At church on Sunday, a friend who immigrated from France many years ago approached me to express amazement at what had happened the night before at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. It would have been unthinkable, he said, even for (the dwindling numbers of) devout Christians in France, that candidates for the nation’s highest office should appear in a church to be interviewed by its pastor for a national television audience. I replied that while the particulars of the Saddleback Forum (i.e., its dual-interview format) were unprecedented, the event was well within an American tradition of political activity by people of faith and their religious leaders, and of presidential candidates appealing to such people as important sectors of the voting public. No established church, to be sure (we Americans taught the world that one)–but no chasm, either, between religious sensibilities and political ones.
So I was pretty surprised to see the ever-sensible Kathleen Parker’s column today take the opposite view. She tells us that McCain’s and Obama’s appearances, and Warren’s more pointedly religious questions, were “supremely wrong,” even “un-American.” This is because America is a ”nation founded on the separation of church and state.” And for authority, Kathleen (can I call you Kathleen, as a fellow NRO-nik, though we’ve never met?) turns to Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia that “it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
This was Jefferson at his most epigrammatic–which is just when he was likely to say something half-baked. For while it is quite true that having a polytheist or an atheist in the neighborhood does me no material harm, it is also true that if all the neighbors believe in twenty gods, or if all the neighbors believe in no god at all, I am living in a very different country, and not in the United States. No, not even Jefferson’s United States, for just a few pages after these lines, Jefferson wrote, “can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not be violated but with his wrath?”
Kathleen does pinpoint what was new and different, what made her “squirm,” about Saddleback: “But does it not seem just a little bit odd to have McCain and Obama chatting individually with a preacher in a public forum about their positions on evil and their relationship with Jesus Christ?” Sorry, it didn’t trouble me. A frank discussion of the existence of evil is a welcome thing, in my opinion. And since McCain and Obama are both declared Christians, a pastor’s questions about their faith do not seem out of bounds to me. Presumably Rick Warren would not harangue a Catholic candidate about Marian devotion, or try to convert a Jewish or Muslim candidate. I can’t see the harm in the line of questioning he took with these two candidates–and it was certainly up to each man to decide how “confessional” he wanted to be on national television. (Jefferson himself would have been more circumspect if he’d been there, of course. Even after his career was over, he chafed at having been portrayed as heterodox or worse, saying in an 1816 letter that “I have left the world, in silence, to judge of causes from their effects . . . notwithstanding the slanders of the saints, my fellow citizens have thought me worthy of their trusts.”)
For years, those seeking the presidency have appeared in churches and before religious audiences, giving prepared speeches aimed at establishing that they and their audience are on the same page where worldly matters are concerned. Warren invited McCain and Obama to do something tougher than that–to take questions that would, perhaps more reliably, elicit the same information. Before the forum, not knowing much about Rick Warren, I wondered how it would go. I’d say now that it went very well. Maybe next they can be interviewed by Raymond Arroyo of EWTN, or by talk radio’s Dennis Prager or Michael Medved, who might be said to represent other sectors of religiously motivated voters.
Finally, I think that Kathleen reaches too far when she charges that “we pretend we’re not applying a religious test when we’re really applying a religious test.” The Constitution, of course, forbade religious tests for public office even before the First Amendment was added. But this was all about forbidding the government from imposing any legal bar to a person’s eligibility to office on religious grounds. It was not about forbidding the governed, when they elect public officials, to take a candidate’s spiritual health into account. Examples as various as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan suggest that Americans are perfectly capable of assessing such matters without invidiously discriminating against candidates with fairly tenuous connections (if any) to any particular church. Part of the religious freedom we prize is the freedom to vote on religiously motivated grounds; part of the responsibility that comes with that freedom is the obligation not to vote on narrowly sectarian grounds. Americans have done pretty well with that whole package.
Was the Saddleback Forum a step away from the American tradition of balancing religious freedom, non-establishment, and a concern for the moral and spiritual condition of the country and its leaders? On the contrary, I think it was comfortably within that tradition.