Saddleback Church’s evangelical mega-pastor Rick Warren has announced that he’ll be holding another presidential forum, just as he famously did in 2008 with Barack Obama and John McCain. While nothing is confirmed yet, it is tentatively scheduled for the end of August and will supposedly work “to promote social civility so that people with major disagreements (can) talk without beating each other up.” However, neither President Obama nor Republican challenger Mitt Romney should be fooled, this is an exercise in conservative Christian power, a religious litmus test in all but name.
Obama should consider that Warren either lied about his plans for the 2008 forum or bowed to pressure from other conservatives regarding the topics up for discussion. In the week before the earlier event, Warren told TIME’s David van Biema that his questions would center on four areas: poverty, HIV/AIDS, climate change, and human rights. “There is no Christian religious test,” said Warren. The night of forum, however, Warren stuck to a more conservative script, quizzing the candidates about gay marriage, judges, and abortion—and only briefly touching on poverty and climate change. As one progressive religious leader told me at the time: “They hadn’t done their research on Warren. Obama wasn’t prepared for the Saddleback thing at all, and Warren bushwhacked him.”
Pastor Rick Warren has an entirely undeserved reputation as a “moderate” evangelical Christian because has no trouble being courted by Democrats, or signing toothless global warming documents. In truth, the man who has sold countless “Purpose Driven Life” books is lock-step with the evangelical mainstream on almost all social and theological issues. He’s for banning same-sex marriage, doesn’t believe in evolution, and only spoke out against draconian anti-gay legislation in Uganda (he had ties to one of the bill’s supporters) after immense public pressure. The only real difference between Warren and many other figures within the realm of conservative Christianity is his genial self-help-book-writer tone. In short, this is not a man I’d trust to explore alone the serious moral and ethical questions inherent to the world’s more powerful job, because there’s only one moral and ethical standard he’s truly capable of understanding.
“Some of the questions Pastor Warren posed crossed the line and promoted the fiction that the American people are electing a pastor-in-chief, rather than a commander-in-chief. Questions like ‘What does it mean to trust in Christ?’ create a religious test for public office and should have no place in the political discourse for a secular office. America is the most religiously diverse country in the world, and Christianity is only one of those faith traditions. Millions of voters who tuned in tonight will feel disenfranchised by some of the questions posed in this forum.” – Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of Interfaith Alliance
Around 20% of Americans fall outside the accepted boundaries of the Abrahamic traditions (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) entirely. If we’re talking just non-Christians, then the number is about 22%. Around 18% of American Christians belong to (generally more liberal) Mainline Protestant Churches. Catholics claim 24% of the population. Evangelical Christians make up around 26% of religious adherents in the United States, the largest faith grouping in America, but does their size justify the prominence of place they seem to now inhabit in national politics? The margins are small enough that it seems like folly to think that the moral concerns of an evangelical pastor will line up with a the concerns of all the other groups. It’s more a testament to the organizing power of conservative protestants, than a true reflection of their demographic weight or cultural influence.
The reason Obama and Romney are so eager to engage in what is a de facto religious test for office is that each want to convince different parts of American evangelical culture to vote for them. Obama wants the “small but significant chunks of white evangelical voters” that helped propel to the White House in 2008 to do so again (an uphill climb considering his evolution on the issue of same-sex marriage). Romney, meanwhile, will try convince still-skeptical evangelicals that he lines up with their moral values, despite belonging to a “false religion” (Mormonism). Both will emphasize their commitment to Christ, and Christian values. All of which is great, if you’re an evangelical Christian. You get two hours of presidential candidates making the case directly to you that they support, or at least respect, your moral universe. For everyone else, from liberal Christians to Hindus, you’re reminded that your vote, and the issues you’re most concerned about, aren’t quite as important.
When voters are indirectly told that one kind of religion, or even one kind of Christianity, is the one that gets catered to on the national stage, the one that needs to be wooed, we enter dangerous ground. We are told subtle lies about what’s foundational in our nation, that we were not built on Enlightenment values with a commitment to secular pluralism, but that instead we are a “Christian Nation” and all non-Christians (or Christians who aren’t the right kind of Christians) exist here by either a quirk of fate, the erosion of values, or the sufferance of the not-so-silent majority. It says that on matters of faith, presidents are accountable to the Rick Warren’s of this world, not to the “others” (or “nones”). This creates a narrative where morality is debated only within a spectrum acceptable to the most politically powerful faiths, where pundits can say straight-faced what “religious” people believe about an issue while really only talking to one subset of Christianity.
When you factor in the vast amount of theological (and political) diversity in the world’s religions, from indigenous traditions to pacifist Quakers, the amount of room between, say, “religious left” titan Jim Wallis and Rev. Dennis “non-Christians get out” Terry, starts to seem pretty arbitrary to those outside the halls of power looking in. It’s “lefty” Jesus vs. “righty” Jesus, but guess what, one acceptable face or another of Christian power always wins. This isn’t just bad for non-Christians, it’s bad for authentic Christianity as well. Jefferson was smart enough to know that religious wars could tear our nation apart should we appear to favor one over another, so he smartly built a “wall of separation” to avoid the problem.
Perhaps there was a time when it was acceptable, even necessary, for our nation to use Christianity as a source of unity, but if that time truly existed it has long since past. We live in a age where American diversity isn’t just a slogan, it’s real, and religious pluralism is happening in the atomic structure of our society every day whether we want it or not. Allowing Rick Warren to be our nation’s religious moderator is a bad idea, one that both candidates should reject. I can’t imagine that John F. Kennedy, our nation’s first Catholic president, would have participated in this religious test disguised as a forum.
“I would not look with favor upon a president working to subvert the First Amendment’s guarantees of religious liberty. Nor would our system of checks and balances permit him to do so. And neither do I look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test — even by indirection — for it. If they disagree with that safeguard, they should be out openly working to repeal it. I want a chief executive whose public acts are responsible to all groups and obligated to none; who can attend any ceremony, service or dinner his office may appropriately require of him; and whose fulfillment of his presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation.”
“Even by indirection,” which I argue includes a forum supposedly about moral issues, but asks questions about trusting Christ, a topic immaterial to every non-Christian voter. We have allowed this to happen, we have allowed one group to set the rules of engagement in the public sphere when it comes to faith and morality. Conservative evangelicals have been masterful in becoming political power players in the span of a generation, and the rest of us have been busy playing defense. This has to end, and the best place to start would be for Obama and Romney to tell Rick Warren “no.” Failing that, American people of all faiths need to reengage with our political process, no matter what their party or ideology, so that we can embrace the pluralistic promise of our nation, and put an end to litmus tests in all but name.
ADDENDUM: Obama campaign officials have stated that there will be no joint pre-debate appearances, so it looks like Warren was a bit premature to imply that both campaigns had agreed to appear.