Presidential Faith Forum a Religious Test for Public Office

News Release & Action Alert: CNN Crosses the Line

The implications of CNN-TV’s recent presidential forum on “faith and values,” (“The Situation Room,” June 4, 2007) are deeply dismaying. If this is a sign of the media’s pandering to come, the secular values of our nation are in worse trouble than we thought. As the New York Times coverage pointed out, such a faith-infused candidate spectacle would have been unthinkable even two years ago.

The founders of our nation felt so strongly that there should be no religious test for public office that they made it a part of the U.S. Constitution (Art. VI). But that constitutional prohibition is meaningless in a climate of religious tribalism. Now even the secular media appear to expect candidates to genuflect before religious leaders, parrot piety, pledge allegiance to religion, preach to the choir and sing from the same hymnbook in order to be considered electable. When did “faith” become a qualification, much less a prerequisite, for public office?

CNN signaled that presidential candidates are expected to be answerable to the media and the public about their faith in God, their “prayer life,” even what they pray for! CNN’s assumption that “faith” is the same as “values” misguidedly equates religiosity with good character, and places piety above policy. Yet piety, as well as patriotism, is often the last refuge of scoundrels. CNN sent a second troubling message: that candidates are expected to be Christian, or at least be answerable to an exclusively Christian assembly of ministers.

The three current top-tier Democratic candidates, former Sen. John Edwards, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton, were summoned to a political baptism by Jim Wallis, author of God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. Wallis’ mantra is that the Democrats must get religion in order to win. This unprecedented partnership between a religious entity and a secular broadcasting station opens a can of worms. What’s to keep James Dobson of Focus on the Family from demanding the same opportunity? Wallis, with a reputation as a liberal, is a Protestant evangelist who does not in fact differ greatly from the religious right on such questions as abortion.

Katha Pollitt, a columnist for The Nation, has pointed out:

“Wallis’s God calls on Christians to fight racism, poverty, war and violence–what’s wrong with mustering support for these worthy goals by presenting them in the language spoken by so many Americans? The trouble is, the other side does that too. You can find anything you want in the Bible–well, almost anything. Thus, the more insistently people bring Christianity into politics, the more political argument becomes a matter of Christian hermeneutics. Does God say gays should be executed or married? ‘Spare the rod’ or ‘suffer the little children’? I don’t see how we benefit as a society from translating politics into theology. We are left with the same debates, and a diminished range of ways in which to think about them. And, of course, a diminished number of voices–because if you’re not a believer, you’re out of the discussion. In this sense, Wallis’s evangelicalism is as much a power play as Pat Robertson’s.”

With the exception of several appropriate questions on policy, much of the aggressive questioning by moderator Soledad O’Brien verged on sophomoric to downright embarrassing. Her undignified question to Hillary Clinton, “How did your faith get you through your husband’s public infidelity?” was not just prying, it was leading. Edwards was grilled over evolution as if he had committed a faux pas for saying he accepted this scientific fact. Under O’Brien’s manipulative and relentless interrogation, Edwards was forced to offer professions of piety as if to propitiate creationists. (Although he was very comfortable with the language of born-againism, Edwards was the only candidate to volunteer support for state/church separation.) It had to be a new low for journalism when Ms. O’Brien made her illiterate reference to “man coming from Adam’s rib.” (Woman, in the sexist second version of the Genesis creation story, was said to come from man’s rib.) When Ms. O’Brien asked Edwards to reveal his worst “sin,” she was the one committing a transgression–against reputable journalism.

The CNN faith forum is a symptom of the deterioration of our nation’s respect for its precious heritage of separation between church and state, and its respect for freedom of conscience. These politicians are running for commander in chief, not reverend in chief. It is the qualifications of the candidates, not their private views, that matter. Faith is irrelevant.

As a presidential candidate in 1960, Kennedy was forced (by clergy, no less) to do the opposite of candidates today. Kennedy was expected to pledge allegiance to the secular Constitution, not his church. Why aren’t media asking candidates to second JFK’s ringing state/church creed:

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President– should he be Catholic–how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him.

“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials. . .”

We don’t need FOX TV when we’ve got CNN trying to outfox FOX. It looks like we don’t even need a religious-right lobby–when we have the media taking over the religious agenda.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., is a national association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) that has been working since 1978 to keep church and state separate.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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