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September 20, 2017

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Civility reigned in a different kind of presidential debate

If Americans took a brief summer respite from election politics, it is over now. Evangelist Rick Warren's TV interviews with Senators Barack Obama and John McCain last Saturday evening mark the start of the final race for the presidency, with a new and controversial venue for wooing voters nationwide — religion and a church as host to a faith-based forum. You might call it something akin to a presidential debate, but the separate interview format was refreshing for its civility and lack of media hype, and it revealed more about the candidates than acerbic debates and sniping attack ads ever could.

Pastor Warren has built a world-wide evangelical reputation, and lays claim to leading the largest congregation in the United States, the 22,000 member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. He is also the author of "The Purpose-Driven Life," the best-selling non-fiction hardback book in U.S. history. The forum, which featured an hour with each candidate, was at his invitation and he was the congenial host of an event whose avowed goal is "to restore the church's primacy in society and not be off on the sidelines, to be a part of the world and all the issues." According to a church spokesman, "It's a way to use the platform that God has given Rick and the church to be a leader and bring everyone together, not have the church be over there and separate."

This is precisely where the arguments about separation of church and state in the United States begin. Those who take issue with the pastor's purpose argue that the founding fathers came to the U.S. to escape the tyranny of religion, not to re-establish it. They believe that a public and exclusively Christian question and answer session for presidential candidates comes very close to violating the establishment of religion clause contained in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Imagine, if you can, the Pope sponsoring similar conversations with John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. In that presidential campaign, Kennedy took great pains to assert that as president, he would not be taking his instructions from the Pope. Now, a half century later, both candidates rush to convey their religious views in some detail, under the guidance of a prominent Baptist minister as interviewer.

We can look at this in several different ways. It is certainly testimony to the pervasiveness of religiosity in U.S. public life. Organized religion is far more important and church attendance far greater in the U.S. than virtually anywhere else in the Western world. Religious morals rank among the most divisive political issues in America, most notably on questions of abortion, stem cell research, and gay marriage. Freedom of choice versus legislated morality has split the country ever since evangelical clout came to the fore in Republican politics a generation ago. On the other side of this divide, avowed secularists have succeeded in banning prayer from the public schools, and they fervently assert that politicians should keep their religious views to themselves, and Americans should just wake up and see where all this faith-based voting has gotten them.

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