Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Letter to the Editor re: Kathleen Parker on Rick Warren's Values Voter Forum

Every so often, I take up the mantle of submitting a letter to the Editor. My most recent attempt was in response to Kathleen Parker's editorial criticizing Rick Warren's Values Voter forum. Though the paper has not seen fit to publish my response, I thought I'd share it with you here. Be sure to read Parker's editorial. And then note this caveat that I generally enjoy Parker's writing and editorials....this is a rare case of disagreement. The text of my reply follows:

Kathleen Parker cries fowl over the Saddleback Church Candidates’ Forum. In her August 21 column she writes: “…while, yes, everybody has some kind of worldview, it shouldn’t be necessary in a pluralistic nation of secular laws to publicly define that view in Christian code.”

Just a little thought shows the intellectual poverty of her argument. The wall of separation of church and state is indeed a brilliant principle. It provides for a robust government and a robust religious climate by separating two institutions into different realms of responsibility. Institutions deal with management of resources, decision making, and setting the parameters of their constituent members. However, faith and politics are not institutions; they exist but in the realms of ideas and worldview. Faith and politics do not have constituent members, for they are inherently personal and held privately. The wall of separation does not apply to them.

A cursory glance at the great documents of American History shows that our leaders have always felt comfortable with such a distinction. FDR’s first inaugural address was replete with imagery ripped straight from the Bible and a request for prayers of the nation. Lincoln, in his second inaugural address dabbles deeply in the theology of providence and discerning the will of God. The very document that coins the phrase “wall of separation of church and state” ends with Jefferson asking for the prayers of the Danbury Baptists. Nowhere do the great minds appeal to the coercive power of churches to bind the consciences of their membership (an institutional no-no). Rather, they appeal to the personally held faith of the American citizens and leave it to the citizens how to respond. Historian Larry Witham’s recent book City Upon a Hill shows that the reverse is also true: American citizens have always felt the freedom to bring faith based concerns to the political sphere. Simply put, calls to remove faith talk from political discourse exhibit a reckless disregard for American history.

The genius of the American experiment, both in politics and in religion, lies in the right of private conscience. Because we have a wall of separation between the institutions of church and state, Rick Warren’s views, opinions, and questions carry as much coercive weight as do Oprah’s, or Kathleen Parker’s. One may find his views, opinions, and questions to be offensive or distasteful. However we must realize that Rick Warren has no institutional authority over the American public. The only authority he carries in America is the authority people have granted him through the persuasiveness of his faith grounded ideas. What could be more American than that?