THE BLOG
09/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Faith Quizzes Get an F

An article in the Washington Post On Faith section in response to their question: At the Saddleback Church Forum, pastor Rick Warren began his interviews with John McCain and Barack Obama by saying: "We believe in separation of church and state, but not faith and politics." What's your response to that and to the forum?

For me, the God quiz that Barack Obama endured with barely concealed sweaty palms and that John McCain breezed through with seasoned casualness has no place in American politics. Rick Warren is a feel-good preacher who softened the interrogation and administered no canings, but that's irrelevant. To claim that "faith and politics" is different -- and more acceptable -- than "church and state" is semantic sleight of hand. The reason that any contemporary presidential candidate is forced to suffer the indignity of confessing his religious beliefs in public goes back to the Reagan revolution. Pandora's box was opened by the right wing in 1980, admitting not just inappropriate matters of religion into political life but also making acceptable a range of prejudice, bigotry, and divisiveness that had been banished by an era of liberal social legislation. Reagan, after all, was the president who, if left to his own devices, would have let thousands more AIDS victims die through neglect and lack of funding for basic medical research. The implicit reason, well understood by the right and endorsed by fundamentalists, was that gays deserve what they get if they pursue a lifestyle that doesn't match right-wing Christian ideology. Minorities, women, immigrants, and progressivism in general were given the same back hand.

The Obama-McCain evening, being a stepchild of conservative beliefs, was stacked against Obama, or any secularist, Democrat or not. Indeed, it was stacked against anyone who understands the basic reason for separating church and state, which is to keep closed the box of religious divisiveness that Reagan sprang open. As a performance, neither candidate displayed either the unvarnished truth or unblemished integrity. The real message that was meant to come across from Obama was "I really am American," and from McCain was "I'm really right as Reagan." Viewer's notes: Dull pandering to the audience from both sides. Lots of mention of Jesus, sin, faith, prayer. McCain came off as more prepared and polished in his responses. He went for Reagan's easy folksy confidence, catering to the audience's craving for moral simplicity. His answer to the question "Is there evil and how to deal with it?" was typical: "Yes, there is evil and we will defeat it." Obama said, roughly, "Yes there is evil, and we can't hope to defeat it on our own, but we can be soldiers for the Lord to do what we can."

For McCain, it's all as simple as what Reaganism carved out almost thirty years ago: Gay marriage is bad, abortion is bad, activist judges are bad. Winning in Iraq is good, getting Osama bin Laden is good, offshore oil drilling is good, and freedom is great. Obama talked about the hard work and sacrifices we need to make in order to overcome energy dependence and academic mediocrity, also the respect we need to accord others on the abortion issue--not quite as stirring as reactionary platitudes.

In short, McCain appealed to our escapist magical morality, Obama appealed to reason and practicalities. That has been the story throughout the campaign. Everyone concedes that Obama's way is more mature, realistic, and ultimately right. But I doubt that's enough to cure a case of sweaty palms.

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