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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Baptist Perspectives On Saddleback Civil Forum


Mark McEntire is an Associate Professor of Religion at Belmont University in Nashville. In his recent column for EthicsDaily.com titled How Fast Can Rick Warren Spin?, McEntire argues that last Saturday's Civil Forum on the Presidency held at Saddleback Church and hosted by the Saddleback Civil Forum (not Saddleback Church) violates the separation of church and state.

McEntire writes:
Let me confess that I believed from the beginning that the so-called "Faith Forum" held on Aug. 16 at the Saddleback Church in California and hosted by its pastor, Rick Warren, was a bad idea.

First, the idea that the two major candidates for president can be summoned to the church of a prominent pastor to kiss his ring and receive his blessing violates both my commitment to the separation of church and state and the kind of communal humility the church ought to demonstrate.

Second, the whole idea of a "faith forum" is a violation of at least the spirit of Article VI of the United States Constitution, which says that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." We have now reached a place in American society where it would be simply impossible for a person who is not a practicing Christian to make a serious run for president, or for lesser offices in most places in our country. Not only must a candidate be a practicing Christian, but he or she must be willing to talk about religious faith endlessly.
Other Baptists were skeptical of the Saddleback forum as well. On his blog, Southern Seminary President Al Mohler wrote:
Suffice it to say that I was not very hopeful about the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency held at the California megachurch last Saturday night. In the first place, I am not really comfortable with the idea of hosting such a politically charged event in a church. No matter how the event is planned and projected, once the event starts it can turn into something far more politically volatile than planned. That is a truth I have learned by hard experience.
Welton Gaddy, another Baptist minister and Executive Director of The Interfaith Alliance, expressed sentiments similar to those of McEntire and Mohler. Gaddy writes:
I approached Rick Warren's Saddleback Civil Forum with much anticipation, but without a clear idea of how he would handle the sensitive issues at the intersection of religion and politics. I believe Pastor Warren set an example of civility that I hope others will follow, but at the same time some of his questions crossed a line that makes this election seem as if we are electing a pastor-in-chief rather than a commander-in-chief.
Meanwhile, Brent Walker - the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty - offers a different perspective over at Newsweek's ON FAITH religion blog. Walker, an ordained Baptist minister and lawyer writes:
It is good to hear a prominent, evangelical pastor profess his belief in the separation of church and state. I also applaud Rev. Rick Warren's suggestion that separation of church and state does not require a separation of faith and politics. Clearly, there was nothing wrong, as some have suggested, with holding the forum in a church.

Separation of church and state is simply a shorthand expression for the rights guaranteed by Article VI of the Constitution (no religious test for public office) and the First Amendment (no establishment of religion, and no prohibition on the free exercise of religion). What the separation of church and state does not mean is that Americans must - or even should - segregate faith from politics. Nothing in the Constitution or our political culture compels Americans to divorce the moral values born of their religious faith from their decision on which political candidates and policies to support. Answers to questions about a candidate's faith should always be followed up by questions about how that faith will influence governance. Rev. Warren did a pretty good job of doing this throughout the evening.

Southern Baptist layman Charles "Chuck" Colson of the Prison Fellowship ministry seems to concur with Walker. Colson declares that Warren "got Church-State Balance Right." Here is Colson:
Warren stated it exactly right: There's an institutional separation between church and state. But faith and politics deal with the same questions--how we organize our common lives together. And faith's job is to bring moral truth to the exercise of politics.

The forum was a spectacular success. Most believers gained a much better understanding of where the two candidates stand on issues vital to their faith
I absolutely agree with Brent Walker and Rick Warren. Keeping church and state separate does not mean that we need keep faith and politics separate. In our pluralistic democracy, we must understand that religion and politics will mix, must mix and should mix. But we should remember the wise words of Baptist activists for religious liberty like James Dunn who often declared that "mixing politics and religion is inevitable but merging church an state is inexcusable." We should be aware that there exists "A Proper Mix" between religion and politics. Fortunately, that "proper mix" does not require us to "segregate faith from politics" as Walker notes.

