Compassion Forum at Messiah College this Sunday Night


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.


Anonymous said…
>>Compassion is at the core of how evangelicals practice their belief in the world.<<

I've got no problem with evangelicals at all, but this statement is over the top as a sweeping generalization.

And if Democrats have *finally* found religion, does McCain's victory mean that Republicans have finally lost it? Or toned it down? Whether or not he "worships with the Southern Baptists," McCain is far from being a vocal evangelical. Come to think of it, no outspoken evangelicals made it to the final rounds of the presidential election process.
Anonymous said…
John, have a wonderful time!!! I'm sure you will do a fantastic job. I hope that someday African American Protestants will be counted in studies of "evangelical voting" to show that post Great Depression Democrats have never, ever, ever, been devoid of a bloc of "evangelical" voters. Moreover, there is a leftist tradition that is rooted in religious (albeit not necessarily 'evangelical') ideals - from FDR's fireside chats (which he considered sermons) to Du Bois's prayers for students and his reflections on the "Souls" of black folk, from Jimmy Carter's born again mentality to John Kerry's Catholic commitments.
John Fea said…

Thanks for the comment. You are right. Perhaps it should read "Compassion is at the core of how evangelicals SHOULD practice their belief in the world." Thanks for pointing this out.

And "religion," of course, is not a zero-sum game. (Perhaps I am misunderstanding what you are tying to say here). I think it goes without saying that if the Dems find religion, then that does not necessarily mean the GOP has lost it. But I do think that McCain will certainly try to connect with evangelicals over the course of the next several months. When he denied Messiah's invitation to speak at the Compassion Forum he mentioned that he has a "Compassion Tour" of his own planned later. I would like to see what this looks like.
John Fea said…
Ed: Thanks. And you are absolutely correct about the post-Depression religious Democrats. Don't forget the working-class Catholic immigrants. I grew up in a family of Teamsters, milkmen, and contractors--fiercely Democratic, borderline socialist, and deeply, deeply Catholic, both spiritually and morally.
Paul Harvey said…
John: Thanks -- I can't follow the TV stuff right now, so will look forward to your wrap up afterwards.
Mike Pasquier said…
John: I was hoping you might say a few words about the absence of McCain, either as a comment to this post or in your follow-up post. What's the word on the streets of Messiah College?
Randall said…
Ed, I think the term "evangelical" is used a little too broadly here with reference to the Af-Am community. Maybe a little suspicion is in order. I liked the essay that Milton G. Sernett wrote on the matter some years ago, "Black Religion and the Question of Evangelical Identity," in The Variety of American Evangelicalism Donald W. Dayton and Robert K. Johnston, eds. (1991):

"Evangelical nomenclature . . . is not common currency among African-American Protestants. William Bentley writes, 'To blacks, at least the mainstream ones within the major black denominations, the word evangelical has little historical relevance. Instead, Bible believing is the more widely used descriptive term.'"

He follows with a use of the term, but with a number of caveats. One of his main points is that praxis not dogma has been foremast for black churches.
Anonymous said…
Good point Randall! As you well know, defining evangelicalism is tricky business. To define "evangelical" - which is always an imprecise term because it usually lumps a whole group of people together rather than referring to any specific organization - I usually follow David Bebbington (as does Mark Noll and George Marsden, typically). Bebbington suggests that there are four main categories:
Conversionism: (being "born again" in Christ
Activism: through missionary work and through doing social good

My reading in African American religious history suggests that many churchgoing African Americans (certainly not all) fulfill these four. In the end, I'm against raising another theological/religious divide (even in rhetoric) between whites and blacks that alleges to "improve" our understanding of both.

It is clearly the case that - statistically - many African Americans do not self-identity as evangelicals (this is why Michael Emerson and Christian Smith found very few for their study _Divided By Faith_).
John G. Turner said…
Great comment, Ed. I'll have to read the essay Randall recommended.

The discusssion points to the limitations of defining evangelicals theologically. The problem is that there isn't a great alternative. Denominational affiliations don't work, and self-identification underreports people who most scholars would probably consider evangelicals.
Randall said…
Ed, I see what you mean. All four of those make good sense. If we were to extend that out to certain political and cultural patterns, I think it wouldn't work too well.

On another matter, millennialism, I see a real divide. Granted, only certain elements within the evangelical community stress millennialism. But it's been definitional to many. It's hard to find that within historically black churches.
rjc said…
I wonder if "anonymous" (the first comment up there) meant that the Democrats seem to be the ones with religion this time around, rather than the Republicans. At least in terms of candidates.

There is something interesting about this. The remaining Republican candidate is not talking religion (while the Republican candidates who did lost), and the two remaining Democrats are talking a lot about religion and seem to be people who are actually pretty religious themselves.

None of the remaining candidates would be considered "evangelical."

What do we make of that, if anything? Do we need to rethink our talk about the power of religion and politics in light of a changing landscape?

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