Tonight NBC Nightly News aired a clip from Matt Lauer’s interview with President Obama, in which he asked the President why he has not chosen a church to attend. He was told that so doing would create too much of a distraction for fellow parishioners, and that the President, instead, receives a daily “devotional” email from a group of pastors nationwide.
The author is a liberal mainstream Christian, not an evangelical. She seems concerned that Obama has not integrated himself into what liberals would call a “faith community,” as opposed to adhering to a specific religion which manifests exclusive Truth, as many conservative Christians might be. But the question itself is a sign of the influence of evangelical Protestantism on our public culture, where details of one’s religious stances are held up to scrutiny if one is a public figure. But America has a long, though one somewhat in disrepair of late, tradition of heads of state who have ambivalent or weak relationships to organized religion.
In any case, I assume most readers of this weblog don’t care one way or another. It’s just a commentary about our culture that this is even an issue when the current president has pushed the passage of the most significant legislation of the past generation, for good or ill. When it comes to political leaders I think this statement attributed to Confucius is appropriate:
We have not yet learned to know life. How can we know what comes after death? We do not yet know how to live. Do not trouble with another life before you know how to live a good life with men on earth. Live in one world at a time.
Our presidents are profane figures, not priest-kings. They have four to eight years to affect the present in profound ways, they can spent their retirement contemplating transcendence (as figures as disparate as Chandragupta Maurya and Lee Teng-hui have).
Note: A reasonable religious objection is that the god(s) will show favor to nations if the powers that be give them their due. The problem which this statement from a “rational” stance is which gods does one pray to? It may be that a stance of neutrality is more rational than picking a particular set of god(s) if those god(s) turn out to be false, and one ends up angering the real god(s). On the other hand, if the god(s) are indulgent then I think they would indulge presidents in focusing on matters of earthly import when they have so much power to wield.