The Piety Test

Are any of you watching tonight’s “Compassion Forum” live from Messiah College in Pennsylvania? One after the other, Senators Clinton and Obama are answering questions about religion, faith, and compassion.


I’ll share something that I rarely talk about: My religious beliefs are central to who I am, especially what Jews call Tikkun Olam, or “repairing the world” through selflessness, good works and charity.  No big surprise that I don’t always act in according to those principles, but I do try.


So why does a “Compassion Forum” give me the willies? Why do I find myself interested in the questions being asked of each candidate and the answers being given, yet still profoundly uneasy about the whole thing?


I had the privilege of growing up with a close friend whose father was the sage and compassionate leader of a major Protestant denomination. Not the typical friend of a Jewish kid from Southern California, but – hey — how often do you get a best friend with whom you can simultaneously act out adolescent nuttiness and contemplate profound matters of faith.


What I am leading to was a view of church-state relations I learned from my friend  that has been basic to who I am: The temptation to mix and confuse the unique roles of government and religion, especially in fearful and uncertain times, is understandably great. This impulse makes perfect sense given that religion offers beliefs and ideas that can enrich so many areas of human endeavor, especially the political realm where, shall we say, truth seems to be a pretty slippery concept.


But I also learned that the separation of the two realms protects both: Government in a democracy needs to protect the free expression of diverse and even unpopular takes on religious faith. Religion needs the freedom to proclaim ideas and beliefs without having to answer to government institutions that seem pretty inept when it comes to the realm of the spiritual.


So again: The sight I am watching of two presidential candidates being grilled about their beliefs, however fascinating, is not something with which I will ever be comfortable. It simply has too much of the feel of a public test, in which each candidate’s views will be judged for adequate piety and purity; in which the candidates can easily slip into a “faith-competition.”

I’m watching. And listening raptly. And wishing they never felt this necessary.  

4 thoughts on “The Piety Test

  1. What are the chances of a “Scientific Forum” live from Cal Tech or MIT? Then Senators Clinton and Obama could answer questions about the real solutions to the problems of the 21st century.

  2. Welcome to the Willies, Steve. The Willies live in this household, too. We get the willies for the same reasons you do, I suspect. I love Dominic’s comeback above. More to the point. More on target. Can’t have that!!

    I’m surprised word hasn’t gotten to the candidates that talking about religion probably isn’t a very good idea nowadays, especially since we’ve seen what this “religious” administration is capable of doing. I hear talk that some people are pretty insulted and po’d about being snookered into thinking a Christian president would abide by Christian principles. Bzzzt! Wrong!

    So why go there, again?

  3. I watched the forum. I think it is terrible that Americans feel the need to apply a “religious test” to their candidates that the Founders were trying very hard to work against. The irony is great.

    I watched the forum to get a better sense of the candidates, though, so perhaps I am complicit. I would like a science forum. The Bushies have made science a bad word. I can’t believe schools teach nonsense like creationism.

    Nevertheless, I found the forum useful for a number of reasons. I thought Obama seemed hesitant and evasive. She was smiling and answering in a lively manner and he was frowning and say “you know” and “um” a lot. I had a chance to envision how they would be as president talking to people in non-campaign, non-debate type atmospheres.

    I think Obama does have disdain for working class white people, or maybe working class people of all colors. He often finds ways to blame others for his “clumsy” words, this man who is praised for his eloquence.

    I used to think the two candidates were very close, and I was really undecided. I liked her healthcare policy more and so I chose her. But the more I hear him make remarks that “we” allegedly miscontrue, the more I think he can’t accept responsibility.

    And what person who is 46 years old acts surprised and says he hasn’t made up his mind yet whether life begins at conception? I think most adults know what they think about that, one way or another. Every woman sure does.

  4. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts.

    I’m was with you all the way, right up until the end.

    Like you, I watched with great interest while at the same time wishing we didn’t feel the need for any sort of religous test.

    I do see the candidates differently, though.

    I don’t see Obama’s disdain for white working class people.

    But more to the point: I sort of identify with his less than complete certainty about all sorts of spiritual questions. I feel the same way a lot of the time.

    You really helped me identify another reason I wish this kind of forum hadn’t become a part of the campaign. It may be unrealisitic, but I wish that Obama’s uncertainty about some of these issues and Clinton’s apparently more settled theology could be things they could feel free to grapple with in private.

    I do want to get a good sense of the basic civility, morality and decency of anyone running for any office. But I could only cringe when they were asked things like how and why they joined certain churches.

    Maybe I’m dreaming. Maybe there is no longer a private realm. Maybe all this stuff is now public whether we like it or not.

    I just don’t see how either politics or religous belief are strengthened when something as deeply private and profound as someone’s prayer becomes a public topic.

    I’m really glad you took the time to write. Hope to hear from you again.

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