I haven’t had a chance to see the Saddleback presidential forum, so I’m not in a position to comment on what happened there, except for this: there is no reason why it should not have taken place. I hold that contra Susan Jacoby, house atheist for the Washington Post’s “On Faith column. To hear her tell it, the Republic came crashing down last Saturday evening:

Article VI of the U.S. Constitution declares that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” A religious test for the presidency is exactly what was televised Saturday night when Senators Barack Obama and John McCain allowed themselves to be grilled like schoolboys by Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Church. McCain and Obama were asked what it meant to them “to trust in Jesus Christ” and to describe the “greatest moral failing” in their lives. I tremble for my country when I reflect that both candidates were apparently eager to answer highly personal questions posed by a televangelist.

She trembles for her country that people are interested in the candidates as something more than policy ciphers, that voters want to know them as flesh-and-blood individuals who actually have the unmitigated gall to identify themselves with a particular religious faith. Jacoby is not stupid, of course; she knows full well that such a forum doesn’t comprise anything like the “religious test” of which Article VI speaks. But it was still a violation of the “spirit” of the Constitution:

This event was so disrespectful of our best American traditions, on so many levels, that I hardly know where to begin. The Constitution, of course, prohibits only legal religious tests for office. It does not prohibit the extralegal but equally powerful religious test that Warren was conducting. But Obama and McCain should both have thought about the spirit of the Constitution, and the intent behind the prohibition of religious tests, before they started pandering to a Christian minister on national television by talking about their trust in Jesus Christ. Will they now be obliged to undergo interrogation by a rabbi or a Roman Catholic bishop?

Fascinating thing about the “spirit” and “intent” of the Constitution of which she speaks: it went virtually unrecognized for almost 200 years. Throughout American history, there are countless examples of politicians and elected officials talking about their faith, sometimes more vaguely than others, certainly, but it was only recently that some people started believing that candidates talking about their faith somehow violated the “spirit” or “intent” of the Constitution. The translation of what Jacoby is saying is this: I don’t like hearing public figures talk about what I don’t believe in, so it must be unconstitutional for them to do so. You can tell that there’s more than mere concern for constitutional niceties at work here when you come to this:

McCain also managed to talk about all the praying he did before deciding to remain in a North Vietnamese prison, after having been offered his release because he was an admiral’s son. Any day now, I’m expecting a new campaign commercial showing St. John on his knees in a prison cell, while a beam of faithy light shines through the bars.

That’s not a desire to defend the Constitution. That’s a deep, personal loathing of public expression of Christian faithfulness that reaches a real low by impugning an experience such as McCain’s. The Post should be ashamed to have published it.

There’s more viewing-with-alarm, if you’d care to read the whole thing.