It sounds like the beginning of a corny joke: Two Christian guys walk into a Baptist church and tell the pastor they want him to help one of them become president of the United States.
Sad thing is–it’s not a joke. It actually happened this past Saturday as Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama stepped center stage at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., to make their respective cases as to why Christians should vote for them.
To be fair, the two candidates did not approach Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, he invited them. We should take note, however, that both candidates have been actively courting evangelicals for whom Rick Warren is a rising star. Warren is known not only for his wildly successful mega-church, but also his best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life.
And to Warren’s credit he has declared he will not endorse either candidate. He obviously supports certain issues that McCain supports and Obama does not, but in the nuanced world of faith and politics, unless you actually say the words, “I endorse you,” it doesn’t count.
My question is this: Why should it matter?
The U.S. Constitution states that there is no religious test for public office. I know voters can use whatever criteria they want to evaluate candidates, including faith. But according to our law it is not necessary to be religious in order to hold office.
Ironically, it was Jimmy Carter who helped conservative Christians discover just how potent they could be as a voting bloc. Even though many evangelicals despise him today for his so-called liberalism, in 1976 they loved it when he talked about being “born again.” His openness about his Christianity brought millions of dormant faith voters back into the world of politics.
Unfortunately, by the end of his first term evangelicals were through with Carter. They were ready to flex their political muscle in a different direction. Jerry Falwell and a few others harnessed that strength and helped elect Ronald Reagan. These faith-based voters have remained a potent force in politics to this day.
So even though the Constitution prohibits a religious test, politicians embrace it–out of necessity. In every election since Reagan it has been necessary for candidates to give lip service to the Christian faith whether they believe it or not.
And even though our two present candidates seem to be sincere about their faith, the use of faith as a political talisman only serves to diminish and distort faith at the end of the day.
I think Rick Warren strikes a proper note when he says that faith ought to make the political process better, more civil and substantive. But even as he says that, he can’t seem to stop himself from believing that his ultimate responsibility is to help find a candidate who will institutionalize Christian values.
We can only hope that he will not succeed. The day some elected official begins to pass laws that reflect his or her view of Christianity, that is the day both Christianity and democracy will begin to die.
Faith cannot be enacted by law–read Paul. And in a democracy, all faiths must be valued and protected–read the Constitution.
Besides all that, Jesus said that Christians are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Power broker does not seem to be part of our job description.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.