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.
For some reason, Republicans and Democrats rarely share their faith in common forums. Last fall Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council (FRC) joined three other organizations, including my own, to have a two day Washington Briefing Values Voter’s Summit. All of the Republican candidates joined us at the event while unfortunately none of the Democratic candidates showed up. This limited our discussion and political dialogue. In that setting both Senator Obama and Senator Clinton were no shows. I could not help wondering what they were afraid of. Were they really so mistrusting of conservative Christians that they felt they would be mistreated? Perhaps they feel that they can only speak of faith in a guarded, self protected environment. Regardless of how the Democrats lost their laryngitis, they rose to the challenge in the Compassion Forum.
Sunday night McCain lost by default. He could have pointed out his record of being pro-life for 25 years and shared the story of his experience as a prisoner of war. Ironically, McCain’s absence from the Compassion Forum played into the religious strategy of the Democratic Party. The Democrats have been on a four year march to call for a new alignment of politics and faith. I will not attempt to enumerate every step the Democratic Party has taken. I will highlight only one from earlier this year.
It was just this January that Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton cast the vision for the New Baptist Covenant which met in Atlanta. The organization’s first meeting was comprised of 15,000 attendees representing over 20 million members. The 30-organization coalition actually eclipses the size of the Southern Baptist Convention by nearly 4 million members. One of the obvious goals of that meeting was to prepare moderate evangelicals to vote for a Democratic led vision of America.
My greatest concern for theologically conservative Christians is that they do not miss the fact that America is poised to make major directional changes in 2008. The cry for change in the land today is born out of dissatisfaction with the political status quo. The faith community is also crying out for a change, but it has an opportunity to lead the way.
Perhaps McCain hoped that Obama and Clinton would turn the forum into a political Donny Brook, saving him the trouble of defeating them in verbal combat. Just the opposite was true. They both appealed marvelously to their bases and did not risk reaching out aggressively. Therefore, the real loser last night was Senator McCain who failed to answer the bell.