Who in the heck is Pastor Rick Warren, and how did he get so much clout? Where did he get the power—and gall—to dragoon Barack Obama and John McCain into his mega-church this past Saturday night and submit them to back-to-back, hour-long, televised grillings about their moral and religious beliefs?
This is the kind of stuff that was supposed to go out with the Enlightenment, when the Founding Fathers enshrined the separation of church and state into the Constitution. And yet, in recent decades, holy men of various stripes, especially evangelical conservative Christians, have increasingly inserted themselves into our electoral politics, almost always with pernicious effect.
Mixing up religion and the kind of politics most of these meddling ministers peddle is almost always a recipe for narrow-minded nonsense—teaching creationism in science classes, restricting stem cell research, denying gays the right to marry, even allowing pharmacists to refuse to dispense birth control. Enough already.
As politically minded preachers go, Pastor Rick isn't so bad. In fact, I admire his efforts to convert some of the hypocritical moralizing that frequently passes for Christian charity among conservative evangelicals into fighting poverty, global warming and torture. There are those who believe he wants to replace Billy Graham as the nation's most influential religious leader. If McCain and Obama think it's good politics to court millions of evangelical votes by sucking up to Warren, more power to them.
But, echoing the opening sentence in Warren's best-selling tome, The Purpose Driven Life, this is not about him.
It's about how we make sure that religious beliefs, no matter how reasonable they may seem, don't undermine the tolerance and respect for differing opinions that are necessary in a Democratic society. And since what seems reasonable to some is rank heresy to others, the only solution is to keep religion out of politics.
The danger is easy to see with right-wing fanatics like the Rev. Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, who held the Republican Party hostage to their extremist opinions on a series of moral issues in which Americans had a broad range of opinions. Their power was evident in George W. Bush's use of Christian code words such as "wonder-working power" in his campaign speeches.
But mixing religion and politics also poses a threat to African Americans, who may have some difficulty recognizing the potential minefields because of our unique history.
There was a time when it made sense for blacks to look to the pulpit for leadership. Indeed, there was no where else to look. During slavery, religious services led by charismatic holy men were often the only occasions when blacks could congregate. During Jim Crow, black churches were among the few institutions in segregated communities large enough and free enough from racist intimidation to hold meetings and sponsor protests. It was natural for preachers, who had already demonstrated the organizational ability to lead a congregation and the rhetorical skill to inspire their memberships, to become pillars of the Civil Rights Movement.
It was a model that served blacks well and led to some of our greatest triumphs.
But—as the antics of the Reverends Jeremiah Wright and Jesse Jackson Sr. have made painfully clear in recent months—Warren has no monopoly on ministerial meddling in politics. The model has outlived its usefulness. Wright and Jackson may or may not speak for God, but they no more speak for black America than Warren or any other evangelical preacher does for white America. Those days are gone.
It is time for all Americans, especially blacks, to renew their commitment to the principled separation of church and state, and send the preachers back to the pulpit. We have the largest, best-prepared cohort of black women and men ready, willing and able to serve in public office than has ever existed. They know more about public policy than all but a handful of ministers. The best of them understand that it's their mission to represent the interests of all the people, not just those of a particular faith. Some of them are also deeply religious, but that's not a qualification for leadership. If preachers like Warren, Wright and Jackson are really serious about their calling, they should stick to saving souls and leave politics to the politicians.
Jack White teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.