Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Quick Note on Saddleback

The Saddleback Civil Forum has gotten a lot of press lately. It's the event at which evangelist/megapastor Rick Warren interviews both Sens. Obama and McCain - call it the first unofficial debate. I'm about 75% of the way through Obama's responses right now (the whole thing's bouncing around YouTube somewhere) and have yet to start on McCain, and I will admit that it's interesting and informative.

But... something's bugging me about the whole thing. The Post's Kathleen Parker kindasortamaybe puts a finger on it. I'm not sure if I completely agree with Parker - groups of voters, especially groups as significant as evangelicals (some 30% of Americans, at last count), deserve to have candidates address their issues. But I share Parker's worry about a de facto religious test for office. How could a non-Christian candidate possibly come out of that forum looking good? And with the national importance placed on the event, how would such a candidate recover from that appearance?

Is the problem with the media, who ascribe too much importance to a candidate's faith-talk? Is the problem with voters who are suspicious of people with different theological leanings? I don't know. I just know that I'm not sure I like this whole thing. I think.


Mike said...

"Worry about a de facto religious test for office"? Dude, we HAVE a de facto religious test for the office of President. Considering that a) religion is the guiding force behind the morality of many people, b) most people want a president who shares their morality, and c) a vast majority of the country is, in fact, Christian, we're not likely to see a non-Christian President for a while. So I think it's not so much a suspicion of different theological leanings as it is a feeling of different values. Not saying it's right, it just seems like the way it is.

Actual Christians, thoughts?

Ben said...

Kathleen Parker's wrong. There's nothing wrong with the candidates discussing - or being questioned about - how their faith impacts the way they will lead or their stands on certain issues. This is not a de facto religious test. I beleive a non-religious candidate could have come off looking just as good if he or she honestly described his or her values and the questioner probed in an honest, non-gotcha manner how those values affect leadership style and issue stands. Perhaps that candidate wouldn't feel as much love from the evangelical audience, but the real audience is the wider voting public. And the Saddleback forum was a great opportunity to evaluate the candidates' beliefs, how they think about issues, and their leadership style.

A lot has to do with the behavior of the questioner. Does the questioner basically demand that the candidate affirm faith in Jesus Christ (or what have you) and imply that a failure to do so disqualifies the candidate? Rick Warren certainly did not do that. Both candidates have professed themselves to be Christians (Obama more publicly than McCain), and Warren asked them what they mean when they say that. The only time when he basically tried to force the candidates to commit to a specific policy was when he tried to get them to commit to helping orphans. I hope we can all agree that such a demand does not amount to a religious test.

Yes, it certainly pleases me a bit more as an evangelical that the specific issues addressed tended to be issues of concern to evangelicals (although I wish he'd asked McCain about human traffiking like he did Obama) - but this kind of forum, conducted with the kind of civility and probing, thoughtful nature that Warren used, would have been equally as helpful to me if it were a rabbi or an imam.

This is because the most interesting questions (except for stuff like orphans, I already knew where the candidates stood on most of the issues) were the more general questions like what to do about the existence of evil in the world, or the question about the candidates' and America's greatest moral failing. These kind of questions bring out more detail about how the candidates see the world and America, and how they therefore would lead when new issues arise.

So, to conclude, to dismiss the Saddleback Forum because it takes place at a church and its questioner is a pastor is to miss the great value of this event.

Jeff said...

That's true, Ben, and Warren's questioning was good (we can only hope for such questioning at an actual debate). The religious test, if there is one, isn't being put forth by Warren, and Parker says as much.

But as Mike points out (and here I'm paraphrasing), there's a little subtext of identity politics in this event, and Warren is guilty of it to some extent. He talks about the so-called fallacy of separating faith and politics, describes faith as a kind of worldview, and then asks questions aimed at finding out if the candidate's worldview is the same as his. What I'm afraid of is that the assumption that "if you're not Christian, you don't have my values" is still there, it's just hidden... and if Russ Feingold were on that stage, it'd be blindingly obvious.

Caveat. Warren has more dealing with non-Christians than the average evangelical bear - his last Saddleback Forum involved a bunch of Jewish Holocaust survivors. So he might be better at making non-evangelicals feel at home in front of an evangelical crowd. From what I know of Warren, I like him and trust his even-handedness, and that's why I (unlike Parker) stop short of outright condemnation. But I don't know... and it's the uncertainty that's bugging me, really.

I guess we won't really know for sure, though, until we actually do have a serious non-Christian candidate for President. I just saw the kerfuffle that surfaced around Romney (especially the thinly veiled anti-LDS shots from the Huckster), and, well... if a significant chunk of evangelicals have trouble handling even a fellow Christian with different theological beliefs, it makes me a bit skeptical of a lot of folks' ability to objectively weigh the values of those who are out of Christianity altogether. And the media's obsession with identity politics doesn't help, either.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Just a little point to be made here, but there are certainly non-Christians in Congress and on state government levels. They're not a majority, but they're still elected by majority-Christian electorates. I think this clearly signifies that there isn't a defacto religious test, and I'd argues that instead it shows that people care more about whether a candidate is moral than the specific roots of that morality.

