First we had the Compassion Forum (about which I blogged and complained here). And now we have Rick Warren's Civil Forum on the Presidency, a conversation with the candidates at his Saddleback Church Saturday night.
I'm bothered by these religious/political forums, because I fear that they lend credence to the idea that we need to have a religious, a faithful, a Christian president in the United States, as if faith were a prerequisite for the presidency (try finding that in the Constitution!). Furthermore, Christians are hardly unified on how they feel about a variety of religious – let alone political – issues. But by their nature these forums present a rather narrow understanding of the Christian faith, and they paint Christianity's political concerns with a misleadingly broad – and blunt – brush.
Rick Warren promises to ask the candidates about their relationship to Jesus Christ. From an ABC News report on the upcoming Saddleback event:
to Jesus Christ … I'm going to give them a chance to explain
Huh? The key for these voters is the candidates' "relationship to Jesus Christ"? What about their fealty to the US Constitution? What about their concern for the kinds of things Jesus is concerned about: the poor, the outsider, the widow, the hungry? Anyone can give lipservice to a "relationship to Jesus Christ" for millions of voters watching on television . . . it's kinda hard (and pretty darn inappropriate) to question the candidates' claim to faith. But we can and should question and evaluate the candidates' commitment to issues.
And that's what these presidential debates and forums should be about – issues. Issues of the economy, the environment, international affairs, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, taxation, education . . . that is, let's have discussions about policy, not piety; about governance, not God.
We Lutherans are inheritors of a Two Kingdoms tradition that recognizes the God-blessed function of government, a function that does not need crosses or Christian banners to be considered blessed. A government that governs well – maintains order, restrains evil, provides for the common good – is blessed and holy regardless of the faith of the people holding office. What we need are people in government who can govern well, not necessarily those who can give the correct answers on a religious litmus test.
So as Christians, let us ask our candidates questions about good governance, let us ask questions about who would be the best steward of the mechanism of government. These are questions that people of many faiths – or of no faith – can and should ask when deciding on a political candidate.
And let us not be complicit in using Jesus as a campaign prop.
Some of my recent posts on Church/State issues:
Matthew 25 Network's Obamessiah Complex
Faith, Politics, and Obama
Why I Don't Like the National Day of Prayer
Clinton's Troubling Politics of Choosing Church
Christian Prayers in Government Chambers: Music to the Devil's Ears
Too Much Religion in this Race
Civil Governance & the Church
Or for all of my Church/State posts, click on my new Church/State category link.
UPDATE: Saturday's Washington Post includes an AP article on the forum: McCain and Obama Face Questions About Their Faith. The article simply presents the challenges each candidate faces in the forum, but doesn't raise any questions about the forum itself. That's too bad.
UPDATE #2: An earlier article by Reuters published on Thursday by the Post, Obama, McCain Aim for Faith Vote at Forum is equally lacking in any critique of the forum.
Also, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has a press release critical of the forum. An excerpt:
“Campaign 2008 is starting to feel like a Sunday school Bible
drill,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans
United. “We’re electing a president, not a national pastor. I don’t see
what good it will do for the American people to again hear the
candidates spout pious platitudes about their favorite Bible verses or
how devout they are.
“Candidates should appeal to the voters based on their
qualifications for office and their stands on the issues, not their
religious beliefs,” Lynn said. “This event continues the campaign
spiral into religious matters. Americans want to hear the candidates’
views on important issues such as constitutional rights, public
education, the Iraq War and the economy.”
. . .
“Why should one of these important events be orchestrated entirely by
only one pastor who comes out of one narrow segment of our diverse
country?” Lynn asked.