Aug 22nd 2008

God and Politics at Saddleback

by Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge and history lecturer at the University of Queensland

How are the two putative candidates in the US Presidential race treating the evangelical vote thus far? In one answer: seriously. If the evidence is anything to go by, the evangelical vote will still prove thumping come November. Figures vary, but something in the order of 25 percent of American voters see themselves as evangelicals. Hence the presence of both Senators John McCain and Barack Obama at pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback megachurch in Orange County, California on August 16.

On paper, both have their problems with that niche constituency. The conservatives doubt McCain's credentials and have done so from the start. Threats about boycotts and staying home in November have died down. There are even murmurings from such personalities of the Christian right as James C. Dobson that 'the possibility' of endorsement was there. But the embers of suspicion, stoked by such conservative heavyweights as Rush Limbaugh, still pulsate on the electoral landscape.

Some evangelical voters wonder whether lurking beneath Obama's eloquent confidence is a Muslim, closeted and waiting to spring. Grant Swank, a pastor from Windham Maine wrote to the organization Renew America praising McCain for being 'into a reality kick to expose B. Hussein Obama' (August 2) as a follower of the Prophet Mohammed. An Obama White House was a 'spiritual danger', and would signal doom for evangelicals.

On the other hand, there are some in the evangelical community who like Obama on many other things - his progressivism on climate change and social welfare speak about the changing nature of that constituency in the United States. Warren, a Southern Baptist, reflects that shift in part. Bar the abortion issue, a critical one that the Illinois senator is having trouble combating, he gathers votes from that direction.

As strange as it might have been for those outside the US to observe, the meeting at Saddleback caused disagreement and discomfort amongst some American commentators. Kathleen Parker of the Chicago Tribune (20 August) was particularly critical about this tele-evangelical probing, two presidential candidates submitting to a 'religious interrogation by an evangelical minister - no matter how beloved'. Again, that slippery term 'un-American' was raised. The only true victor, she suggested, was Warren, who effectively jettisoned the core principle of separating church and state. Thomas Jefferson, she concludes, would not have been impressed, let alone impressive at Saddleback.

Ditto David Waters, a commentator on religious affairs. That two candidates for the highest office in the country were appearing together in the same church was less troubling than a self-appointed campaign moderator in the form of pastor Warren. He was reminded about what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted in his collection of sermons Strength to Love: 'The Church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.' Warren's church had been effectively endorsed by both sides of politics. Campaign advertisements will be issuing from the Saddleback forum shortly.

Warren's position on the meeting was not left in any doubt, explaining in a message to religious commentators Sally Quinn and John Meachum that topics like 'the war, the border, the price of oil and reaction to campaign statements' were but 'short-term issues.' What mattered to him was the 'core convictions' of the candidates would shape 'America's role, direction and future.'

The Press-Enterprise (20 August) of Riverside, California took a somewhat different tack on this alleged violation of the church-state divide. Being at Saddleback was simply another mechanism for vote grabbing. Politicians adjust their pitches depending on what audience they address at the time. There was, in effect, 'nothing wrong with quizzing candidates on range of questions linked to values and faith.' Any event that enlightened the electorate should be endorsed. William Kristol of the New York Times (17 August) was even warmer. Warren, he extolled, should well be the moderator of one of the presidential debates in the fall.

Policy researcher Alvaro Vargas Llosa then added a historical slant to the entire episode. In a piece in the New Republic (20 August), he chose to see the debate as a template of American battles between theocratic urges (the Pilgrims) and secular pursuits (Jamestown). The battle between secularism and piety that commenced in American life in the seventeenth century constantly recurs. Little, it seems, had changed.

Perhaps the only true victor in this display was Warren, whose taste for the public show remains powerful. The extent of his influence in American public life, and that of the evangelical voting bloc, has been reaffirmed. Both candidates, by merely being there, acknowledged that without equivocation.

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