I also tend to agree with Welton Gaddy when he notes that some of Rick Warren's questions "crossed a line." The "what does it mean to trust in Christ" question was probably inappropriate for a Presidential forum. However, as Baptist church-state expert Melissa Rogers has noted, "Warren's questions were generally much better than the ones journalists asked at previous candidate forums that were sponsored by religious groups....Generally speaking, those journalists focused on abstract theological questions and rather sensationalistic questions about the candidates' personal religious practices or sins. "

I'll conclude with a great snippet from an op-ed written by Baptist journalist Ruth Ann Dailey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Her op-ed can serve as a response to McEntire's claims. Here is Dailey:
One distraught caller to C-Span after the Saturday night forum objected to its entirety, citing Article VI of the Constitution: "No religious test shall ever be required as qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

Her objection is illogical. Rick Warren is not the government, and he invited, rather than forced, the candidates to appear at his church....There's a considerable distance between a religious test for public office and a voter's inspection of a candidate. As the Rev. Warren said weeks before the event, "I believe in the separation of church and state, but I do not believe in the separation of faith and politics, because faith is simply a worldview, and everybody's got a worldview."

Anguished by the bitter church-state battles of my lifetime, I am grateful for Rick Warren's achievement. From the wall of separation's creation more than 350 years ago to its careful tending Saturday night, the Baptist tradition of the inviolability of the individual conscience has served the nation imperfectly, but well.

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4 Comments:

Anonymous Michael Westmoreland-White said...

The forum was clearly legal. I doubt it was as helpful as advertised. It gave the impression of two professed Christians coming to a megachurch pastor and asking for help getting elected.

Further, Warren may have asked more intelligent questions than some journalists, but the questions were asked in a biased phrasing designed to help McCain. "At what age does a baby have human rights?" is not a phrasing designed to really further bi-partisan discussion of abortion. It's designed to throw red meat at prolifers and shore up their wavering support for McCain.

That very day, the Pew Center had published a report showing Obama winning the overall Christian vote and only narrowly losing the self-identified evangelical vote. The Saddleback Forum changed that. Obama gave thoughtful, nuanced answers and McCain gave short answers that told them what they wanted to hear.

Further, Warren's questions set the agenda for what was to matter: abortion, stem-cell research, conservative judges, funding faith-based organizations with tax money, tax breaks for the rich, military intervention to "fight evil." Nothing about torture or broader human rights. Nothing about the limits of military power or international law or why foreign policy must work with an equivalent to the medical ethics rule, "First, do no harm," don't make the situation worse. Nothing about the government's role in ending poverty, providing for quality education and healthcare for all, fighting global warming and other environmental challenges. Nothing about peacemaking.

I think the forum was less than helpful and seemed to give the general public the impression that mega-church pastors will now be the gatekeepers for high political office.

10:45 AM

 
Blogger Cat's Dad said...

I rarely agree with Walker and Weave over Mohler, but I do here.

I had just heard Warren that Monday at Thomas Road BC, and he indicated the candidates approached him, not the other way around.

I was also more impressed with what Warren had to say at Thomas Road than I had been prior. He's remaining humble and frugal and most benevolent in his astounding wealth from Purpose Driven Life profits.

10:41 AM

 
Anonymous kareng said...

Al Mohler had reservations but ended up impressed:

"I was positively unhopeful. But . . . the event turned to be quite worthwhile after all. I still have deep reservations about identifying the event so closely with a church, but the conversations really did get to urgently important and controversial issues, and Pastor Rick Warren handled the conversations with aplomb, demonstrating both civility and candor." (from Mohler's blog)

In response to mww: the question "At what age does a baby have human rights?" should elicit some answer from a progressive Harvard law grad who has taught constitutional law. It's primarily a legal question. So he hasn't thought about it? His law review case comment was on a similar issue. His entire career he has voted against anything that would accord any right to a fetus in utero, or partially born. One would think his answer is - when the baby is fully delivered.

The question is also timely considering that Spain has accorded legal rights to apes, and famous ethicist/philosophers like Peter Singer et al say the unborn lack the qualities of personhood -- so that "[s]imply killing an infant is never equivalent to killing a person." (Singer)

It's an elegant question about human rights. Warren avoided the temptation to ask "when does life begin" -- although most people glossed over the distinction. Obama plainly has a voting principle. If he doesn't, that's a whole other discussion.

5:30 PM

 
Anonymous Ryan said...

It seemed you only quoted part of Mohler's comments. He actually said it was
"But . . . the event turned to be quite worthwhile after all. I still have deep reservations about identifying the event so closely with a church, but the conversations really did get to urgently important and controversial issues, and Pastor Rick Warren handled the conversations with aplomb, demonstrating both civility and candor."
While he was still holding reservations about the location, he said it was a good thing. It makes your argument weak when you only quote part of the article to prove your point.

12:45 AM

 

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