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.
For the past several days, since mega-pastor Rick Warren interviewed Barack Obama and John McCain at his Saddleback Church, most political debate has focused on who won.
Was it the nuanced, thoughtful Obama, who may have convinced a few more skeptics that he isn't a Muslim? Or was it the direct, confident McCain, who breezes through town hall-style meetings the way Obama sinks three-pointers from the back court.
Suffice it to say, each of the candidates' usual supporters felt validated in their choices. McCain convinced and comforted with characteristic certitude those most at ease with certitude; Obama convinced and comforted with his characteristic intellectual ambivalence those most at ease with ambivalence.
The winner, of course, was Warren, who has managed to position himself as political arbiter in a nation founded on the separation of church and state.
The loser was America.
In his enormously successful book, "The Purpose-Driven Life," Warren begins: "It's not about you." Agreed. Nor is this criticism aimed at Christians, evangelicals, other believers or non-believers -- or at Warren, who is a good man with an exemplary record of selfless works. Few have walked the walk with as much determination or success.
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 Forum and that both McCain and Obama are free agents. Warren certainly 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 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?
The past few decades of public confession and Oprah-style therapy have prepared us perfectly for a televangelist probing politicians about their moral failings. The Warren Q&A wasn't an inquisition exactly, but viewers would be justified in squirming.
What is the right answer, after all? What happens to the one who gets evil wrong? What's a proper relationship with Jesus? What's next? Interrogations by rabbis, priests and imams? What candidate dare decline on the basis of mere principle?
Both Obama and McCain gave "good" answers, but that's not the point. They shouldn't have been asked. Is the American electorate now better prepared to cast votes knowing that Obama believes that "Jesus Christ died for my sins and I am redeemed through him," or that McCain feels that he is "saved and forgiven"?
What does that mean, anyway? What does it prove? Nothing except that these men are willing to say whatever they must -- and what most Americans personally feel is no one's business -- to win the highest office.
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.
For the moment, let's set aside our curiosity about what Jesus might do in a given circumstance and wonder what our founding fathers would have done at Saddleback Church. What would have happened to Thomas Jefferson if he had responded as he wrote in 1781:
"It does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
Would the crowd at Saddleback have applauded and nodded through that one? Doubtful.
By today's new standard of pulpits in the public square, Jefferson -- the great advocate for religious freedom in America -- would have lost.
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