Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Purpose Driven Debate?

Should a presidential candidate’s personal religious beliefs be fodder for a candidate forum?

Tonight Barak Obama and John McCain appear in conversation with Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of the 22,000 member Saddleback Church and author of a best-selling book, The Purpose-Driven Life. Warren is an evangelical Baptist, but known for broadening the faith-based agenda beyond hot button issues like abortion and gay marriage to include care of the environment and combating AIDS.

The event is being co-sponsored by “Faith in Public Life,” a liberal coalition whose Board President is Reverend Meg Riley, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister who headed the denomination’s Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns, and whose members include a spectrum of Jews, Muslims, Catholics and Protestants.

But despite the wide base of religious leaders involved in planning Saturday’s event, it still seems odd to have the Democratic and Republican nominee hold their first post-primary public appearance in such an explicitly religious setting.

Reverend Warren says he wants to ask the candidates questions that aren’t usually discussed, like “What’s Your View of the Constitution?” But if he’s sticking to secular and legal questions, why is a spiritual leader especially qualified to ask them? Will Warren also ask Obama and McCain about their bona fides as Christians? What they believe about Jesus and the Bible?

America’s founders seldom discussed their faith in public. Rev. William White, the Episcopal bishop of Virginia, said that he often dined with George Washington, but never heard the great man refer to his religious beliefs in any shape or manner. Thomas Jefferson wrote a syllabus on the life of Jesus, but kept it’s circulation limited strictly to friends and confidantes—not intended for publication. While James Madison expressed an interest in ministry as a young man attending Princeton, in later life he rarely mentioned his spiritual inclinations. Why not? Because like the other founders, he considered faith a private matter, and too important to be used to hustle for votes.

Perhaps the current nominees might take a cue from the founders in this regard. I am looking forward to watching tonight’s forum with Reverend Warren and the two senators. But I’d rather be watching McCain and Obama on PBS than in a sectarian place of worship.

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