I hope some of you got to see the Compassion Forum last night on CNN. If not, CNN has posted the transcript. First let me say that this was a huge and exciting event for our campus community. Messiah is a Christian college with a mission that resonates with many of the compassion issues--poverty, global aids, abortion, Darfur, torture, climate change, etc...--that were raised last night. Like I told a few reporters after the event, I can't think of a better place, nine days before the Pennsylvania primary, to discuss these kinds of things.
As a historian, I was struck by
1). How far the Democrats have come on faith issues. I can't imagine Al Gore in 2000 or John Kerry in 2004 speaking at an event like this.
2). How far evangelicals have come. As we all know by now, there is a new generation of evangelicals out there who are trying to apply their faith to a host of issues beyond abortion, homosexual marriage, and stem-cell research.
3). How far Messiah College has come. Messiah, as some of you know, has roots in the Anabaptist community. Historically, Anabaptists have shunned political and cultural engagement. Messiah's Brethren in Christ roots are still important to the college, but there seems to be a new emphasis on engagement in public life here that may not have been as strong in previous generations.
As far as the Forum itself, I was a bit disappointed--both with some of the questions asked and with some of the candidate's answers. It was basically the same format, the same questions (and many of the same questioners), and the same answers that we saw at the presidential forum on faith and values sponsored by Sojourners and televised by CNN last June. Like Soledad O'Brien last spring, Campbell Brown and John Meacham seemed obsessed with asking personal and/or theological questions. It was nice to know, for example, that Hillary likes Queen Esther and Obama does not believe in a literal six-day creation, but more time could have been devoted to the way the faith of these candidates informed their thinking about policy matters. (Meacham had a particular fascination with asking strange and quirky questions and then chuckling like a giddy little kid who just stumped his fourth grade teacher).
When faith and policy questions were addressed, Obama seemed to offer insights that were deeper and more theologically informed than Hillary. Clinton at times seemed to ramble on endlessly without making any real point. I would invite you to go back and read the transcript and try to make sense of Hillary's answer to Rev. Joel Hunter's question about faith and presidential leadership.
Many have asked me about why McCain was not present. First, let me say that Messiah and Faith in Public Life (the organization who sponsored the event) pursued McCain very, very aggressively. I am not sure why he declined to show up. He said that he had a scheduling conflict, but we know that he spent the day at home in Arizona. My hunch is that the McCain camp is not yet prepared to address these religious issues. Perhaps they have some more homework to do, especially since faith-talk does not seem to come easily for the Republican nominee. Or perhaps this event was perceived to be linked to the "religious left." This is unfortunate because the sponsors made it clear that this would be a bipartisan event. Questions were asked by an evangelical megachurch pastor, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Vice President of the National Association of Evangelicals. Politically, I think McCain missed a great opportunity to define himself as the pro-life alternative to the Democrats and win over conservative Christians who have questioned his evangelical credentials.
Finally, let me say a few words about the buzz I heard from students. Many Messiah College students love Obama. When Hillary came out before the televised event to greet people she got strong applause, but it quickly dissipated. When Obama appeared the roar was deafening (at least from where I was seated) and it continued whenever Obama answered a question. Frankly, it is hard not to get caught up in the traveling rock star spectacle that is the Obama campaign. The guy has charisma.
There were also many students who were disappointed with the candidates pro-choice answers to questions about abortion. This issue is still very important, even to younger evangelicals who are tired of the culture wars.
I could go on, but I will leave it there. What do you think? If readers have any other specific questions about the event feel free to shoot me an e-mail or comment on this blog.