How God Lost the Republican Primary Debate

I almost couldn't believe it when Megyn Kelly asked viewers to return after commercials to the first Republican presidential primary debates for closing statements "and...God! Stay tuned for that!" Poor God -- demoted to "special guest" status on cable television.

I had begun the evening with higher hopes. The questions that Ms. Kelly and her co-moderators Bret Baier and Chris Wallace had asked all evening were insightful. They had asked candidates to speak to the heart of the issues. They had valiantly wrangled ten loquacious men with microphones to keep them on topic and on time.

Interfaith Alliance had written to Fox News -- and to the political directors of all the major networks -- pleading for appropriate treatment of the important subject of religious faith in American politics. Americans treat religion with a zeal unparalleled by nearly anyone in the world. From traditionalists to atheists, there are few people in this country who are neutral on the topic of religion and the nature of their beliefs. It is no surprise, then, that we often expect -- if not outright demand -- a certain show of faith from our politicians.

And so we made some suggestions that we hoped would edify the voters and give them a sense of the relative importance of personal faith in the policy decisions of the candidates. They included:

Ask how they plan to navigate conflicts between their personal religious beliefs, the Constitution and the best interests of all Americans. Ask what role faith plays in their response to crises or challenges they might face in office.

Given the serious issues that face our nation -- LGBT discrimination, terrorism and war, poverty, the immigration debate and declining access to women's health services -- questions like these would help to clarify the expectations all of America could have of the person who would be President. Given the spirited attention to the Bill of Rights in a number of the exchanges, a similar conversation about Article VI and the First Amendment would have elevated the topic of religious faith to a similar level.

Instead, Fox chose what may be the silliest question on religious faith I ever heard. Highlighting a Facebook posting, the moderator asked Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Scott Walker if they had received a word from God on what they should do in office. "Any word from God?" she began. Marco Rubio was asked to include veterans in his answer and Ben Carson, notably the only African American on stage, was asked to include race relations. The way that the God question was used as a surrogate for so many issues shows precisely how vacuous and meaningless a question it was.

I admire the valiant attempts each of the five candidates made to answer the question substantively, but they seemed to understand that there was no purchase in claiming a personal message from the Almighty. Sen. Cruz's reliance on Scripture and Gov. Walker's emphasis on the "blood of Christ" made for admirable statements of their personal faith commitments, but offered no insight to the real First Amendment issues that impact every citizen in a different way. And the other candidates had no words about whether a Hindu or agnostic or Yazidi would be respected with the same presumptions that our stable of Christian candidates are promising their coreligionists.

These are not incidental concerns, as I suspect everyone knows. The role of personal religious convictions in public policy has been a central notion for the Supreme Court in multiple decisions that affect each of us. Our society continues to navigate the unsettled waters of public prayer, funding religious-based social services with tax dollars and the content of school curricula about science, sex and social justice. And six of the ten candidates on that stage come from states that have their own variations of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, legislation that has been invoked to defend business owners who discriminate against some LGBT customers.

Perhaps the Fox News moderators felt that this question was a clever variation on previous challenges about favorite Biblical verses or the role of Scripture in the life of the candidate. Instead, by suggesting that by prayer, revelation or text message God had presumed to offer campaign advice to the candidates, the moderators trivialized the role of religious faith in the life of every American and put God into a cohort that includes Karl Rove, James Carville and Dick Morris.

Religion isn't well-suited for a thirty-second sound-bite. We should be concerned if our politicians can easily encapsulate their relationships with God on the debate stage. It suggests that these candidates aren't being totally honest with us -- that they are either cheating their theology of the richness it deserves or substituting demagoguery for political debate. God, faith and politics are far too complicated for that.

Poor God. Not a one of the candidates rose to God's defense.