The ignorance of the mainstream media (and the "educated" elites from which they are drawn) when it comes to religion is astounding and, by now, unsurprising. But when it is wedded to historical ignorance, it is time to lodge a protest.
This morning’s Washington Post has an op-ed by Kathleen Parker, a columnist who once won the Baltimore Sun’s H.L. Mencken award for "following the tradition of H.L. Mencken in attacking ignorance and stupidity with vividness and originality." Parker objects to the Saddleback Forum and many of the questions asked by Pastor Rick Warren. She goes out of her way to compliment Warren as a person, but then goes for the jugular: "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?" She asserts the candidates should never have been asked about such matters. After all, in America we have separation of church and state.
Warren anticipated the objection, pointing out that the separation of church and state does not imply a separation of faith from politics and that faith "is just a worldview, and everybody has some kind of worldview. It’s important to know what they are." It is also the case that the Constitution only requires that a candidate for president be a native-born citizen and thirty-five years old. Yet, voters want to ask many questions and the Constitution is silent on which ones are appropriate or not. Candidates are free to decline to answer any such questions.
Parker muses how Thomas Jefferson might have done had he been at Saddleback. She cites a famous line of Jefferson’s: "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." Of course, Jefferson was a Deist and there are no more Deists. The God of the twenty-first century is an interfering God. Furthermore, Jefferson was criticized as an infidel at the time of his candidacy for the presidency, a bit of history of which Parker seems unaware. Despite her inflammatory sensibility, there is nothing new about inquiring as to the beliefs, Christian or otherwise, of presidential candidates.
Parker is not alone. The Huffington Post went crazy when John McCain referred to the border between Iraq and Pakistan on a television talk show. There is no such border, although it is pretty clear that this was a slip of the tongue on McCain’s part. But, is it really more important to know where Pakistan begins than to know when human life begins, which was one of pastor Warren’s questions? Obama dodged that question as "above my pay grade." Why? If a candidate pleaded such ignorance on an economic matter, or an environmental matter, it would be seen as a gaffe. Why is such a basic philosophic and religious question somehow beyond the intelligence of the obviously intelligent senator from Illinois?
The return of religion to the public square will require many commentators, and many candidates, to brush up on their Philosophy 101 texts. Surely, that is a good thing. Rev. Warren gets kudos for being so eminently reasonable in his discussion with the candidates, for pointing to the ties that bind the electorate (and the candidates) as well as asking questions that highlighted differences between the parties and their nominees. Getting to the worldview of a candidate really does matter and voters are right to want to know about that. (We learned more about the candidates in two hours at Saddleback than from all the primary debates combined!) The Kathleen Parkers of the world need to relax. No one is threatening the First Amendment’s separation clause. But, neither are we believers prepared to surrender that amendment’s free exercise clause. If that makes Parker squirm, fine. If it makes the candidates squirm, even better.
Michael Sean Winters