You don't have to be a religious skeptic to have greeted Evangelical-in-Chief Rick Warren's presidential forum Saturday night with a sense of trepidation.
Any Christian old enough to have lived through the Falwell years should have felt at least a tremor of apprehension. But the fear had to have been worst if you're a Baptist -- like Jerry Falwell, Rick Warren or me.
I kept a finger on the remote control so I could switch channels quickly to keep tabs on Michael Phelps' quest for gold in Beijing -- or maybe just to escape any uncomfortable moments with our presidential candidates. I wasn't sure which contest would be more gut-wrenching.
But my fears evaporated as the truly "civil forum" unfolded at the Rev. Warren's Saddleback Church in California. The candidates were comfortable, engaging and utterly unique. The only lingering discomfort imaginable is whether this exercise should have taken place in a church, under the leadership of a famous (Southern Baptist) pastor. My answer is, Why not?
The denomination I was brought up in and have re-embraced as an adult has a long and glorious history of dissent. Baptists are nothing if not contrarian, and contrary to what most informed citizens think they know about American history, it was not Thomas Jefferson but the Baptist minister and colony founder Roger Williams who first wrote of the "wall of separation" (between church and "world") in 1644. His writings, published in London, were radical and influential in their day.
As a child, Williams had witnessed the last burning of a "heretic" in his native England. This trial by the Church but execution by the Crown inspired his life's work. He sought religious liberty in New England but soon ran afoul of the church/state arrangement in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Newly (and briefly) Baptist, Williams bought land from the Narragansett tribe and co-founded the colony of Rhode Island as a haven for the persecuted. He spent his life arguing for the separation of church and state and for the "soul liberty" of all people, whether "paganish, Jewish, Turkish or antichristian."
How does his vision square with today's reality? America has a religious diversity that would astound even this free-thinking founder, but the wall between church and state continues to be a battleground and a site of profound confusion.
One distraught caller to C-Span after the Saturday night forum objected to its entirety, citing Article VI of the Constitution: "No religious test shall ever be required as qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
Her objection is illogical. Rick Warren is not the government, and he invited, rather than forced, the candidates to appear at his church. He has become a prominent leader because his book, "The Purpose-Driven Life," has sold 25 million copies and because his 22,000-member congregation has redefined the mega-church. He has used his power to motivate Christians everywhere to address worldwide ills such as AIDS, poverty, orphans' needs, slavery and genocide.
But before there was Rick Warren there was Jerry Falwell. Ironically, Baptists' dissident nature, taken to an extreme, may have made the earlier leader's forays into public life both necessary and needlessly controversial.
When early 20th century Baptists splintered over liberal theology, the conservatives, like Roger Williams of yore, refused to associate with those who were theologically "corrupt." Unlike Williams, who remained deeply engaged in "the state" throughout his tempestuous religious life, modern Baptists (and fundamentalists of other denominations) withdrew from an increasingly irreligious society, ceding participation in the public sphere even as ardent secularists were insisting they had no right to be there.
Alarmed by the 1970s' social trends, Falwell led a cross-denominational re-engagement on issues such as abortion, which allied millions of evangelicals with conservative politicians. Thirty years later, Rick Warren takes great pains to demonstrate that evangelicals care about a broad range of issues and that they do not all think alike. And indeed, both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain experienced an enthusiastic reception at the forum.
There's a considerable distance between a religious test for public office and a voter's inspection of a candidate. As the Rev. Warren said weeks before the event, "I believe in the separation of church and state, but I do not believe in the separation of faith and politics, because faith is simply a worldview, and everybody's got a worldview."
Anguished by the bitter church-state battles of my lifetime, I am grateful for Rick Warren's achievement. From the wall of separation's creation more than 350 years ago to its careful tending Saturday night, the Baptist tradition of the inviolability of the individual conscience has served the nation imperfectly, but well.
Ruth Ann Dailey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1733.