When the Presidential Hopefuls Talk to God

...no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States. --Article VI, U.S. Constitution

In what was billed as a special edition of the CNN political program The Situation Room, the top-tier Democratic candidates talked about God. Last night, as I watched Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama field questions on their personal faith by the likes of the Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners and CNN's Soledad O'Brien, I found myself squirming a bit in my chair. There was something unseemly, I thought, about the exercise -- like asking an acquaintance to show you the scars of his recent operation, or expecting a business colleague to tell you what she talks about in bed at night with her spouse.

Don't get me wrong; when it comes to matters of religion, I'm fascinated. I'm riveted. And I do think a person's spirituality to be a critical part of her make-up. In fact, one of the great joys of writing so much on religion is the sort of religious promiscuity in which I get to partake. I have the rarefied experience of being in the midst of people from different faith traditions as they receive the spiritual wisdom, or visceral experience, of their Almighty.

Yet, I can't help but think that something has gone terribly awry when candidates are expected to testify to their spiritual beliefs, to the nature of their sins, to their conversations with their creator. Despite our periodic wrangling over the breadth of executive privilege, we don't expect our president to report every conversation he has ever had with his national security adviser. Why should we expect him to report to us on his conversations with his Maker?

Each of the candidates was given 15 minutes alone on the stage, with questions asked by O'Brien, Wallis, or hand-picked audience members.

When asked by Soledad O'Brien to confess his greatest sin to the crowd assembled in the Lisner Auditorium of George Washington University, John Edwards the Baptist artfully finessed his answer by saying that he sinned multiple times every day, but couldn't think of one particular sin that was greater than the other. How I would have loved to have heard him simply say, "That's a conversation I have regularly with the Lord. I know the Lord. The Lord is my friend. And you, Soledad O'Brien, are not the Lord."

Okay, so, not likely to happen. But a girl can dream, can't she?

And what of O'Brien's quizzing of Hillary Clinton on how her faith helped her survive infidelity in her marriage? Honestly, who the hell does Soledad O'Brien think she is? And who do we think we are to have a right to know such a thing?

From a politically pragmatic point of view, I would say that Clinton's turn in the O'Brien confessional probably did her good. Up front, Clinton stated her discomfort, which she said came from her upbringing, of wearing her faith "on her sleeve." Clinton is a member of the United Methodist Church, and by all accounts, she has long been an active member of that denomination. In fact, in the 1990s, right-wingers launched a smear campaign against the Rev. Philip Wogaman, then pastor of Washingtion, D.C.'s Foundry United Methodist Church, simply because he was Mrs. Clinton's minister.

Clinton did herself good by allowing that she sometimes prayed for trivial things, like losing weight. She humanized herself while at the same time remaining true to the religious reserve that is obviously part of her make-up.

Obama did a fine job, as well, in speaking to how faith informs American values. "Well, I think our starting point has to be based on the notion that I just expressed, that I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper," Obama said, "that we are connected as a people, that when, as I said in my speech at the Boston convention, when there's a child somewhere here in Washington, D.C., who is impoverished in a crumbling school without prospects and hope for the future, then that impoverishes me. If there's a veteran in Chicago that's foraging through a dumpster because he's now homeless because we did not provide him the services that he needed after he served our country, that diminishes all of our patriotism."

He moved onto the morality -- or lack thereof -- of people having been moved from welfare to work but still mired in poverty, and the disparity between CEO pay and workers' wages. Likewise, Edwards found Wallis's forum a natural venue for stating his mission of alleviating poverty.

Most discomfiting, though, was the question posed by Rev. Joel C. Hunter to Hillary Clinton (and not to the male candidates) about abortion: "Abortion continues to be one of the most hurtful and divisive facts of our nation. I come from the part of the faith community that is very strongly pro-life. ... Could you see yourself, with millions of voters in a pro-life camp, creating a common ground, with the goal ultimately in mind of reducing the decisions for abortion to zero?"

Clinton replied, "And that is what I have tried to both talk about and reach out about over the last many years, going back, really, at least 15 years, in talking about abortion being safe, legal, and rare. And, by rare, I mean rare. And it's been a challenge, because the pro-life and the pro- choice communities have not really been willing to find much common ground. And I think that is a great failing on all of our parts, because, for me there are many opportunities to assist young people to make responsible decisions. "

Now, first of all, there can never be common ground between people who want to outlaw abortion based on a 20th-century theological development. (Jesus had nothing to say about abortion, despite its prevalence in the Roman empire, and the Jewish law by which Jesus lived did not regard the fetus to be a person.)

Clinton went on to say that "adult society" has failed young people, and "left them to fend for themselves morally." I take no argument with this. And to her credit, Clinton at least intimated, if not said outright, that abortion is sometimes a moral choice.

But here's where I really get queasy with the Jim Wallis model of the "religious left." For him, it's all about poverty, but not about justice for women. Because if you believe in equal justice for women, then you have to concede that abortion must remain a woman's option. A fetus is not a person. No religious tradition, before the onset of women's emancipation, asserted that it was. A fetus can never, with any objective sense of justice, be given rights that trump those of the woman in which it resides. Religious leaders like Wallis say they have a religious mandate to alleviate poverty, but self-actualization is apparently quite another matter.

Most of the poor people in America are women and children, and without the self-actualization of women, their poverty will never be alleviated. If you want to give them food, shelter, and health care, but deny them their full panoply of rights, you're just maintaining a class of poor people who will be beholden to your particular religious movement. And, somehow, I don't think that's what Jesus had in mind.

The truth is, in our national politics, we don't need religion. We need morality. We have a right to know a candidate's moral vision because government, beyond being the implementer of order and protection, is, by its deeds, a statement of the collective moral vision. E.J. Graff of the Brandeis University Gender & Justice project wrote, in the days that followed Hurricane Katrina, a spectacular essay on government and the morality of a people. Graff explained:

No church group could have sent in a militia to distribute food and keep order as desperation increased. No charitable foundation could now be planning and rebuilding what's so tediously called "infrastructure" -- roads, pumping stations, bridges, power stations -- or disinfecting an entire city swamped with raw sewage and toxic chemicals. No generous corporation -- not even the wealthy Wal-Mart -- could systematically check the spread of rodents, snakes, feral dogs, mosquitoes, and other pests that will, in coming months, threaten public health.

That's why we assign all those moral functions to government. That's why we ask a legislature to assess our shared needs. That's why we elect an executive to administer essential programs. That's why we pay taxes: to fund all the boring and necessary amenities and protections that we call "civilization."

We already have a "man of faith" in the White House, and he has done little for our status as the moral nation we like to believe ourselves to be. I no longer care how my president worships or doesn't; I care about his or her moral vision. A spectacle such as that produced last night by Wallis and CNN does little to advance that vision. It only creates pressure on Democrats to make room for people who oppose the full equality of women.

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