First of all, I want to thank BeliefNet for assembling such an outstanding panel for this blog.  I am grateful to be included, and I am looking forward to spirited debates in the weeks and months to come.

While Senator Obama tours the Middle East this week, his campaign is still making news back home in the U.S.  According to Politico on July 21, the Obama campaign has hired a staffer to conduct outreach within the Muslim community.  This development is both positive and dangerous.

On the one hand, Senator Obama needs to do more to embrace the Muslim community.  The New York Times reported in June that many Muslim leaders have felt snubbed by the Obama campaign.  Senator Obama has had to deal with persistent rumors that he is secretly a Muslim, and he has responded by stressing that Obama is a “Committed Christian.”  In Kentucky and South Carolina, the campaign distributed brochures showing Obama preaching from the pulpit of a church with a stained glass window and giant cross behind him.  I have criticized those brochures in the past for two reasons: first, Obama is trying to make it look like God has endorsed him; and second, stressing Obama’s Christian heritage sends the implicit message that being a Muslim is a bad thing.

Islam is the third largest faith tradition in America, behind Christianity and Judaism.  It is a religion of peace, despite the actions of a tiny minority of extremists.  Even President Bush has gone to great lengths to say that we are at war with terrorists, not Islam itself.  And what if Obama were a Muslim?  Should that matter?  The Constitution provides an answer – NO!  Article VI states: “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or Public Trust under the United States.”

I wrote a letter to both presidential candidates in June urging them to do more to make the Muslim community feel included in this election.  Thus on the surface, the hiring of this campaign staffer appears to be a step in the right direction.

But on the other hand, I am deeply troubled by the notion of having campaign staffers whose sole mission is to conduct outreach to people of faith (from any religious tradition).  Of course, I should not place too much blame on the Obama campaign.  Senator McCain has similar faith outreach staff members, as did Senator Clinton (and President Bush and Senator Kerry before them).

Look, this is a political campaign, not an evangelistic crusade.  Neither Obama nor McCain have opened outreach offices to seek religious conversions of nurture .  They are running for president of the United States.  They are seeking voters who will vote for them.  The point is this: religious people should not be reduced to just another partisan constituency that can be herded into polls and expected to pull the lever for a particular candidate. That kind of campaigning shows disrespect to the sanctity of religion.  God does not endorse candidates.  It is arrogant of any political campaign to say that if you are a good Christian, a good Jew, a good Muslim, or a good Sikh, you are compelled to vote for their candidate.  

Every citizen can and should vote for the candidate of their choice regardless of the religious identities involved, or the lack thereof.  Just as people of faith have the power to make their own interpretation of their sacred scriptures, they should have the power to make their own electoral judgments as well.

I hope that this hiring is an indication of Senator Obama’s efforts to reach out to all Americans.  I pray that it will not become a campaign to manipulate religion and politics by suggesting that a particular religious posture on the part of a candidate or a voter demands a specific partisan allegiance.

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