Saddleback Sideshow: Presidential Professions Of Faith Distract Voters From The Core Issues Of The Day

I can hear the attack ad now: 'Thomas Jefferson thinks Christianity is a lie. Thomas Jefferson cuts up Bibles with a knife. America can't trust Thomas Jefferson.' Cue scary music.

Right-wing Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity got all cranky on the air the other night about Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn's complaints regarding the recent presidential forum at Saddleback Church.

"Who cares what Barry Lynn says?" he blustered, after cohost Alan Colmes, in an exchange with Pastor Rick Warren, cited Lynn's take.

Since Hannity is unable to understand why Lynn had a problem with this event at an evangelical mega-church, I'd like to refer him to two recent newspaper columnists who have done a fine job of explaining why this forum was inappropriate. (Surely Hannity can find someone to read the essays to him.)

USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham decried Pastor Warren's event as "thinly veiled ecclesiastical probing of the candidates."

He went on to observe, "The president's job is not to rid the world of the Bible's Beelzebub but rather the worldly devils that afflict us. It is to properly handle the difficult issues of war and peace, to manage the domestic affairs of this great melting pot, and to ensure this country's longstanding guarantee of religious freedom – and protect its commitment to a secular government. CNN did these causes a great disservice by giving a leader of just one of this nation's religious faiths a platform to influence the outcome of the coming presidential election."

Kathleen Parker, writing in today's Washington Post, struck a similar chord. "What's next?" she asked. "Interrogations by rabbis, priests and imams? What candidate would dare decline on the basis of mere principle?"

Continued Parker, "Both Obama and McCain gave 'good' answers, but that's not the point. They shouldn't have been asked. Is the American electorate now better prepared to cast votes knowing that Obama believes that 'Jesus Christ died for my sins and I am redeemed through him,' or that McCain feels that he is 'saved and forgiven'?"

Parker noted that Thomas Jefferson would have had a hard time at Warren's forum. It's an excellent point and one I've been discussing in speeches over the past year: Article VI of our Constitution forbids religious tests for public office, but the Religious Right has prodded Americans to impose a de facto one anyway.

Why is this bad? For starters, it means we might be excluding some very talented people from public life. Consider the first four presidents of the United States:

* George Washington: Washington rarely, if ever, spoke in explicitly Christian terms. He was famous for his use of phrases like "Divine Providence," "Supreme Architect of the Universe" and other Deistic language. He attended Christian services but had a habit of leaving before communion.

* John Adams: Raised a Congregationalist, Adams as an adult rejected the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus and embraced Unitarianism. Adams wrote personal letters (mostly to Jefferson) openly discussing his disbelief in orthodox Christian doctrines.

* Thomas Jefferson: Where to begin? Jefferson rejected the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus and other core Christian beliefs. Of the virgin birth he once wrote, "And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." Jefferson took the New Testament and actually cut out all the parts he did not accept – the stories of Jesus' miracles and any hint of his divinity. (There go the Red States!)

* James Madison: Notoriously reluctant to discuss his personal religious views, Madison would have felt highly uncomfortable on Warren's stage. Nominally an Episcopalian, he is regarded by most biographers today as Deist.

I suppose these guys, if they ran today, might be able to get elected to local positions in New York City, San Francisco or Seattle. National office would be out of their grasps. (I can hear the attack ad now: "Thomas Jefferson thinks Christianity is a lie. Thomas Jefferson cuts up Bibles with a knife. America can't trust Thomas Jefferson." Cue scary music.)

I don't expect any of this to make a difference to Sean Hannity, of course. The Religious Right is data proof. Its leaders long ago decided they do not like history as it is, so they invented their own. In their version, the founders were all 18th-century Jerry Falwells in powdered wigs.

People who actually read books know why they are wrong.

By the way, AU's Lynn discussed this issue yesterday with NPR host Diane Rehm and two other guests. You can listen to that here. Lynn has also been debating the Saddleback forum with Religious Right attorney Jay Sekulow on a new blog at beliefnet.com. Check that out here.