Verily, I say unto you, They have their reward

“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.”

-Matthew 6:6

Apparently, someone should have told both Obama and McCain before they appeared with Rick Warren and discussed issues of faith.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with either Obama’s or McCain’s being devout Christians, and even as a former Catholic and now atheist, I am not militant against religion: otherwise, why would I quote the Gospel of Matthews and use the very terms of the Bible to criticize them?

What disturbs me about tonight’s spectacle are the two things: religion as theatre and the creeping phenomenon of a de facto religious test in American electoral politics.

The first trend–of religion as theatre and spectacle–is explicitly condemned in the Bible by Jesus himself in the passage I quoted at the very beginning. I find the very idea of a “megachurch” offensive, because even as an atheist, I find myself agreeing with Kierkegaard that faith is essentially an intensely subjective experience. It cannot be expressed in collectivity, and any such attempt inevitably demeans the experience of having faith. Thus, as religion becomes more theatrical, it becomes less and less authentically religious: it is being transformed from an existential experience to an entertaining one. The institution of religion will have become more central than the religious experience itself.

The second trend–the establishment of a de facto religious test for office–in my opinion violates the Constitution. I mean, let’s face it: the only reason why both Obama and McCain appeared in Rick Warren’s church is because of how big the potential constituency is. It has become conventional wisdom that any presidential candidate must successfully court the “value voters,” which is just code for religious people. But the conventional wisdom unjustfiably assumes that religious voters constitute a single, coherent electoral base, when the truth cannot be any further. Not only that, by giving the religious voting-bloc, if such a thing exists, the kind of electoral power that candidates seem to believe, then this is in fact establishing a religious test for office. Sure, it’s not a de jure one, but it is definitely a de facto one.

The establishment of a de facto religious test for the office of the president raises two troubling issues. First, it demonstrates John Stuart Mill’s argument that sometimes, it is not the established laws that violate individual rights, but rather it is social customs and convention that seriously limit individual liberty. Mill would not be shocked were he alive today to see the phenomenon: sure, Obama and McCain do not “technically” need to pander to the religious voters, but in reality, they do.

Second, a de facto religious test is self-sustaining: because it has become a political necessity, future candidates will have to deal with it. And this means that unless something dramatic happens, the de facto religious test is here to say. And if it is here to stay, then whether or not it is officially instituted no longer makes a difference because the effect is the same in the end.

So yes, verily I say unto Obama and McCain: you have your reward. If they can successfully court the religious voters, then their chances of winning will have increased. So yes, they are going to talk about their faith loudly and publicly, but by doing so, they are demeaning both religion and politics.

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