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Miller Center Holds Debate on Religion and Politics

March 21, 2008 at 6:50 PM EDT
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The latest issue debate from the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs explores religion and politics.

JIM LEHRER: And now a different take on the question of religion and politics in this primary season. It was the topic at the latest issue debate at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

Here’s an excerpt.

EVAN THOMAS, Editor-at-Large, Newsweek: How do you think that religion is going to influence the campaign in the fall? Let’s assume that it’s either Obama or Clinton and McCain on the Republican side. How do you think that religion is going to creep in, and is that good or bad?

Bishop, why don’t I start with you?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: Well, I think in the final analysis faith will be the spoiler and will determine who doesn’t get in, meaning that people who hold our religious values, as they find out where people are, they believe that someone’s belief system will actually inform their decisions. So we can judge some things by the caliber and the quality of their faith and their testimony.

So I think you’re going to find that, as things progress, that there are going to be a lot folks asking questions about who these people really are. The discussion about their faith and its content is not meant to x people out, but to understand how to make decisions.

EVAN THOMAS: And should each candidate be very explicit about the very nature of their faith, and how they worship, and reveal all about the nature of their faith?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: I don’t think they need to go that far, but they do need to talk about the quality of their decision-making, what is going to inform their judgment and their framework, what worldview will they use, what peace-making structure will they use if they want to make peace. And I think all of that comes down to practical worldview and someone’s theological perception of what makes things tick.

EVAN THOMAS: Reverend Lynn, you think religion is going to have a negative effect on the election?

REV. BARRY LYNN, Americans United for Separation of Church and State: I think it already has. I think we’ve already had too many of the wrong-headed questions asked about religion and its role in politics. I don’t think we’ve had the right questions asked.

But I’ve got to tell you, the idea that we’re going to make these judgments on the basis of the faith and the testimony of people running for office just flies in the face of everything that distinguishes this country from every other country that even is moving in a direction of a theocratic state.

We need to judge people — there’s even a Bible verse about this — by the fruits, not by what they say. And I think when we get off the mark and start asking people whether they literally believe in the virgin birth, is this a metaphor or not, the kinds of questions we’ve seen in debates so far, we are on a very dangerous road toward a theocracy. I don’t want a theocracy in America, even if it comes in by democratic vote.

JIM LEHRER: That Miller Center debate can be seen in its entirety on PBS. Please check your local station listings for the time.