite in NYC

posted August 19, 2008 at 5:40 am

Welton Gaddy: “But, then, the forum was held in a church, a fact, which, in itself, raises some questions and presents some difficulties when you really think about it.”
What, exactly, is your point? What “questions were raised” and what “difficulties were presented” by this event? Yes, let’s honestly try to “really think about it.”
You observed that we’re a “religiously pluralistic nation made strong by a secular government that appreciates religion but gives no preference to religion over non-religion.”
Yes, but how did this event suggest that our government demonstrates a “preference to religion over non-religion” ? This event was neither sponsored by a government entity nor hosted on government property. It was a conversation on faith and values with two politicans moderated by a popular religous leader. Nothing more or less. What’s wrong with that?

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Nat Ersoz

posted August 19, 2008 at 3:38 pm

While I had a similar reaction to the moderator’s question regarding “Faith in Christ”, it was only for the candidates themselves and not with respect to the audience’s sensibilities (or not). The candidates both offered what seemed to be “confessional” style answers that I personally found distasteful – far more than the moderator’s question.
“I’m interested in what you will do, what you have done, and not in your personal religious experience” I wanted to say.
And yet, so what? I am not the moderator nor the candidate. It was up to the candidates themselves to decide on how best to answer; and if they thought that a “confessional” would be traded in for votes, then so goes the calculus of democracy.
The questions were far better and more thoughtful than those put forth by the more secular media thus far. Unfortunately, I imagine that during the conventions, the media will fail to ask any questions of substance and merely dwell on meta-issues such as cleavage, husbands/wives, infighting, etc. All Press has become People magazine these days.
And now my turn for a meta-issue: Welton Gaddy, and many here, care far too much about what others think and whether sensibilities might be offended. If I could offer one thing to say to religious people: FORGET ABOUT IT. To splice words, and couch context, to constantly nuance meaning is ignore reality. The rest of the world does not think like this nor do they take in life in such a manner. They let reality speak for itself and deal with it in real time.

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