Saddleback, the Media and Religion

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

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
9 years 6 months ago
Above his pay grade??? We're not talking about pay; we're talking about the WISDOM to lead the free world! WISDOM = KNOWLEDGE + EXPERIENCE Barry does NOT have experience. There's no time for rookie on-the-job training. His knowledge is also very questionable. "Without wisdom, knowledge is more stupid than ignorance." —Source Unknown McCain '08
9 years 6 months ago
You ask why the obviously intelligent Senator Obama would say that an answer to Pastor Warren's question on the unborn was "above his pay grade." A couple of thoughts come to mind. First, just a factual observation. Warren didn't ask when life begins; he asked when human rights begin. You might say it's the same question, but Warren must have had a purpose in choosing this wording. Second - my answer (and yours) would be the same as Senator McCain's: at conception. But whatever we believe, the question is not a factual question for many of our fellow citizens. They view it as a matter of faith and not fact. So it's not the same as a question about the economy or the nonexistent border between Iraq and Pakistan. If the American people thought it was a factual question, there would be no argument about it. In fairness to Senator Obama, I think that's what he meant when he said it was above his pay grade. I think his response (while not the one I would give) was humble in a sense. He was saying - it's not my call; I leave it to higher authorities. At least that's the way I interpreted it.
9 years 6 months ago
I don't disagree with Winters, whose writings on what Catholic theology has to offer Obama and the Democrates have been very insightful and helpful. I do, however, wish that Obama had a seized the opportunity at Saddleback to teach (as he has done so well on racial, economic and constitutional issues)the media and the American public that there is a broader, grander, more historical conception of Christian faith than the ''I've accepted Jesus as my personal savior'' variety. Something along these lines: ''I have heard and received the good news that God so loves the world that he has become one of us. I see Jesus, the God with us, confirming the goodness of all creation, healing all of us from the self-inflicted wounds of our sinfulness, bringing us together in his spirit and restoring all creation to the splendor of his resurrection.'' I am sure that Obama's handlers wanted him to measure up to bar of Warren's fundamentalist creed of salvation-from-the world. That, however, is a low bar. I suspect that many Christians, not just Catholic Christians, are embarassed that such a creed has hijacked Christian belief and appears in media discussion as the faith of our fathers and mothers.
9 years 6 months ago
The argument of “apples to oranges” is a no-win, no matter the effort. The forum is better served, considering the audience, if questions are answered in the context of the setting (Bible foundation)… i.e, Human rights begin with the breath of life, that’s when man became a living soul (Gen, 2: 7). As to the challenge of the candidates concern with policies of US intervention in Asia, well Theophilus offered sound advice; the disciples were forbidden to preach in Asia, by the Holy Spirit (Acts, 16: 6)… and trespasses against the Holy Spirit aren’t OK, in fact those sins aren’t forgiven (Mat, 12:31). The simple answer appeals to the understanding level of the audience; the introspective answer flies right overhead….


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

(Nick Ansell/PA via AP, archive)
Recent allegations about one of the United Kingdom’s biggest and best-known charities has driven increased demands from some quarters that overseas aid be reduced, if not abolished completely.
David StewartFebruary 23, 2018
Students who walked out of classes from Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland protest against gun violence in front of the White House on Feb. 21 in Washington. (CNS photo/Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)
The desire for stronger gun control may not translate into more caution with gun storage among owners of firearms.
Kevin ClarkeFebruary 23, 2018
Of the estimated 14.5 million school-age Catholic children in the U.S., about or 55 percent are Latino. Yet 4 percent of school-age Latino Catholic children are enrolled in Catholic schools.
Maria Luisa TorresFebruary 23, 2018
Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, is pictured at the Vatican in this Oct. 9, 2012, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Cardinal Sarah questions why Catholics stand—rather than kneel—and receive Communion in the hand.
Michael J. O’LoughlinFebruary 23, 2018