Purpose Driven Politics

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:

[Warren] said the key for many evangelicals is the candidates' "relationship
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.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

6 thoughts on “Purpose Driven Politics

  1. I enjoyed the Compassion Forum (mostly because I was a student at that college…and one of 10 professed democrats among 2500+ students at the time). I must, however, agree with the dangerous approach it takes to electoral politics. It’s very easy to see it now, as the Saddleback event seems to take what was wrong with the Compassion Forum and make it the main focus. The Compassion Forum, when it wasn’t waxing pop theology with the senators, did do a good job of focusing on issues of justice, peace and poverty. What I am hopeful it accomplished was that it allowed so-called “evangelicals” to touch the Democratic party without using the proverbial 10-foot pole. I am hopeful that it will help put an end to the approach of the Christian Right…which will not happen if the left (or center) tries to co-opt the same approach. It will only happen, as you rightly indicate, when the true alternative becomes the norm: a separation that allows for true religious freedom for all and true accountability from elected leaders.

  2. They’re really gonna do it, aren’t they? They’re going to try to blend faith and politics in the same inproper way as the right has done over the past 30 years. I’m beginning to think that Tony Campolo was right when compared mixing religion and politics to mixing ice cream with cow shit. It doesn’t really hurt the shit…but the ice cream is ruined. I’d go a step further to say that it’s not a one-way street…the shit gets degraded, too. Not sure which one was which, I’d assume the politics were the shit (although, I’d be more incline to let the religion be so).
    How do we convince people that their faith should drive them into the public square, but at the same time, must not shape the public square in such a way that would make it less than public? If the Democrats are willing to wrestle with that question, bringing every voice to the table, perhaps they’ll lead better than the republican have with regard to church, etc. & state.

  3. Zeph – I have to confess that I am a little confused by your anger over this forum. Of course religion and faith factors into the way people vote. I remember Tutu preaching at the div school I attended, where he said it is impossible to separate faith and politics since both speak to people at such a deep, often unconscious level.
    I watched the forum Saturday night (I know, big excitement, right), and didn’t find the format or questions objectionable. Silly, and at times pedantic, true, but not really objectionable. I think the statement that is made by the forum is that there are a whole heck of a lot of folks out there for whom these questions about faith and values are important. I agree that it is all ultimately lip service – Obama and McCain are both liars and both lied Saturday night (Obama about his abortion record and McCain telling a story that sounded eerily like one Solzhenitsyn told in one of his books)- but honestly, I don’t see the problem with them going to Saddleback anymore than I see a problem with politicians of all persuasions going the National Cathedral or any other church for that matter.
    I think the real question that needs to answered is how Rick Warren started a church in his living room and years later has two of the presidential nominees fielding his questions.

  4. LP – thanks for your comment.
    What gets me about these events – the Compassion Forum (in which Hillary Clinton was asked about experience of the Trinity) and this Saddleback Event (in which the candidates were asked about Jesus Christ) – is that they ask questions and raise issues that have little to do with being President.
    In December Mitt Romney – a member of a minority religious group – pushed back forcefully when he was asked about his interpretation of the Bible by host Robert Siegel on National Public Radio (full NPR audio and transcript here):
    SIEGEL: One last point: In the CNN-You Tube debate, there was a moment when one of the people who submitted a question asked all the candidates whether they believed in every word of the Bible, and two of your rivals — Mayor [Rudolph] Giuliani and Gov. [Mike] Huckabee — both made a point of saying, “Well, in some parts it’s allegorical, in some parts it should be interpreted, but yet, I believe in the Bible.
    SIEGEL: And you seemed — if I read you right — to make a point of saying it’s the word of God, and even when considering some modification, you backed up, said, “No, I’ll just stick with that. It’s the word of God.” [That] left the impression — and I want to ask you — do you hold a literal belief, say, in the Genesis version of creation?
    ROMNEY: You know, I find it hard to believe that NPR is going to inquire on people’s beliefs about various parts of the Bible in evaluating presidential candidates, and actually, I don’t know that that’s where America has come to — that you want to have us describing our particular beliefs with regards to Genesis and the Book of Revelations, so —
    SIEGEL: I raise Genesis only because creationism is a national issue in a variety of ways, and —
    ROMNEY: Well, but then you could ask me a question and say, “Do you believe that we should teach creationism in our schools, in our science classes and so forth?” and I’m happy to give you an answer to that. But I don’t know that going through books of the Bible and asking, “Well, do you believe this book? And do you believe these words?”, that that’s terribly productive. Particularly when we face global jihad, when we have 47 million people without health insurance, when we have runaway costs in our entitlements, to be asking presidential candidates about their specific beliefs of books of the Bible is, in my view, something which really isn’t part of the process which we should be using to select presidents.
    ROMNEY: My point is the Bible is the word of God, and I try and live by it.
    My concern is that as a nation we’ve gotten more and more interested in the religious faith of our politicians. There is a fine line between asking questions about policy – ie, about Creationism being taught in public schools – and about belief – ie, about how one interprets Genesis. I wholeheartedly support asking questions about policy. But I wholeheartedly oppose asking questions about faith.
    One of McCain’s biggest liabilities in this election cycle is that he is not seen as very comfortable talking about his faith! How sad it is when the way one talks – or would rather not talk – about his faith becomes a significant political problem. I think it shows that as a nation we have our priorities out of whack when we waste time asking about a candidate’s personal faith. It is cheap identity politics, and nothing more. And yet as a nation our identity is ultimately bound up in the Constitution and the freedoms it guarantees, not in any religious or ethnic identity. We are a nation of laws and freedoms, not of religion! Why then is religion playing such an important role in this election?
    Furthermore, it is one thing for candidates to complete questionnaires submitted to them by religious groups, or appear at semi-private events to meet with religious leaders and answer their questions. That is how this was done in the past. But there is a different quality to these two recent events – they were broadcast nationally on CNN. Now religious inquiry is something that advertisers and broadcasters find profitable. By putting it on the national stage, these religious litmus tests are now becoming the new norm in American politics. And when religious events become the norm for selecting a president, we have serious problems.
    I find these events to be dangerous to our national political dialog, and to the ministry of the church. When engaging in politics, we have a grand political tradition and governing documents on which we can draw for political discourse. But by overtly injecting religion into the discourse, we dilute the legitimate priorities set by our Founding Fathers (ie, laws and freedoms and a constitutional system). Furthermore, when politicians engage in religious speech – in their capacity as politicians – they tread on the turf of the church. As a pastor-type I get very, very nervous when politicians use their place of prominence to speak about religious matters.

  5. Fair enough response…
    I agree with you in strictest sense…one’s personal faith has little do with their ability to govern. However – in the popular mind – I think the electorate looks to see if a person has faith in order to see that they have a bedrock upon which their actions/ethics are built. For example, if Obama believes it is a religious mandate to feed the poor, he is more likely to introduce/support policies that do so than if he simply thought it were a good idea.
    Not sure…but this is my hunch…

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