Thursday, August 21, 2008

Religious tests?

Just a few days ago, Richard Land was saying on the Newshour with Jim Lehrer that several years ago, even he wasn't "optimistic" enough to believe that the first forum between the presidential candidates would be a televised event in an Evangelical church with a fourth generation pastor asking the questions. He went on to say that he couldn't have envisioned something like this. Yes. Neither could I, only in my case I was apparently too optimistic to believe that America wouldn't go down this path. A path which I believe could ultimately lead to theocracy.

I watched the event held at Rick Warren's Saddleback church. I watched, of course, because I'm very interested in who is going to be the next president. But I also wanted to see how they handled the questions, in spite of the fact I knew that most would center around those agendas that appeal to Evangelical Christians: abortion, same-sex marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, support of Israel, social welfare, the public financing of so-called "faith-based" {read: religious} charity & education, and of course the appointment of conservative justices to the Supreme Court.

Having watched it I think Barack Obama handled himself well, afterall he was in unfriendly territory, but McCain was much better at telling everyone what they wanted to hear. I also noticed that Warren seemed to lead him on in his questions a bit more. While he asked the same questions as he did Obama, he also tended to elaborate for McCain much more, using terminology which made it clear what his feelings were on these issues and what the "right" answer would be. I thought that was inappropriate of a moderator. Though I wasn't surprised in the least, all things considered.

I must say, though, that I was somewhat surprised to hear anything that wasn't negative about Warren coming from Richard Land, what considering that right-wing Evangelicals view Warren as being too "liberal", i.e. he doesn't resort to the level of demonizing that they feel is appropriate and he just so happens to support government being more involved in cleaning up the environment and providing social welfare where needed. But obviously many of those on the far-right were pleasantly surprised that in fact he did raise questions about their pet agendas.

Most notably, right-wing conservative Evangelicals were no doubt wowed that so-called "liberal" Warren asked the candidates questions in a somewhat loaded fashion about both abortion and same-sex marriage. He even managed to get out of both candidates that they believe marriage should be between one man and one woman. At least Obama was unequivocal that there should not be an amendment to the Constitution establishing marriage as heterosexual only, irregardless of his personal beliefs.

I thought it was a shame that he didn't mention that 40 years ago, had they thought of it at the time, racist bigots in this country could have organized and pushed for an amendment to the Constitution prohibiting interracial marriage. While most of us today find the idea of anti-miscegenation laws grossly unfair and frankly disgusting, a majority of folks at the time approved of them, depending on where you lived. Many of us merely shake our heads in disbelief that such laws were approved of just a few decades ago, but yet we find ourselves in a similar place today. I think it's a good thing that social conservatives of the day weren't able to rewrite the Constitution to reflect their personal prejudices back then, and the same holds true today. Why would we want the self-proclaimed arbiters or moral decency and "Christian values" among us to be allowed to permanently add discriminatory amendments to our Constitution?

No, Obama didn't go there. Should have, but he didn't. Of course, considering that he is running for president and was among evangelicals, even if they weren't the uber-conservative variety, and such an argument would have went over like a lead balloon. Even as a homosexual who very much believes that I am a full-fledged citizen who should enjoy the same rights {and privileges} as heterosexuals, and that the choice of marrying the partner of your choosing is more a human right than some arbitrary privilege, I really can't fault him for that.

I digress. Of course, I haven't forgotten that while Warren focuses more on poverty, human slavery, and AIDS in his agendas, back in 2004 he supported George W. Bush and was quite zealous in his conservative radicalism about abortion and same-sex marriage. Still is, if you read deeper into what he has to say about the subjects.

Regardless his personal beliefs, regardless his political stances, I find it very disconcerting that political forums are being held in churches; that pastors are being offered a status as asking questions of our candidates for the highest office in the nation {and the world}. Frankly, I find it alarming that religion has played such a prominent role in this election in particular.

There is a reason why our constitution clearly states that, "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." This country was founded by men who had seen government persecution of religion first hand. Because of this, and a "radical" Enlightenment era philosophy of religious tolerance, the nation was founded on principles that those who hold public office would not have to meet religious criteria in order to serve. I believe this was not only because they believed a plurality of religious beliefs was good for the fledging nation, but also because they were afraid that if an exclusion based on religion was allowed to take hold then a theocracy would soon follow.

Today, a candidate not only has to say what is "politically correct" to a plethora of constituencies and special interest groups, but they have to conform to the expectations that religious voters have based on their established faith. How is it in keeping with a separation of church and state — which is imperative in a pluralistic society with a diversity of religions — when our elected leaders and representatives have to answer a laundry list of questions of a religious nature as if they were being put on trial by their answers?

When we hold religious forums like that at Saddleback, ask candidates about their religious faith as the public judges whether or not they measure up to the "right" denomination and interpretations of that faith, when candidates add the language and symbols of religion to their campaign ads and speeches, are we not treading into what our Founders had feared might come of this nation, a theocracy?

Typically, we as a society do not approve of religious dogma being imposed on people in other countries, like Muslim nations for instance. Is it because we view their beliefs as "barabaric" or because we believe that matters of faith, and even often notions of morality should be left to the individual to decide for themselves, so long as they don't harm others? Why should our nation be any different? Certainly people can vote by whatever metric they want. This happens in every election and it isn't about to change now. How some people vote isn't the issue. I do not believe that we as a nation should be encouraging citizens to vote based on religious affiliation and doctrine. Publically speaking, we should be keeping our elections about issues, not about religious stance.