Posted by: Randy Allgaier | August 18, 2008

The Saddleback Presidential Forum- No Surprises


I have to admit that I never feel comfortable with forums where candidates are called to talk about their faith. I agree that it is nice to know what inspires our candidates and what makes them tick- but there is a thin line between appropriate and inappropriate as well as state and religion. I think that Rick Warren did an admirable job walking that fine line- better than any evangelical preacher I have seen- and it was a civil discourse; very polite and friendly. But for me it was a big “whatever” – there were no surprises that came from this event.

This was the second faith forum in this Presidential election- the first was at Messiah College in April where Senators Clinton and Obama appeared but Senator McCain declined. I hope it’s the last one. After all we aren’t the Christian Republic of the United States unlike the Islamic Republic of Iraq. Or are we? I hope we aren’t headed down that path.

But back to the forum-

Let’s start this by setting the record straight. John McCain made reference to our nation being found on Judeo-Christian beliefs. I’m sorry but that just isn’t true. The United States was not founded as a Christian nation nor was it all that tied to Judeo-Christian thought. It was more beholden to the political thought of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Thomas Jefferson was a theist/deist. Deists typically reject most supernatural events (prophecy, miracles) and tend to assert that God does not intervene with the affairs of human life and the natural laws of the universe. What organized religions see as divine revelation and holy books, most deists see as interpretations made by other humans, rather than as authoritative sources. Deists believe that God’s greatest gift to humanity is not religion, but the ability to reason.

That being said- I think any questions about Jesus are just not kosher… so to speak. It simply goes over the line.

The forum offered no new insights. McCain sees the world in black and white. Obama sees it more nuanced. McCain hit all his talking points- including drilling for oil anywhere he happens to be standing. Obama did himself some good since he yet again had an opportunity to tell the ignorant among us that he is not a Muslim- not that it should matter, but in the middle American mind Muslim equals terrorist and a shockingly large number of the yahoos in this nation believe Obama is Muslim (12%).

When asked who’s counsel he would seek if President, Obama was personal and mentioned that his wife and his grandmother would keep him in check and would tell him if he was getting a little full of himself. He also mentioned two Senators – Kennedy and Coburn – who are at the complete opposite ends of the political spectrum, alluding to a “Team of Rivals” style of government. But McCain- he had to trot out General Petraus once again. Mr. McCain seems to forget that while the general’s point of view is important- we have civilian leadership in our military. It seems McCain forgets that a lot. His other two choices, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and Congressman John Lewis, were clearly pandering to women and African Americans. I’m sure that former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was crestfallen that Ms. Whitman upstaged her. And as for John Lewis- I don’t think that this remarkable civil rights leader who is a loyal Democrat will be giving Mr. McCain advice any time soon. Mr. Lewis is an ardent supporter of Mr. Obama. Lewis would probably tell McCain that the best thing he could do is get out of the way and let Mr. Obama have a clear road to the White House.

Of course McCain did his anti-abortion shtick. He knew the audience he was playing to and he gave them what they wanted to hear. McCain is anti-abortion rights but he was clear at this event that this would certainly be a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees. Mr. Obama was as usual more thoughtful in his answer. He isn’t pro-abortion he said, but he felt that the matter was private between a woman, her family, her doctor and her spiritual counselor and not the government. The government should look at ways to avoid unwanted pregnancies he said.

When asked about Supreme Court justices, McCain robotically ticked off the name of every “liberal” on the Court as the justices he wouldn’t have appointed. He did neglect to say that he did vote to approve them. Mr. Obama was again more thoughtful. His answer was that Justice Thomas just didn’t have the legal scholarship or the sharp mind that should be part and parcel of being nominated to the highest court in the land. Mr. Obama even mentioned that although he disagreed with Justice Scalia’s interpretation of the Constitution, there was no doubt that Scalia is a brilliant thinker. Obama couldn’t be more correct in his assessment of Thomas- he isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.

Then there was the question about what position one held 10 years ago where the candidate had changed that position and why. Of course McCain stuck to his current mantra – “Off shore oil drilling!” Can the man think? Is there anything that comes out of his mouth that he actually has given thought to that isn’t a campaign talking point? In answer to the question Obama talked about welfare reform. WOW- Talk about answering the question honestly!

Many of us were very wary about welfare reform when it happened. And I am with Obama on this one-I too have changed my mind on this issue. But do most voters even know the policy issues around welfare reform? Do they know the difference between AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families)? Obama pointed out the work he did in the Illinois state legislature to make sure that there was a safety net for these families- child care, educational opportunities, etc.

As I watched the forum, I had to agree with David Gergen on CNN when he observed that the take home message from this forum for the Obama camp is that McCain may be better in the debates than one might think. His anecdotal style touches people; his trotting out his war experience (although he repeatedly states that he would never use this part of his life for political fodder) is exactly what flag waving jingoists eat up. I believe that the Obama camp is smart enough to have seen the same thing and will adjust accordingly.

Mr. Obama is thoughtful and answers questions with nuance and texture. Mr. McCain sees the world in black and white. Both men see evil in the world- but McCain sees it only in terms of “Islamo- fascists” and Evil Empires and he seems to think that God is on our side. Mr. Obama sees evil in Darfur and in child abuse. Mr. Obama astutely pointed out that it is never a good idea to think that you are way is God’s way. One can hope to do the right thing and pray to God to do the right thing, but to think that God is on one side and that the other side is Godless is dangerous- it is hubris.

When asked about orphans throughout the world, Mr. Obama offered to make the issue one of importance not unlike President Bush’s PEPFAR initiative (the only decent thing that President Bush as done). Mr. McCain sounded more like Eva Peron when he talked about how his wife Cindy saw a child in Bangladesh when visiting a settlement run by Mother Theresa and they adopted her. I am sure the McCain’s love their daughter- but it seemed a little slimy to me for the Senator to mention this as a sign that he understands the plight of the world’s orphans and has a plan to help.

It’s never easy in this world of sound bites to talk about complex issues in a way that they deserve. Mr. Obama tries to honor the complexity of these difficult issues. Mr. McCain- well he knows how to regurgitate sound bites.

I do hope that after 8 years of being manipulated by sound bite policy, the American people have wised up. I truly hope so.

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