Religion is private – yet politically expedient

The winner - Rick Warren

The winner - Rick Warren

Much is being made about the Saddleback Civil Forum where Senators Obama and McCain were quizzed by Pastor Rick Warren. The setting and questions favored McCain’s clarity of conviction while Obama came across as nuanced because real issues are complex.

Today through the post I got “The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” where Jefferson highlighted in the Gospels Jesus’ ethical teachings discarding the supernatural and dogmatic. Once past the two candidates claiming to be saved by Christ’s sacrifice, both men highlighted Jesus’ message of love (Obama) and service (McCain).

Yet Jefferson never had this work published in his lifetime – his personal conviction was that religion was a private matter. Today most political speeches will end with God Bless America. What would Jefferson have made of the debate of two candidates for the Presidency being moderated by a Pastor? Jefferson once wrote in a letter:

In choosing our pastor, we look to his religious qualifications, without enquiring into his physical or political dogmas, with which we mean to have nothing to do. I am aware that arguments may be found, which may twist a thread of politics into the cord of religious duties. So may they for every other branch of human art or science.

Thus, for example, it is a religious duty to obey the laws of our country; the teacher of religion, therefore, must instruct us in those laws, that we may know how to obey them. It is a religious duty to assist our sick neighbors; the preacher must, therefore, teach us medicine, that we may do it understandingly. It is a religious duty to preserve our health; our religious teacher, then, must tell us what dishes are wholesome, and give us recipes in cookery, that we may learn how to prepare them.

And so, ingenuity, by generalizing more and more, may amalgamate all the branches of science into every one of them, and the physician who is paid to visit the sick, may give a sermon instead of medicine; and the merchant to whom money is sent for a hat, may send a handkerchief instead of it. But notwithstanding this possible confusion of all sciences into one, common sense draws the lines between them sufficiently distinct for the general purposes of life, and no one is at a loss to understand that a recipe in medicine or cookery, or a demonstration in geometry, is not a lesson in religion.

I do not deny that a congregation may if they please, agree with their preacher that he shall instruct them in medicine also, or law, or politics. Then, lectures in these, from the pulpit, become not only a matter of right, but of duty also. But this must be with the consent of every individual; because the association being voluntary, the majority has no right to apply the contributions of the minority to purposes unspecified in the agreement of the congregation.

It seems clear that the voluntary nature of the debate in terms of participation and viewers is key here. Politically it may seem unwise that Obama took part as the format favoured McCain – although talking up his Christianity when 1 in 8 of people think he is a Muslim may well be important in a close election. Obama seemed considered in his views rather aware of consequences. McCain on the other hand seemed to have a simple message that is considered clarity of the issue.

Yet Jefferson would not have approved with the candidates agreeing to the debate:

Religion is a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved. I have considered it as a matter between every man and his Maker, in which no other, and far less the public had a right to intermeddle.

I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

"I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

The question of whether an inquiry into a candidates’ faith is a legitimate one for the electorate to ask can be responded that it really should not matter. Jefferson makes clear that the actions of a person, the honesty of his conduct is all there is to know of the religion regulating a person. Those principles underpinning them are between him and his God.

Yet the rather long first quote form Jefferson does mention the ability for religion to capture (or indeed if we think of it as a meme, infect) almost ever part of life without limit. The argument could be made, if we have the certainty of truth in our belief that this would be the righteous thing to do and that are other people would benefit too if they would agree with us.

Religious tolerance has to accept that people choose their faith based on their own reasoning. The liberty by which we choose to uphold a faith or not must be given to others as well – or else we deny the rights we give ourselves and also go against our very nature to choose these things for ourselves.

Compulsion in religion is distinguished peculiarly from compulsion in every other thing. I May grow rich by art I am compelled to follow; I may recover health by medicines I am compelled to take against my own judgment; but I cannot be saved by a worship I disbelieve and abhor.

The concern is that in order to run for public office candidates will have to make an issue of having Christian faith. The Civil forum in Saddleback will continue the trend. Where shall we draw the line of questioning about supposed faith issues. Will we next be asking how the trinity makes them think of the three branches of government? Religion is increasingly in American life not considered a private matter.

The private thoughts and family values are considered to directly have a bearing on a persons capacity for public office. Rick Warren argues this and he is the main winner of the forum. Because he has just made the issue of Christianity more of a focus in a General Election and the two candidates by their agreement to participate have legitimised it as something that should be public.

No doubt the main issue was not the separation of church and state (big deal) but that it was politically expedient to show up, and in a zero sum game not being there would be worse. Thus Rick Warren’s platform for the social agenda is increased on the political issues he wants to make – from stem cell to abortion. That he does so because of religion means that in the public sphere religion will matter.

So it was good to hear that Obama, knowing his answers on faith based initiatives, abortion and stem cell research may not appeal to the conservative christian audience and said so. Also that within the congregation that there was applause for both candidates when answering the same question. Christians are not a borg collective when it comes to political issues.

Rick Warren does not want open debate – listen to the questions and how he poses them. He wants his Christian Agenda to be taken seriously by all levels of government. One hopes that when one of the two men is in office they will think about what Jefferson had to say with regard to the clergy’s hope of political interference.

“The delusion …on the [First Amendment] clause of the Constitution, which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity through the United States; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians and Congregationalists.

“The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, and they [the preachers] believe that any portion of power confided to me [such as being elected President], will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough too in their opinion.”

May that good sense return to the nation.


1 Comment

Filed under politics, Religion

One response to “Religion is private – yet politically expedient

  1. Pingback: Obama and McCain with Rick Warren « Homo economicus’ Weblog

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