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Robert J. Elisberg Headshot

Requiem for a Religious Question

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On Sunday's Democratic debate, for some inexplicable reason, this particular email question from a viewer was read. "My question is to understand each candidates' view of a personal God. Do they believe that, through the power of prayer, disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the Minnesota bridge collapse could have been prevented or lessened?"

You almost expected a bathetic Rev. Jimmy Swaggart to enter in tears, begging for money and flashing an 800-number.

Almost worse, every candidate got the "personal God" answer wrong.

It doesn't matter if they said "yes" or "no" or "Hallelujah." They all got it wrong. Even Mike Gravel trying out for the Beatles with his "All you need is love" answer got it wrong.

While the pithy answer should have been, "Out of all the questions sent in, with all the issues facing America, why in the world did you select that one to ask???" -- the polite answer every candidate should have given is this:

My view of a "personal God" is that it is, as you yourself say, personal. Being personal, it has no impact on the other candidates' views or anyone's.

In fact, being personal, it must have zero impact on how a president will govern a nation. By the Constitution, a president must be responsible for every citizen in America. Not just those who form his party's base. It would be impeachable and reprehensible to let one's personal beliefs dictate national actions. If a president personally believes something is wrong, but it is the law of the land, the president must enforce it. His personal beliefs have no bearing.

But here's something I have a hard time following in the question. I understand that most people since the beginning of time distrust politicians. Most people would trust the goofy eight-year-old kid down the block to house sit for them rather than a politician. So, if you don't trust the words that come out of a politician's mouth, if you don't trust a politician to even think about brushing your wallet -- why in the world would you look to a politician to intervene between you and your personal God?

In public surveys, people trust politicians lower than used car salesmen. I would have figured the very last person anyone would care about religious advice from is a politician.

I think the leader you should ask about prayer is the one who heads your house of worship. Not a politician.

Politicians can't figure a way out of Iraq. No one should expect them to explain the way into the Promised Land. If politicians understood divine morality, they wouldn't need campaign finance laws or an ethics committee.

The current administration has tried to drive a false wedge between Americans by imposing personal religious beliefs on public issues. They have tried to make the president's "bully pulpit" seem an actual pulpit. But our Founding Fathers -- whose forebears descended from people escaping religious persecution -- understood that you keep politicians and government as far away from your religion as possible in order to make religion as vibrant as possible. It's countries with state-imposed religion where religion is the most restrictive. But in America -- because government is required to stay out of religion -- religion flourishes like nowhere in the world. All religions. Whatever your beliefs. Faith must be untouchable in America. To look to what a politician's religious beliefs are, is not only contrary to our American foundation of keeping government out of religion, it is a misguided view in religious leadership.

The vibrancy of religion should be discussed and debated and analyzed in a house of worship. In one's home. In one's heart. But not ever in government.

There is also one other thing I think inaccurate in the questioner's premise.

He asks if the disasters we've recently faced could have been prevented or lessened by prayer.

That suggests that people haven't been praying to prevent disaster. Haven't been praying to keep harm from others. Not prayed for goodness and health and joy and decency and peace and goodwill to all men and women everywhere. And yet I would think that that's precisely what people do pray about every single night.

That's why I say that my belief in a personal God is personal. God will act as God sees fit, and it's not for a politician to get in the way and try to figure it out. All a politician can do is pledge to work hard to make your life here on earth as good and rewarding as possible.

Have faith in yourself. Have faith in what you believe in.

Vote for me.