Jeff said...

Matt, clearly you haven't spent a whole lot of time in the South, where the point of a political campaign is often to out-Jesus the other guy.

I will admit that some regions of the country are better at electing non-Christians than others. 2006 saw the election of the first Jew in Congress for TN, AZ, NH, and KY. But like I said, there's a lot of uncertainty. Steve Cohen (who I covered earlier on this blog) is the South's only Jewish rep, and he's from a big city that would vote for a purple cow if the Dems nominated one. My home state, NC, has never elected a Jew (or, to my knowledge, any non-Christian) to anything. I just worry that a lot of Christian voters, especially 'round here, can't see past the "who's on my team" mentality and actually analyze a candidate's morality...

Matthew B. Novak said...

So what you're saying is that the South is inferior in every way? As someone who comes from the only state to elect a Muslim to Congress, I accept your position.

Jeff said...

You come from the first state to elect a Muslim... not the only. Indiana (!) has since joined you.

Oh, and the South has Elvis, Fats, Louis, B.B., William Faulkner, Martin Luther King, George Washington, Cajun food, fried chicken, and three distinct forms of barbecue in the Carolinas alone. Minnesota has... Prince? Think I'll take the South, foibles and all.

Mike said...

As an addendum to that, Jeff, I think that morality is wrapped up in identity, i.e. in many Southern states (to use your example - plenty of states in other regions are the same way), by simply labeling oneself "Christian" one has bypassed the need to have one's morality analyzed from certain perspectives. I think this can be somewhat directly compared to people who always vote party lines - no need to analyze a candidate to any real degree, because by simply labeling themselves "Republican" or "Democrat", they have done all the work for you. If any of that makes any sense at all.

That's the reason I specified "office of President" in referring to a de facto religious test. Enough of the country seems to think that way that right now it seems relatively impossible for a non-Christian to win a nationally elected office. Regionally, of course, because it's happened a decent amount.

BTW, I do not feel as Parker does that Warren's debate constitutes a de facto religious test per se. Hell, I would love it if a large number of groups held similar discussions in such a reasoned manner (see also, "Why Mike really liked the town hall debate idea" and "Why Mike was really disappointed in Obama for striking this down"). Like Ben said, it seemed to provide insight far beyond mere religion (and certainly far beyond our standard debates). But then, I've been working 10-to-12-hour days and haven't watched any of it yet.

Jesus, two comments since I started typing? Well, to address them briefly: Jeff, Minnesota also has Kirby Puckett. But it also has cheating, 1991-World-Series-Game-2-stealing bastard Kent Hrbek, so I guess they offset. (Sorry Matt, as a Braves fan you know I couldn't resist :) Oh, and it very well may also have vice presedential nominee Tim Pawlenty before long.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Well, comparing a state to whole region isn't exactly fair, but what the heck. Minnesota can take it.

We've also got Bob Dylan, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Jonny Lang, Craig Finn (of The Hold Steady), Brother Ali, and one of the strongest independent music scenes in the nation. Keeping on music, we've got MPR, which was one of the predecessors to NPR. Which of course goes hand in hand with our Garrison Keillor.

There's also Judy Garland, the Coen brothers, Terry Gilliam and Craig Kilborn. Toss in a little bit of Laura Ingles Wilder, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tim O'Brien. And, unfortunately, John Madden.

We can't compete with the barbeque, but we did birth Famous Daves. We're also the home to Buffalo Wild Wings and Carribou Coffee, Pillsbury, Hormel,and General Mills. Cargill, Target, Best Buy, and 3M all come from Minnesota. We've got the best hospital in the nation, the biggest mall, the headwaters of the Mississippi, and more shoreline than any other state in the lower 48. We're the healtiest state in the country, and one of the best educated.

And, of course, we have the 1991 World-Series winning Twins. Say what you will about the Hrbek play at first; that certainly didn't determine the game, or the series. And Gant shouldn't have been so far off of first in the first place; his poor baserunning sealed the deal. Either way, Mike, I'm sure you can admit that the 1991 series was the greatest ever played.

And I'll just throw this out there too: Minnesota is home to two World Series titles ('87 and '91), something Atlanta certainly can't claim.

And Minnesota doesn't have that whole racism thing going on like the South does. That's a whole lotta points for us.

As far as the Indiana thing goes... I remember hearing that, but had forgotten. Good for them. They're just following our wise lead.

Mike said...

Haha. Well played, Novak.

I will concede that Gant shouldn't have been so far off first base, as long as you concede that he shouldn't have been wrestled off the bag once returning by some thug masquerading as a ballplayer. I will also concede, without conditions, that the play did not decide the game (it was the final out of the inning, after all).

Regardless, there is no doubt that the 1991 Series was, by far, the greatest ever played. Five games decided on the last swing of the bat? A Game 7 in which both pitchers pitch complete game shutouts, with Jack Morris going 10? Yeah, pretty much inarguable.

One final dig at the Twins, though - they've still never won a road game in a World Series. Just saying. :)

Anyway, what the hell was the original subject of this post again?