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.