Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, president of the UCC’s Chicago Seminary, thinks that all the attention Jeremiah Wright’s preaching has gotten lately is a threat to freedom of religion. Really:

A member of Trinity United Church of Christ, the church once led by Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright and where Senator Obama is a member, told me there are “spies” among them in the pews, strangers who take notes during the service and try to record the message.

I’m not sure why there should be “spies” in the congregation, given that they put their bulletin on the Web and sell DVDs of the services in their church bookstore. However, given that such items are made publicly available, I’m also not sure why the church should complain about people taking notes.

The freedom of the pulpit, the freedom of religion itself is imperiled in this feeding frenzy about Senator Obama’s pastor and his church. As a fellow member of the United Church of Christ and a UCC pastor, I am concerned about what this is doing to this church of our denomination, but the issue is also much wider.

Challenging your pastor’s freedom in the pulpit is bad. Spying on people at prayer is reprehensible.

I agree with both of those latter statements, but neither is applicable to the Wright situation. As to the latter, all the stuff that’s been making the rounds in the national media was obtained from church-sold DVDs, not from “spying on people at prayer.” As to the pastor’s “freedom in the pulpit,” no one is saying that Wright shouldn’t have the right to rant in the pulpit all he wants. The question is why Obama stayed there for 20 years listening to those rants. In truth, there is no threat to either freedom of religion or of the pulpit here–just a pastor whose bigotry and paranoid conspiracy-mongering has been exposed for the nation to hear. If it can’t stand the light of day, that’s a bigger problem for both the church and the UCC than the public scrutiny.

Is this what the assaults of the past decades on the wall of separation between church and state has led us to? Is there no such thing as sacred space anymore?

Huh? What in the name of Thomas Jefferson does church-state separation have to do with this?

“Obama isn’t running for God,” was the title of a well-written letter to the editor in this morning’s Chicago Tribune. Exactly. These attacks on a candidate’s church and pastoral leadership are way, way out of bounds for a country founded on the principle that there is “no religious test for office.”

Piffle. I have no doubt that Thistlethwaite was among those who roundly condemned George Bush for speaking at Bob Jones University during the 2000 campaign (you can be certain that Wright did). If a candidate’s choice of campaign venue is a legitimate target, I would think a twenty-year-long personal association is as well. As for the “religious test” argument, let’s just say that her understanding of that constitutional clause is nil, and leave it at that.

The liberty of which we are so justly proud as Americans is itself in peril in these vicious attacks. The “founding fathers,” on the other hand, were fierce in their demand for freedom of religion, because they knew what happened when religion is used as a political weapon. They had seen it happen in Europe and in Europe’s endless religious wars. Samuel Adams wrote “Neither religion nor liberty can long subsist in the tumult of altercation and amidst the noise and violence of faction.”

She’s hauling out the big guns here. Trouble is, they’re loaded with blanks. What she seems to be suggesting is a variation of the Islamist attack on freedom of speech, the one that says that any criticism of a given religion is a grave offense against human, or at least civil, rights. Given how much she’s had to say that is both critical of, and at times flat wrong about, Christian conservatives, I’d say she almost threatening to turn that big gun on herself.

A church is sacred space and to violate that space by engaging in “Swift-boat” type distortions and even spying is un-American. This is not us, this is not the bedrock principle of our founders and those leaders we have most respected. Our churches and our faith commitments are out of bounds in the tumult of political contests.

Sorry, that doesn’t wash, not even a little bit. I took a look back at some of Thistlethwaite’s previous writing at the Washington Post, and came up with a few gems:

As Rev. John Hagee said, the same John Hagee who recently endorsed John McCain and whose endorsement was gratefully received by McCain, “The war between America and Iraq is the gateway to the Apocalypse.” (March 6, 2008)

McCain recently and gratefully received the endorsement of Texas megachurch pastor and televangelist, John Hagee. Hagee’s book Jerusalem Coundown: A Warning to the World uses selective biblical citations to predict that Russia and the Islamic states will invade Israel and be destroyed by God….

This “transcendent” view of world politics is dangerous and extremely volatile. It may in fact be a more dangerous ideology than the one that led us to attack a country that had not attacked us and has kept us at war for the last five years. (March 17, 2008)

I’ve got no brief for either Hagee or McCain, but apparently McCain’s getting Hagee’s endorsement warrants attributing everything he believes to the candidate, whereas even hinting that such might be the case with Obama is The End of the First Amendment As We Know It.

The issue is that these broader concerns are new for Evangelicals and the movement the political Religious Right built has not gone away—it has morphed into the Huckabee campaign and seems to be a great source of votes for this candidate. (February 10, 2008)

As a person of faith, however, I want to “save God” from the religiously self-righteous such as Mike Huckabee who claim to know “God’s standards” and who have no trouble using the name of God to advance their political and social agendas with the divine name. (January 25, 2008)

When you look a little deeper, however, you can see that freedom is not his creed. Beyond the buzz words, he is clearly ascribing to the ‘Christian America’ idea that is, at bottom, the rule of the state by religion or what we call “theocracy.”…Underneath the buzz words, however, the legacy of theocracy in the Mormon faith is visible in Romney’s speech. (December 6, 2007)

You get the point. (I didn’t even look for any snarky remarks she may have made at the expense of George Bush’s faith.) On the one hand, she’s proclaiming the death of liberty because people are criticizing Jeremiah Wright for saying that AIDS was invented by the U.S. government to kill off black Americans. On the other, she’s taking on Republican presidential candidates because of their association with conservative pastors (or, in Romney’s case, because of his own faith). I guess the fate of the Republic is all just a matter of whose ox is being gored.