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Rick Warren and the “Finer Points of Christology”

Mike Lofgren’s assessment of the role of religion in American politics is overwrought:

The Constitution notwithstanding, there is now a de facto religious test for the presidency: Major candidates are encouraged (or coerced) to share their feelings about their faith in a revelatory speech, or a televangelist like Rick Warren will dragoon the candidates (as he did with Obama and McCain in 2008) to debate the finer points of Christology, offering himself as the final arbiter. Half a century after John F. Kennedy put to rest the question of whether a candidate of a minority denomination could be president, the Republican Party has reignited the kinds of seventeenth-century religious controversies that advanced democracies are supposed to have outgrown.

The 2008 election was probably the least concerned with the usual culture war issues of any in my lifetime, and Obama and McCain were among the most thoroughly secular candidates to secure the nominations of both major parties in a generation. The only top Republican candidate in 2008 to speak at any length about religion in public life was Mike Huckabee. His candidacy was limited by the same evangelical identity that initially propelled him to the top tier of Republican candidates. Huckabee was regularly derided and mocked by movement conservative and Republican elites partly because his speeches were filled with so many specifically Christian religious references. Most Republican voters and elites were unwilling to entrust the leadership of their party to Huckabee, which ought to have put to rest nonsensical theories about “theocracy” and “theocon” domination inside the GOP once and for all. As usual, these are the members of the Republican coalition with the least real influence over the shaping of policy on the right and the ones most often held responsible for the party’s problems.

Consider how inaccurate some of Lofgren’s claims are. Did Rick Warren have Obama and McCain debate the “finer points of Christology”? No, he didn’t. I would be surprised if Warren is even interested in those finer points, but they certainly weren’t up for discussion at his candidate forum. Warren asked the candidates about their personal lives, the common good, and their respective worldviews, and then he went through the predictable list of issues. He did ask them about their Christian faith, but it was just one question and it seemed to be almost a formality that had to be dispensed with before moving on to the rest of the discussion. He certainly didn’t inquire what they believed about the definition of Chalcedon or anything like that, and what stands out when reading the transcript again is how focused on public policy the forum was. Warren’s candidate forum is an absolutely horrible example of the phenomenon Lofgren is trying to describe.

The Republican Party nominee is a member of a minority religion, and there is apparently so little concern about religious differences inside the Republican coalition that Romney is consistently receiving McCain’s level of support in virtually every poll. If sectarian considerations were dominating the GOP’s internal politics as much as Lofgren believes, Romney would be down by ten points or more. Disagreements over religious teaching are obviously not confined to the seventeenth century or any one period in history, and it would be very unusual if these disagreements became less common in a country with increasing religious diversity. Republican support for Romney’s candidacy suggests that partisan political loyalties and concerns now take priority over theological commitments. It’s debatable whether religion and politics are more intertwined today than they were forty or fifty years ago, but if they are most religiously observant Americans seem to be putting their largely secular political goals first. This is the opposite of what Lofgren thinks has been happening.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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