Monday, August 18, 2008

Never Mix Religion and Politics

Is it possible to ever really separate Church and State?

This weekend, Obama and McCain both appeared on a "Presidential Forum " at the mega-Saddleback Church in Orange County. This wasn't a debate, as forum moderator and pastor of Saddleback Rick Warren made clear. Rather, it was a platform from which the audience could get a better idea of each candidate's "worldview." In his introduction, Rev. Warren said: "We believe in the separation of church and state, but we do not believe in the separation of faith and politics. Because faith is just a worldview, and everybody has some kind of worldview. And it's important to know what they are."

I'm not too interested in the actual Q&A process that each candidate went through with Rev. Warren. I was pleasantly surprised at what I saw as the relative height of the discourse, but I didn't see either candidate say anything particularly enlightening. (Although Billy Kristol, unsurprisingly, thinks that it was McCain's night. Do you ever wonder why some people can just get under your skin in everything they ever do or say? Especially when they make such asinine statements as, "Perhaps the most revealing moment was the two candidates’ response to a question about evil. Yes, evil — that negation of the good that, Friedrich Nietzsche to the contrary notwithstanding, we seem not to have moved beyond." What a dick.) Instead, I thought that the most interesting part of the discussion was Rev. Warren's statement of the forum's raison d'etre, that "We believe in the separation of church and state, but we do not believe in the separation of faith and politics."

The problem with this statement is that what is asserted in the first clause is undercut by the second; if you believe that your politics ought to be informed by your faith, then it is impossible for you to honestly say that you believe in the separation of church and state. Now, I am personally (as opposed to politically?) willing to entertain the notion that no one can ever not allow their faith to influence their political beliefs - that that is just part of what it means to have faith, that it influences your actions and beliefs in such a way as to have sway over your publicly held positions. (Especially if you ascribe to something like a social gospel - although I suppose that even an ascetic, retreat-from-the-world kind of belief system is still a political stance that concerns the world.)

So, in at least one sense, Warren is advocating the uniting of Church and State... I mean, why else have a church host a Presidential Forum? This, in a way, is a substantial paradox at the center of the history of American politics - that we assert out loud again and again that our government is free of the influences of religion (or of a particular set of religious beliefs) and is independent of the power that religion has over our individual existences, and yet we insist on that government being always in accord with that very same set of ideals and principles.

I am not sure if there is a larger point to be made here, but I just wanted to point out that there is something contradictory about having such a forum as the kind that Rev. Warren held, and that what his foray into the political sphere brings to the fore a form of what philosophers call Euthyphro's Dilemma - the problem of knowing whether the gods (or in our case, Jesus) love what is good (or what is the right thing to do) because it is good, or whether what is good is good (or morally right) because the gods/ Jesus loves it. John McCain presented this dilemma nicely during the interview when he said: "Our Judeo-Christian principles dictate that we do what we can to help people who are oppressed throughout the world." The word "dictate" here presents a problem. Is helping other people the right thing to do because it is a Judeo-Christian principle, or is it a Judeo-Christian principle because it is the right thing to do? (Or both? Or neither?)

This problem showed up repeatedly throughout the telecast, albeit in many different forms. For example, Warren said at one point, "The Bible says that integrity and love arethe basis of leadership." But this assumes that integrity and love really are the bases of leadership. After all, I think that one could argue (quite convincingly) that integrity and love are two qualities that provide for bad leadership. I speculate that Warren would say, in this instance, that integrity and love are the basis of leadership because the Bible says so. But this line would lead us into a different briar patch of Biblical interpretation - after all, I know of at least one beloved leader from the Bible who led not by integrity and love but by having his stupid son get caught by his flowing locks and then having his men decapitate him in truly awesome hardcore Godfather style.

You can see how this discussion can go on and on and on, for, like, 2,500 years. But it is obviously still relevant to be asking how much authority something like faith - whatever it is that faith is - has or should have (if we can use the word "should" in a way that is separate from our use of the word "faith") in determining the morally right thing to do. You can also see why it gets a little controversial sometimes, especially when your gods start telling you to put to death adulterers or homosexuals or Sharon Tate. Or when they start telling you to fly a plane into a building.

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