The question put to the theologian, the college professor and the politician went like this: Is there a line between faith and politics, and has it been crossed?
Their answer: What line?
Two days before America goes to the vote, more than 125 people gathered at Temple Beth-El in Charlotte for a lively, 90-minute discussion of the shifting balance between the countrys spiritual and political sides.
The so-called separation of church and state has been debated since before the country was even founded. But in politics, the two have been colliding for more than 200 years, said panelist Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political scientist.
This month, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association set off a nationwide debate by buying full-page newspaper ads in battleground states, asking followers to support candidates who stand for biblical principles. The ads, though no candidates are named, appear to be a clear endorsement of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Its hardly a new approach. In 1800, one side of the countrys first partisan presidential campaign framed the choice even more starkly, Huffmon said: Either vote for John Adams and God or Thomas Jefferson and no God.
In other words, political choices have often contained spiritual overtones from the debate over John Kennedys Catholicism in 1960 to current discussions about Romneys Mormonism or President Barack Obamas spiritual beliefs.
Americans have long considered themselves a moral people yet still dont agree on the role spiritual values should play in electing their leaders or setting public policy.
The fine line between the two was captured by audience member Linda Ashendorf, who said she expects candidates to have high moral character but believes religion has absolutely no place in politics.
Except, it already does, said one of the panelists, state Rep. Ruth Samuelson of Charlotte.
I cannot separate my religion from how I vote because its part of my world view, she said.
It also informs her politics: Love thy neighbor, she said, cuts through most partisan distinctions.
The countrys spiritual landscape is shifting. Fewer Americans than ever before are attending church. Almost 20 percent of the country is no longer affiliated with a church.
Yet in the Carolinas, 70 percent of the residents believe religion is very important in their lives. And while nearly half of Americans say churches now spend too much time on politics, churches throughout the Charlotte area have played major roles in the current election year, from organizing support or opposition to the controversial marriage amendment last spring to openly taking sides in the presidential campaign.
Panelist Rodney Sadler, a biblical scholar at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, spoke of the inevitable interaction between spiritual values and political choices.
Sometimes secular considerations trump the religious ones, he said, citing how Scripture was used to justify slavery and segregation, and how even today some Americans are quick to use religion to negate an opposing point of view.
The Rev. Steve Shoemaker, pastor of Myers Park Baptist Church, which co-hosted the event, spoke of the countrys responsibility to its minority members and what should be a growing fear of the tyranny of the religious majority.
While Shoemaker and others focused on respecting traditional lines, Rabbi Judy Schindler of Temple Beth-El spoke about threads in her closing remarks how political and religious leaders form the horizontal and vertical weaves in what Huffmon described as the complex tapestry of American life.
Those threads support one another but remain separate, she said.
Like the prophets of old, we should speak not for and against politicians but for values upon which our society should stand.