BY JOHN FEA
Ed Blum may be tired of all the politics, but political junkies like myself can't get enough. If you are not doing anything Sunday night tune into CNN at 8pm to watch Obama and Hillary speak about faith and policy during the "Compassion Forum." (John McCain was also invited, but he declined the offer). The event is sponsored by an organization called Faith in Public Life and it will be hosted by Messiah College. Campbell Brown (CNN) and Jon Meacham (Newsweek) will be moderating.
I will be serving the college tommorrow as a media contact person. (This means I get to sit for two hours in a big room and talk to the national press about politics, evangelicalism, Messiah College, and anything else they are curious about). I will probably have no chance whatsoever of meeting either candidate.
I will try to post some of my reflections on this event next week.
Addendum: Here is a promotional op-ed piece I wrote for the event. A lot of it will be familiar stuff to readers of this blog.
Compassion and the Evangelical Vote
By John Fea
After John Kerry lost miserably among Christian voters in 2004, Democrats found religion. When they stopped thinking about evangelicals as part of a “right wing conspiracy” Democrats learned just how much common ground they shared with them.
Consider the work of Rick Warren, the pastor of an evangelical mega-church and a best-selling Christian author. He uses his fame and wealth to fight global poverty, disease, and illiteracy around the world, especially in Africa.
Rich Cizik, vice president for government affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, has tackled climate change. His activism drew heated rebukes from the leaders of the Christian Right, but Cizik has refused to back down from his conviction that Christians have a responsibility to care for God’s creation.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has praised the work of evangelical relief agencies in Darfur. He has also suggested that Christianity is behind democratic protests and human rights initiatives in China.
By championing these causes evangelicals are not abandoning their primary work of spreading the gospel around the world. Nor will they cease their opposition to abortion, a reform which many of them understand as a means of showing compassion to the unborn. But the days of choosing a candidate based solely on political party or on one or two moral issues seem to be fading, and it is also clear that the evangelical agenda is broadening.
Evangelicals cheered when George W. Bush ran for president in 2000 on the platform of “compassionate conservatism.” As the first openly born-again president since Jimmy Carter, Bush pledged to offer faith-based solutions to the social problems facing the United States and the world.
Things seemed to go well at first. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives provided grants to religious organizations working for social justice. He funded relief efforts for those around the globe suffering from AIDS and malaria. At home he defended his compassionate immigration policy against many in his party who opposed it.
Throughout his presidency Bush has managed to sustain some of these ambitious plans for faith-based reform, but as Lyndon Johnson learned during the Vietnam era, it is hard to provide butter when so much of the nation’s resources are invested in guns.
With Democrats speaking the language of faith and Republicans continuing to hold the support of many evangelicals, religion has played an unprecedented role in the 2008 presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton has identified publicly with her Methodist faith. Barack Obama speaks openly about his conversion experience at Jeremiah Wright’s church. John McCain recently announced that he worships with the Southern Baptists.
But evangelicals want to hear more. Is faith just one of many talking points on the campaign trail or will it directly affect the way these candidates think about policy matters? Obama has said that “secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.” If this is true, then evangelicals need to know, in specific terms, what exactly faith in the public square might look like.
The candidates will soon get a chance to address these topics of evangelical interest. On April 13, nine days before the Pennsylvania primary, Obama, Clinton, and McCain will have an opportunity to participate in the “Compassion Forum,” a bipartisan and nationally televised event where the candidates will be asked to talk about the way faith informs their positions on issues such as poverty, abortion, global AIDS, genocide, and human rights. The forum will be held at Messiah College, a school with a historic commitment to social justice and Christian compassion.
Compassion is at the core of how evangelicals practice their belief in the world. While it is a practice that transcends political parties and ideologies, is also one that evangelicals want their politicians, especially those who claim to be people of faith concerned with the common good, to take seriously. It is time that our candidates for president engage with the American people in a deeper, richer, and sustained conversation on these matters.