The Rev. Susan K. Smith, senior pastor of Advent United Church of Christ in Columbus, Ohio and one of WaPo’s regular On Faith contributors, is bummed out by the forthcoming Saddleback confab. Addressing Mssrs. McCain and Obama in an On Faith post, she takes the position that politicians should just stay away from churches during campaign season, ending her screed:
I just do not understand why you are doing it. I do not know how much your doing it muddies the waters of church-state separation. I do think that if you are having such an interview in an evangelical church, then you ought to spread the love, and do the same kind of interview in a synagogue and a mosque.
After all, the evangelicals are not the only religious voting bloc. The last thing they need is another reason to boast of their so-called superiority over everyone else. I think you are sending a dangerous message.
And I don’t like it.
It’s easy to sympathize with this view, coming from someone tending her vineyard in Columbus, epicenter of recent religious right politics in Ohio–remember Rod Parsley? But in hosting the two candidates, Warren’s behaving not like a sectarian but an establishmentarian–a religious office that’s been largely unoccupied in recent years.
Establishmentarian religion serves to bless, convene, and otherwise hold a sacred umbrella over the community at large. When consensus has to be built, it is there to build it; when a common goal has to be achieved, it is there to hallow it. Nationally, in the first part of the 20th century, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopalians or the Bishop of the Methodists or the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterians were there to do the job. After World War II, a more interfaith approach came to the fore. Perhaps the greatest contribution of establishmentarianism in American history was to set its seal on the civil rights movement.
But the lesson mainstream religion took away from that era was not of its own role but of the prophetic one, incarnated in Martin Luther King, Jr. And ever since, it is the image of the prophet, not the priest, that has mesmerized the imaginations of American religious leaders. That goes, of course, for those evangelical leaders who, modeling themselves on the black civil rights clergy they had once reviled, created the religious right a generation ago.
As Time‘s David Van Biema makes clear in last week’s cover story, Rick Warren flirted as recently as four years ago with religious right leadership. But with a personality that doesn’t quite fit the job description, and the nose of the successful entrepreneur who can tell where there’s a market opening, he has since moved powerfully into the role of American Establishmentarian-in-Chief. Here, from Van Biema’s piece, is how he puts it:
He says he is more interested in questions that he feels are “uniting,” such as “poverty, HIV/AIDS, climate change and human rights,” and still more in civics-class topics like the candidates’ understanding of the role of the Constitution. There will be no “Christian religion test,” Warren insists. “I want what’s good for everybody, not just what’s good for me. Who’s the best for the nation right now?”
The religious right’s old guard understands what a threat this is to their prophetic enterprise. And on the left, Streetprophets’ pastordan doesn’t like it either. Establishmentarian religion has its smarmy side, and when Warren tells David Brody that his kingdom is not of this world, you kind of want to gag. But it has its considerable uses–and no one recognizes this better than Barack Obama. Whether Rev. Smith likes it or not.