Religion and Politics Can Mix

By: Jacques Berlinerblau

April 14, 2008

There were many winners at Sunday night’s Compassion Forum at Messiah College and no discernible losers as far as I could tell.

For starters, the sponsoring and organizing group, Faith in Public Life, handled logistics superbly. FPL is setting an agenda and it is doing so with a “Big Tent” philosophy of letting different religious Americans bring their concerns to the fore. Last night a theologically diverse group of pre-selected clergy asked questions about euthanasia, environmental concerns, poverty, AIDS, the relation between science and faith, and so on. In so doing, they broadened the issue palette pertaining to religious politicking considerably. This is where Faith in Public Life is making a major contribution to national discourse.

All of this was done--note this--without castigating or excluding secular Americans. The moderators Campbell Brown and Jon Meacham--let me thank them in advance-- asked both candidates to comment on the assertion that "religion already has way too much influence in political life and public life." Senator Clinton responded:

"I understand why some people, even religious people, even people of faith might say, why are you having this forum? And why are you exploring these issues from two people who are vying to be president of the United States? And I think that's a fair question to ask. I am here because I think it's also fair for us to have this conversation. But I'm very conscious of how thoughtful we must proceed."

Senator Obama offered a somewhat different answer. He contrasted the Democratic Party of old (read the folks who had militantly expurgated faith from public life) with the Republican Party of today (read the folks who have abused religion in politics). Riffing on themes from his Audacity of Hope and arguing that a happy medium could be found, Obama closed by saying: "We are a Jewish nation; we are a Buddhist nation; we are a Muslim nation; Hindu nation; and we are a nation of atheists and nonbelievers."

(Factor in that "On Faith" columnist Eboo Patel asked a question of Senator Clinton in which he observed that "Americans of all faith and no faith at all believe in compassion," and it becomes clear that nonbelievers in America had their best night in the public square since Carl Sagan's Cosmos debuted on PBS).

The candidates, for their part, scored no knock-out punches. This is not surprising since the tone and format of the evening did not encourage pugilism. When pressed Senator Clinton referred to Senator Obama's remarks about "bitter" Americans as "elitist, out of touch and patronizing"—thus trying to turn Obama's headiness and professorial bearing back on him. (In an earlier column I noted that John Edwards too was also rolling out an "Obama-Is-Too-Academic" product line. I wonder if the McCain people are buying).

Clinton, for her part, was astonishingly serene and deliberate in her responses. It was as if she walked in with the strategy of slowing down the pace of the game (to better contrast herself with the up-tempo Obama who has been a bit careless with the rhetorical ball of late?). Her "Four Corners Offense" did have the drawback of striking some as a bit dull and rambling. Though in response to a question about why suffering is permitted by a loving God she offered one of the best responses of the night: "Its very existence is a call to action."

As for Senator Obama, he was very much in his element. His suggestion that an Office of Faith-Based Initiatives in his administration would specifically target poverty was extraordinarily interesting as were his remarks on the compatibility between evolutionary theory and religion. Obama's handlers probably wish that he weren't so relentlessly interesting; his recent missteps can be attributed to his willingness to speak with the freedom and candor of a college lecturer.

In all, it was about as serious a conversation on religion and politics that could be had with presidential aspirants in tow. Sally Quinn and I will be discussing all this in greater detail in our upcoming God Vote video. As for me, I had a great time. My only regret is that I didn't carve out more time to chat with the students of Messiah College whose administrators rendered an important service to the nation by hosting the forum.

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