National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Deliver Us From Rick Warren

Last weekend’s spectacle in Orange County, California, was not a debate on faith and values between the two presidential candidates. It was a showcase for the elevation of yet another right-wing fundamentalist preacher, an heir to the late Jerry Falwell anointed as a media darling to be its resident expert on faith-related matters.

Where does this hypocritical Rick Warren character get off as qualified to bring men of such stature as the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees under his sway for hours on national television?

It is most obvious that in religion, as in politics, there is a full spectrum of views that can be broken into conservative and liberal camps. Why, then, is only one religious perspective allowed to deconstruct the candidates?

For better or worse, Barack Obama apparently felt he must pass muster on enemy terms. Having recoiled from his own progressive religious tradition, under pressure from those who demonized Jeremiah Wright, Obama sought Saturday to establish so-called “mainstream” religious and faith credentials.

It was a noble effort, and Obama can be applauded for his courage entering into the lion’s den, so to speak, or in another way of putting it, “into hell for a heavenly cause.”

But the cards were stacked against him. A serious discussion of faith and values is one thing. But in Disneyland, people want Mickey Mouse, not the sober truth. In Rick Warren’s Disneyland-like mega-church, therefore, John McCain carried the day.

Key was the much-ballyhooed questions by Warren on whether “evil” exists, and what to do about it.

Obama gave a thoughtful, nuanced answer that identified “evil” in association with a lot of insensitive, unjust and cruel behaviors of persons and societies against each other.

When McCain was asked what to do about “evil,” his answer was simple. Pounding his fist, he bellowed, “Defeat it!” The crowd loved that.

The reason it, and presumably a lot of people watching on TV, liked McCain’s answer was not because it was “tough” and anti-intellectual, but because he clearly implied that “evil” is not a domestic problem, but is the menace that all of those unwashed foreigners outside the U.S. borders (or inside illegally) represent.

That’s the answer that Rick Warren was looking for, too.

In his sermon the next morning, as reported in the Los Angeles Times, Warren told his flock that “character,” and not issues, should decide the next president.

Such dissembling is exactly the modus operandi perfected in the name of those who have, for the most sinister motives of personal gain, used fundamentalist religion as a weapon against economic justice.

Jeff Sharlet, in his new book, “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,” (Harper Collins, 2008) documents this in detail, dating back to the founding of a religious association of bankers and industrialists in the Pacific Northwest in the 1930s that banded together to defeat the growing power of labor unions during the Great Depression.

This secret association (it officially went underground in the mid-1960s to deflect attention in an era of anti-war and civil rights unrest) developed under the names, “The Fellowship,” or “The Family,” with the express purpose of influencing the corridors of political power in the U.S. with pro-free trade, anti-labor, anti-New Deal-style policies, all in the name of ultra-conservative religion.

It has worked diligently to blur the boundaries between church, or religion, and state. A generally unknown name, Dick Foth has been its leader for decades.

A vital cornerstone of its belief structure, aside from religious platitudes, is that “the world’s problems are moral, not economic.” Theirs is a long and scary story that Sharlet documents well.

Perhaps it’s a tribute to The Family’s success, and backing in high places, that Rick Warren ran the show all by himself last Saturday night, making the criteria for election “character” and not “issues.”

Obama and his supporters best wake up, and become better armed to set the “values” agenda between now and Election Day. Rick Warren is flat wrong at best. It is the policies that will provide relief from eight years of George Bush that matter, not clownish fist-pounding.