Did Saddleback “faith quiz” cross church-state divide?
Did Rick Warren’s Saddleback Civil Forum with John McCain and Barack Obama violate the separation of church and state? Was it right for a pastor to ask U.S. presidential candidates about their belief in Jesus Christ or their worst moral failures? Will the success of the Saddleback Civil Forum mean that major televised interviews or debates about faith will become a regular fixture in American political campaigns?
I didn’t think questions like this got enough of an airing in U.S. media before Saturday’s event. The fact that Warren made it such an interesting evening made me think the fundamental question — should there be a televised “faith quiz” at all? — would be crowded out of the public debate. The initial reactions angled on the winner/loser question or the “cone of silence” issue seemed to bear this out. But some commentators and blogs are now zeroing in on the deeper question.
In the New York Times, columnist Willian Kristol (Showdown at Saddleback) applauded the event and said: “Rick Warren should moderate one of the fall presidential debates.” That says a lot about the quality of the usual televised debates but little about the church-state question. Ruth Ann Dailey’s op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put her answer about the church-state question right in the headline: At Saddleback, the wall stands firm.
On the other side, Kathleen Parker wrote in the Chicago Tribune that Candidates’ church chat erodes U.S. principles. DeWayne Wickham of USA Today wrote the Next president need not be the vicar of Saddleback.
Hat tip to the Washington Post On Faith blog for probably the most comprehensive selection of views for, against and in the middle. This is not a simple question and it was good to see so many thoughtful responses.
As religion editor, I naturally have a strong professional interest in seeing religion discussed in public. I also think a candidate’s religious views are relevant when they clearly shape his or her political stands. So I’m not against asking such questions in principle. But a session like the Saddleback Civil Forum raises some fundamental questions about the role of religion in politics and where lines between the two should be drawn. There is no hard and fast rule. Anyone who reads religion news from around the world regularly, though, has surely seen enough cases of politics interfering too much in religion or religion interfering too much in politics to take the issue of church-state relations lightly. Just saying “it can’t happen here” isn’t good enough.
Since television loves to repeat a successful formula, it’s a good bet we’ll see more of these sessions in campaigns to come. With that in mind, here are a few questions I hope to see debated before the next “God quiz” rolls around:
- Has this “soft” kind of interview created a “soft” religious litmus test? One that does not require a certain religious belief, but some religious belief, to pass?
- Is there a border line between appropriate and inappropriate questions? Are some questions too prying, something only for a private session with a spiritual advisor?
- If there is going to be one televised faith “showdown,” should it should be conducted by only one interviewer from a specific faith tradition? Does that skew the questions to the kinds of questions that faith tradition asks, and favour answers that faith tradition gives? Does it give the impression that questions that are high priority for that tradition — in this case, evangelical — are the only faith questions out there?
- What about Jews, Muslims and others, even other Christian denominations? Are they overlooked in this process? Would a mixed panel of interviewers be more inclusive?
- What about atheists and voters who believe such events violate the separation of church and state? Will they have a televised forum?
U.S. religious forum would not have happened here – The separation of church and state is more notional than real in the U.S. (Montreal Gazette, Canada)
Obama&McCain:Confession in front of puritans (Journal du Dimanche, France)
McCain and Obama confess their sins (Elsevier, Netherlands)
Campaign launched for religious voters — Obama and McCain “confessed” to the pastor of the nation (DieStandard.at, Austria)
McCain trumps Obama at faith summit (Spiegel Online, Germany)
“Television Confessional” (Financial Times Deutschland, Germany)
Religion test for Obama and McCain – an unusual event in the U.S. campaign (Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Switzerland)
Obama and McCain proceed to the media confessional (Libération, France)
Obama and McCain reveal their dark sides on stage (La Stampa, Italy)
Confession road to the White House (El Periódico de Catalunya, Spain)