Monday, December 22, 2008

The purpose-driven inaugural

Many in Barack Obama's base feel betrayed by the planned appearance of Rick Warren at the inaugural ceremony next month, though their candidate openly avowed his opposition to gay marriage in his appearance at the Saddleback Church last summer. My fellow skeptics of religion can hardly feel similarly hoodwinked, since Obama is openly Christian. I could wish, though, that the President-elect had exercised as much taste as calculation in his choice and avoided selecting someone who represents the MacDonaldization of religion.

I won't complain that Warren's appearance makes it doubtful that he has made much progress in the time-honored religious virtue of fasting, since my own waistline has been overdrawn by several inches for some years now. But I must wonder what the fortunes of his church would be if there were a prolonged power blackout. The ancient church sustained their faith in darkened catacombs illuminated only by torchlight; they steeled themselves against the prospect of hideous deaths or were transported by religious ecstasies at the prospect of the Savior's imminent return to judge the world. The modern megachurch, by contrast, would silently implode after 3 successive weeks without electric power; its kind of spirituality, lacking tongues of fire, is sustained only by flashing lights, PowerPoint, large display screens, and high-priced sound systems. Its culture invites the attendee to be seated, be entertained, and be generous in support of this institution so happily designed to allow the worshipper to bathe in good feeling about himself.

It so happens that Saddleback and its pastor are apparently among the best of the breed—Warren not only accepts no salary from the church but has purposely repaid every penny of salary he received during its first 25 years of existence; moreover, he lives on just 10% of his income, donating the balance to worthy causes. Neither a sleazy hypocrite in his personal life, like Swaggart or Ted Haggard, nor a severe ranter on putative damnation for trivial offenses, Warren has actively worked to highlight environmental and social justice concerns among Evangelicals, giving in support of AIDS relief and differing markedly from his compeer James Dobson in raising awareness of global warming.

All this is to the good. Still, what kind of recommendation is it to praise him on the grounds that he is simply not as objectionable as other instances of a phenomenon that is meretricious at its core? Should we admire Warren and his church members because they have finally acknowledged what the International Panel on Climate Change has been documenting for nearly 20 years?

Really, why did Obama invite this man to be a central figure at his inauguration? It reminds me of what I wondered when I read an article in Time last week about the social contagion of happiness; I was startled to read that the odds of one's increased personal happiness were 34% greater if his neighbor were happy (and 10% greater if that neighbor's friend were happy, even if the neighbor's friend were unknown to the original subject!), the odds for happiness increased by just 14% if one's sibling were happy, and by only 8% if one's spouse were happy. One is tempted to leave that last point alone since, sadly, it isn't hard to imagine two married partners discovering that the happiness of each is inversely proportional to the contentment of the other, but still, you have to wonder. I suppose we must have evolved in such a way that whereas we assume a reciprocal commitment to each other's welfare in our relations with spouses and family members, we realize that our neighbor's benevolence is by no means so certain and, thus, feel an obligation to work harder to win his good will. If there is anything to that, I suspect that Obama is confident that his core supporters will trust the integrity of his voting record and formal beliefs, which are politically liberal, whereas he hopes to encourage Warren, a bellwether of Evangelical opinion, to lead his flock in a more centrist direction.

There's a great deal of political good sense in that, certainly, but as someone who declines to share Warren's metaphysics altogether, I still hope the day will come, decades from now, where a candidate for President, invited to come and be cross-examined at Saddleback or its like, will respond with a statement like the following:

Thank you for your interest in my campaign, and I welcome the support of all fair-minded voters. I will not accept your invitation, and I hope my opponent will join me in declining as well. I refuse not because I am uninterested in what your members think but because I cannot discover on what grounds a church is a fitting venue for examining the qualifications of a candidate for high office under the Constitution of the United States. I may happen to hold similar or even identical moral positions to those held by you or some of your members, but I cannot consent to have that agreement linked, in the public mind, to beliefs about a Sky Spirit that I simply do not share; in particular, I refuse to given even token consent to the very foolish notion that without believing in such a Sky Spirit, we would all revert to savagery. Those are your opinions, and you are entitled to them, but they have nothing to do with my ability to devise or implement policies that would make this country prosperous and safe. Instead of meeting in a temple of religious worship, I propose, instead, that we all gather in a more neutral environment where every voter of every shade of belief or no belief feels that he enters, and his opinion is valued, without regard to his views on matters that no one can ever prove.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

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