Rick Warren, the pastor of the Saddleback Church here in southern California, scored a huge hit for himself by hosting the “faith forum” which consisted of interviews of John McCain and Barack Obama over the weekend. Both candidates seemed to do well for themselves, although it would appear that McCain made political gains from the exposure. This result is not a source of much wonder; Obama can talk the talk on the faith side of things (his religiosity seems to be genuinely closer to that of an evangelical’s), but McCain is with the Christian right on policy and benefits from being the Republican standard-bearer.
But I want to focus on something that Pastor Warren said that got quoted in the Fish Wrapper:
Warren told his congregation that someone had asked if there was any kind of president he would not vote for.
“I could not vote for an atheist because an atheist says, ‘I don’t need God,’ ” Warren said. “They’re saying, ‘I’m totally self-sufficient by [myself].’ And nobody is self-sufficient to be president by themselves. It’s too big a job.”
That’s why the President has advisors, Pastor! No one has ever done that job by himself, not even George Washington. It was never, ever imagined that the President would do such a thing. What Warren is really saying is “You need God’s help to be President.” Now, I don’t really want to get into an issue here about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, or any other historical President’s religiosity. Suffice to say that Lincoln was the guy who said “The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession. I could never give assent to the long, complicated statements of Christian dogma.” He managed to keep the nation together during the worst crisis we have ever faced.
What I want to address is the question of whether a future President would be able to take on the issues of the day and the challenges of the future without the benefit of weekly churching in the manner Pastor Warren seems to think is so indispensible. Given the immense resources, both material and intellectual, at the disposal of the President, it’s easy to see that the real challenge of the job is not insufficient resources but rather managing all of them together into something of a synthesis that can illuminate policymaking.
The hoary old prophecies of long-dead clerics about the Babylonian Exile are not going to be tops on the list of those resources. At best, they may elliptically form a portion of the President’s ethical base. We certainly hope the President is an ethical person. But faithful Readers should know that I am quite specific that religion and morality are different things entirely that sometimes have the benefit of juxtaposition. Just as sometimes it’s hot outside and sometimes it’s windy. Wind is not a necessary condition for heat; religion is not a necessary condition for morality, or vice-versa. Warren is no dummy nor is he a naïf; he surely knows this himself both intellectually and by bitter experience.
So what is he really saying here? Let’s play the game of search-and-replace. Consider what a previous generation’s political figure might have said:
“I could not vote for a Catholic because a Catholic says, ‘God speaks to me through the Pope.’ They’re saying ‘The Pope speaks for God.’ But the President needs to speak for the United States.”
If you voted for JFK in 1960 (or even if you voted for Nixon), you had to contend with that argument. And in retrospect, can you characterize that argument as anything but bigotry?
More fancifully, what would you think of someone who said this?
“I could not vote for someone who denies the divinity of Zeus because that person says ‘I don’t need to sacrifice a live goat to appease the heavens.’ They’re saying, ‘Hurricanes and lightning storms and earthquakes just happen by themselves.’ They don’t understand that those things don’t happen by themselves, they happen because Zeus is mad that the king failed to make the right kind of sacrifices.”
You probably wouldn’t take that person’s advice on political matters at all. And rightly so. It’s hard to imagine anyone making such a claim seriously, but that’s because everybody is an atheist when it comes to Zeus. When you can understand why you would discount the political advice of the Zeus-worshipper, you will understand why I discount Pastor Rick Warren’s foray into politics.
I’ve tried to unpack Warren’s words as many ways as I can. But no matter how I slice them, it looks to me like bigotry against atheists. I can’t turn his remark into anything but “It’s okay to not vote for an atheist for President, regardless of his qualifications, just because of his atheism.” Maybe someone else will want to defend him. I feel no desire to try.
P.S.: On the subject of Presidents who don’t believe, I just stumbled across this quote from William Howard Taft, a President I greatly admire and who seems under-appreciated by virtue of his poor political fortunes: “I do not believe in the divinity of Christ and there are many other of the postulates of the orthodox creed to which I cannot subscribe.” This is the only man who got to be both President and Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.