Monday, June 4, 2007

Democratic Candidates on Faith: What Happened At The Debate?

Sadly, today's "debate" on faith was during my work hours so I was not able to watch. (I did, however, view the three video snippets on CNN.Com.) It appears that this was not really a "debate" as such, but instead a 15 minute interview of the three leading candidates. It also appears that the questions were different--indeed, even the focus was different--for each of the three candidates. Obama was largely asked about policy issues, Clinton was asked about the importance of her faith, and Edwards was asked about rather personal issues like his sins, as well as hot button issues like evolution.

Here is the report of the New York Times:

Mr. Edwards, who has spoken extensively about poverty in moral terms but has shared little about his faith, demonstrated dexterity with speaking the language of Christian belief.

When asked whether he would be willing to discuss the “biggest sin you’ve ever committed,” Mr. Edwards laughed, paused for a moment and said that the “list is too long.”

“I’d have a very hard time telling you one thing, one specific sin,” he said, drawing applause. “If I’ve had a day in my 54 years that I haven’t sinned multiple times I’d be amazed. We all fall short, which is why we have to ask for forgiveness from the Lord.”

Mr. Edwards recalled growing up in the Southern Baptist Church but admitted that he had strayed as an adult. His faith, however, came “roaring back” in the midst of family crises. First was his son Wade’s death in a car accident, and then came the diagnosis for his wife, Elizabeth, and the recent recurrence of cancer.

“I’ve been through a faith journey in my life,” he said, adding that prayer “played a huge role in my survival” in those difficult moments.

“It’s the Lord who got me through,” he said.

Mrs. Clinton, who appeared comfortable chatting on stage with the CNN interviewer, Soledad O’Brien, and later roaming the stage while addressing the audience, drew the most rounds of applause. There were moments on stage that had an almost confessional quality for her.

Ms. O’Brien noted that Mrs. Clinton had shared relatively little about her faith in public but then carefully broached what has largely been the one issue that has been largely off limits in Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, her husband’s infidelity, asking whether her faith helped her deal with it.

“I’m not sure I would have gotten through it without my faith,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Mrs. Clinton said she took her faith “very seriously and very personally” but went on to say she came from a faith tradition, Methodism, that is “perhaps a little too suspicious of people who wear their faiths on their sleeves.”

She admitted that talking about her faith in public “doesn’t come naturally to me,” saying she often flashed back to “the Pharisees and all of the Sunday school lessons and readings I had as a child.”

She expressed gratitude for close friends and others who she said were praying for her, describing them as “prayer warriors” who “sustained me through a very difficult time.”

“I am very grateful I had a grounding in faith that gave me the courage and the strength to do what I thought was right, regardless of what the world thought,” she said, drawing a rousing round of appreciative applause.

When Ms. O’Brien asked what she asked God for in her prayers, Mrs. Clinton drew laughter from the audience when she said, “Sometimes, I say, ‘Oh Lord, why can’t you help me lose weight.’ ”

Mr. Obama dwelled somewhat more on policy and global concerns than on his personal faith or Scripture, in large part because of the nature of the questions that he faced. But he also found ways to interlace religion and policy.

Asked whether he believed that God took sides in a war, Mr. Obama reached for a famous quotation of Lincoln, about asking whether the nation is on God’s side.

At the same time, he said, it was important to remain “our brother’s keeper, our sister’s keeper” to advance the causes of justice and freedom.

Mr. Obama said he believed that evil existed in the world, noting, ‘I do think when planes crash into building and kill innocents, there’s evil there.” In other times of violence and war, however, he saw just causes like the Civil War and the defeat of fascism and the liberation of Europe.

He also said that his “starting point as president is to restore that sense that we are in this together” and that this commitment rose out of his faith. He promised to build alliances across partisan lines to improve early childhood education, children’s nutrition, workers’ pay and efforts to put criminal offenders on a better path.

“The notion that we take away education programs in prisons, to be tough on crime, makes absolutely no sense,” Mr. Obama said.

The event was the first in recent memory by Democrats that focused explicitly on faith and its values. It highlights how far the party has come since the 2004 presidential election in its efforts to appeal to religious voters and the openings Democrats see if the Republicans nominate a candidate who supports abortion rights and gay rights like Rudolph W. Giuliani or one who would be the first Mormon president, Mitt Romney.

Mara Vanderslice, director of religious outreach for the Kerry-Edwards campaign in 2004, said it would have been almost unimaginable for Democratic candidates to have participated in such an event in 2004.

Ms. Vanderslice recalled how difficult it was to nudge Mr. Kerry to talk about his Roman Catholic faith in a substantive way during the campaign.

“We would never have seen something like this last cycle,” she said.

Read it all.

I think that the real important fact is that this event occurred at all. From the videos--which were admittedly only snippets from the larger conversations, I thought that Clinton and Obama came off best. Clinton made a convincing case that faith is important to her life--even linking her faith to her ability to get through the Lewinsky debacle. Obama deftly handled a question about the Bush axis of evil--yes, there is evil in the world, but no, it is not healthy to use those terms to describe our policy because they help us avoid an examination of our own shortcomings. Niebuhr would not have said it better.

On the video clip for Edwards, he was asked about evolution. He said that he supported evolution, but then gave an incoherent explanation of his views that sounded like intelligent design to me.

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