Americans’ eyes are turning to Denver for the Democratic National Convention, but the presidential forum at Southern California’s Saddleback Community Church on Aug. 16 is still resonating. Pastor Rick Warren, author of the Purpose-Driven Life and a prominent spokesman for evangelical Christians, interviewed Barack Obama and John McCain for an hour each about their personal faith, their understanding of evil, and other issues where policy clashes with morality.
But apart from those weighty questions, another question seems to have gone ignored: Should McCain and Obama have appeared at the forum to begin with? Does a presidential candidate’s belief in God have any bearing on his leadership? Is it a good idea for the candidates to discuss deeply personal matters of faith in front of an audience of millions?
Does the appearance of two major party candidates at a religious forum erode the "wall of separation" between church and state? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.
Here is a political paradox for the early 21st century: Many Americans are uncomfortable with public confessions of private belief, yet America remains very much a religious nation. And, fact is, the vast majority of voters would reject an atheist in the Oval Office, even as the Constitution rejects religious tests for office. We’re a religious people with a secular government.
A president’s faith — or lack thereof — undoubtedly shapes the way he governs. That’s been true since George Washington’s day. It’s certainly true now. When George W. Bush named Jesus Christ as his favorite political philosopher at a Republican debate in 1999, that told voters a lot about the man and his worldview — for better or for worse. Barack Obama’s remark to Rick Warren that deciding when an unborn child should have human rights was "above his pay grade" is similarly revealing.
That’s because the line between personal belief and public policy isn’t always a bright one. Presidents are expected to weigh in on policy matters that have profound moral implications. Should taxpayers fund abortions? Human cloning? Embryonic stem-cell research? A president cannot safely ignore the religious implications of these questions. His constituents won’t let him.
This isn’t about the First Amendment. Voters want to know more about their next president than his position on the issues. They want to have a measure of his character. By that measure, the Saddleback forum was a success.
We should be vigorous about defending the separation of church and state, but probably there will never be a separation of religion and politics. That truth might disturb devout secularists, but most Americans aren’t devout secularists. Taken as a whole, religious citizens could be considered the country’s largest special-interest group; a politician intent on winning election simply can’t ignore the faithful.
Even so, the Saddleback forum — for all intents and purposes, the first presidential debate of the general election campaign — was a bad idea.
Why? Well, consider the modern history of presidential debates. In 2004, George W. Bush and John Kerry debated three times. Each debate was held at a public university. Through the years, debates have been held in theaters, convention centers and municipal auditoriums. These are places where the general public is welcome, where the faithful and secular-minded can and do sit side-by-side.
And that’s fitting: As John McCain and Barack Obama have both reminded us, a president leads the entire country, not certain constituencies or special-interest groups. Even the most inclusive church, though, is still a church. Symbolically, at least, the first presidential debate of 2008 left secular Americans out of the conversation.
Our politicians will never stop speaking — and even pandering — to the faithful. But they shouldn’t leave the rest of us out in the cold.
(Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis blog daily at www.infinitemonkeysblog.com and joelmathis.blogspot.com.)