I took some time off from Benchmemos to help teach a seminar on the moral foundations of law at the marvelous Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ. The scene upon my return is a bit discouraging: two persons I greatly admire are in heated disagreement, about a topic no less important than religion and the Presidential election. I see that Kathleen Parker gives the Saddleback get-together two thumbs down; Matt Franck gives it two thumbs way up. If it had to be a simple, and stark, up or down, I would side with Matt. But Kathleen Parker is rarely off-target and never altogether mistaken. I should like to say first what is right in her view.
For one thing, it is certainly the case that scenes such as Saturday’s include a certain amount of pandering to the audience. I realize that pandering is, basically, what politicians do for a living (though some much more than others). But usually the panderer promises the panderee a subsidy or a bridge or a check or, at least, to feel his or her pain. It is different, and much worse, when the pander involves beliefs about God. Kathleen is right, too, to sense that it is a bit voyeuristic (my word) to listen in on conversations like Saturday’s. That is because someone’s spiritual life is properly understood to be a private matter.
But religion is not altogether private. There is a great and important common good in religion. ”In God We Trust” and “One Nation Under God” are just two of the most prominent expressions of an enduring conviction in American politics about American politics: there is a greater than human source of meaning and value — God — upon whom we as a nation are dependent for guidance and for our flourishing. It is important to know whether a candidate affirms propositions like these, and what he or she understands them to mean. Venturing into these corners of a candidate’s mind and character do not violate any separation of church and state. Our rights, including our right to religious liberty, actually depend upon such affirmations. As the Supreme Court said in 1963: the “fact that the Founding Fathers believed devotedly that there was a God and the unalienable rights of man were rooted in Him is clearly evidenced in their writings, from the Mayflower Compact to the Constitution itself.”