On Tuesday night (Oct. 22), Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock made the most compelling case for atheism this Episcopal priest has ever heard when he uttered the words: "Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen."
As a priest and pastor I can't count the number of times I have met with, talked with, counseled with and engaged with people who struggle to make sense of "the God thing." Many of those conversations start out with the statement "I don't believe in God." But once I get them to tell me about the God they don't believe in, it turns out I don't believe in that God either.
Because here's the deal: If I thought my only choice was between "Richard Mourdock's God" (who "intends" that a woman bear the child of her rapist) and "No God," then I would be an atheist faster than Mitt Romney can change positions on a political issue.
But I am not an atheist. The God I know and serve is one of justice, love and compassion -- not judgment, exclusion and condemnation. The Jesus I follow is the one who preached peace, challenged poverty and liberated women. And the church I belong to is one that stands proudly in the prophetic tradition -- committed to putting our faith into action on the issues of social justice that challenge our generation just as our forbears did in theirs.
Ironically, the very same day Richard Mourdock made news with his comments about "what God intends," CNN ran a piece asking "Is Obama the 'wrong' kind of Christian?" The lengthy feature article included a history of American Christianity that outlined the faith and values that make me a Christian:
When Obama invoked Jesus to support same-sex marriage, framed health care as a moral imperative to care for "the least of these,'' and once urged people to read their Bible but just not literally, he was invoking another Christian tradition that once dominated American public life.
Obama is not the "wrong" kind of Christian: Obama is my kind of Christian. And Mourdock is not. And as theologically indefensible as I find his position on a woman's right to choose, the First Amendment protects his right -- and the right of each and every American -- to be whatever kind of Christian or Muslim or Jew or Buddhist or Atheist they choose to be.
What the First Amendment does NOT protect is the right of any of us to write our theology into our Constitution -- something Joe Biden got totally right in his vice presidential debate with Paul Ryan:
"I accept my church's position that life begins at conception. That's the church's judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews and -- I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the congressman. I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that women can't control their body."
There are many things at stake in this presidential election, but choosing between faith and freedom is not one of them. Protecting the freedom of others to believe what they choose to believe about what "God intends" protects not only our own freedom to believe what "God intends" but defends our democracy from the very real threat of theocracy embodied in the policies of candidates like Richard Mourdock. And that is a battle worth fighting -- no matter what you believe or don't believe about God!