Sunday night, the Compassion Forum aired on CNN. The concept of the forum was excellent. Its execution was flawless…a great TV event. Before the broadcast I asked myself the following question, “Will this be a useful exercise for people of faith who are attempting to make a decision about the candidates?” In addition, I wondered whether the forum would be a liberal “love fest” that simply spoke platitudes about religion but had no teeth. In a very real way I feel that both candidates fell short of fully seizing the opportunity; they both played it a little too safe. They seemingly felt that there was too much to lose to be as impassioned about their point of view as they might have been. I could have written both the questions and most of their answers before the dialogue even began. The one encouraging thing for me was the fact that faith has become such a prominent aspect of this presidential race. I have been predicting this for months. In the final months of this campaign, the religious community will be the final swing vote.
Although Obama was much more comfortable with sharing his notions about faith, I did not leave the forum feeling that I learned more about what made him tick. His style was engaging but he sounded more like a professor than a living, breathing person. One notable exception was his brief discussion about his childhood in Indonesia.
Senator Clinton, on the other hand, was obviously less comfortable discussing this private area of her life. Yet her segment seemed less scripted and more from her real life experience than I have ever heard her to be. It was a departure from her typical style.
As I have already stated, I believe that the program was excellently packaged and promoted. It was unusual to have lay people and clergy both participate in creating the questions. In addition, having people of different faiths involved in the process was also refreshing. Unfortunately, John McCain was conspicuously absent. The discussion would have seemed less biased-politically, if he had been there. He missed a great opportunity.
I can only surmise why he did not attend. He may have judged “Faith in Public Life,” the major organizational architect of the forum, as being too left-leaning or politically biased. Despite his misgivings, I wish Senator McCain would have shown up at the event. Taking a risk in a potentially hostile environment could have endeared him to many faith motivated Americans who have lost confidence in the political process. There were many voters listening who could have been won over to his side. He seems to have forgotten that many powerful evangelicals have questioned his beliefs enough that they have threatened not to show up at the polls this fall.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.