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There’s Nothing Wrong With The Presidential Candidates Engaging In A Religious Debate

Written By : John Hawkins
August 20, 2008

I’m a fan of Kathleen Parker’s work and enjoyed interviewing her, but I can’t say that I agree with her sentiments about Rick Warren’s Saddleback Forum, even though I’m sure that more than a few people reading RWN today share them,

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At the risk of heresy, let it be said that setting up the two presidential candidates for religious interrogation by an evangelical minister — no matter how beloved — is supremely wrong.

It is also un-American.

…This is about higher principles that are compromised every time we pretend we’re not applying a religious test when we’re really applying a religious test.

It is true that no one was forced to participate in the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency and that both McCain and Obama are free agents. Warren has a right to invite whomever he wishes to his church and to ask them whatever they’re willing to answer.

His format and questions were interesting and the answers more revealing than what the usual debate menu provides. 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?

…Warren tried to defuse criticism about staging the interviews in his church by saying that though “we” believe in the separation of church and state, “we” don’t believe in the separation of faith and politics. Faith, he said, “is just a worldview, and everybody has some kind of worldview. It’s important to know what they are.”

Presumably “we” refers to Warren’s church of fellow evangelicals. And while, yes, everybody has some kind of worldview, it shouldn’t be necessary in a pluralistic nation of secular laws to publicly define that view in Christian code.”

Let’s consider the modern political world, not in a bubble or the context of how things were fifty years ago in America, but in the real world we live in.

In particular, let’s consider three things.

First off, everything — and I do mean everything — about a political candidate ends up being considered fair game for a campaign. Whether Bill Clinton “had sex with that woman,” whether George Bush was AWOL in the National Guard 30 years ago even though the military’s records say he wasn’t, the sexual orientation of Dick Cheney’s daughter — it all turns into grist for the mill.

Secondly, there is practically no segment of the American electorate that is not targeted by political candidates. John Kerry conspicuously goes duck hunting, John McCain went to the Sturgis bike rally, and the Democrats are bending over backwards to get as many felons on the voting rolls as possible all across the United States.

Third, as the government has become larger and more powerful, it has stuck its nose into an ever larger portion of the public domain. The government gets involved in every decision from whether or not you wear a seatbelt, to whether you are allowed to plow your own land or have to leave it fallow for fear of harming some “endangered” woodland creature, to what kind of lightbulbs you can have in your house.

So, let’s consider all these factors in concert: political campaigns cover every personal detail of a candidate’s life, politicians target every segment of the electorate, and the government affects every part of people’s lives.

With that in mind, given that roughly 80% of the American public is Christian, many of them do take matters of faith into account when they vote, and the government is going to intrude into their faith’s business, what’s the problem supposed to be with having candidates answer questions about their Christian beliefs?

The Warren Forum certainly doesn’t meet the Constitutional standard of a “religious test,” particularly since the candidates don’t have to attend. As a matter of fact, during the Republican primaries, there was a Values Voter Debate that was designed to appeal to religious conservatives and none of the top tier candidates bothered to show up. So, had McCain or Obama not wanted to do Warren’s event, that would have been that, and it would have been a minor story that would have gone down the memory hole in a day.

However, since the candidates apparently wanted to attend, since the debate covered issues people vote on, and since it was designed to appeal to a large segment of the American populace, what’s the problem?

I’d say nothing — particularly since, as we all know, there are going to be atheists and secular humanists continuing to use the power of government to attack Christianity and squash our religious rights over the next few years. So, why shouldn’t Christians have an opportunity to ask the candidates where they stand on these issues?

If you are a Christian, the federal government is going to be doing things that impact your religious freedom. So, you had better take that into consideration and put people into power who are as concerned about safeguarding your religious interests as you are. For that reason, I think the Saddleback Forum served an important purpose, even if I wasn’t in love with the format or some of the questions.

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