Thoughts on the Compassion Forum

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.


Randall said…
John, thanks for the thoughtful summary. This sure does seem to fit a pattern of the broadening of the evangelical worldview. Here's a title someone might work with: _Beyond the Pubic Region: The Humane Impulse in Recent Evangelicalism_. Randall Balmer has suggested that the recent evangelical shift represents, to some degree, a generational change. That makes sense to me.

BTW, if gun control is elitists, then sign me up as an elitist.
Tim Lacy said…
Dear John,

On abortion, in particular on Obama and McCain (I think Hillary's position is more clear than these two):

1. Is it fair to call Obama pro-choice, in the general (tired) sense of that phrase, if he advocates that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare"? The campaign doesn't use that phrase on their website, but I received an e-mail with that language when I queried for specifics.

2. Is it fair say that McCain is pro-life, in a practical sense, when he merely advocates for overturning Roe as a kind of ~bad legal decision~ such that individual states can decide for themselves on abortion? McCain has no explicitly articulated plan to deal with abortion once Roe is overturned. Why do some think that having the states deal with this will be any better than the federal gov't.

In sum, how do we evaluate these candidates on the abortion position?

I'd love to get some debate started on this. I can't get good answers from ~anyone~ on why they think there will be a lot of on-the-ground differences between Obama and McCain on this issue.

- TL

McCain's position is below. Here's the source:

Overturning Roe v. Wade

John McCain believes Roe v. Wade is a flawed decision that must be
overturned, and as president he will nominate judges who understand
that courts should not be in the business of legislating from the
bench. Constitutional balance would be restored by the reversal of Roe v. Wade, returning the abortion question to the individual states. The difficult issue of abortion should not be decided by judicial fiat.

However, the reversal of Roe v. Wade represents only one step in the long path toward ending abortion. Once the question is returned to the states, the fight for life will be one of courage and compassion - the courage of a pregnant mother to bring her child into the world and the compassion of civil society to meet her needs and those of her newborn baby. The pro-life movement has done tremendous work in building and
reinforcing the infrastructure of civil society by strengthening
faith-based, community, and neighborhood organizations that provide critical services to pregnant mothers in need. This work must continue and government must find new ways to empower and strengthen these armies of compassion. These important groups can help build the consensus necessary to end abortion at the state level. As John McCain has publicly noted, "At its core, abortion is a human tragedy. To
effect meaningful change, we must engage the debate at a human level."

In my view, this means that McCain is hoping---after Roe is overturned
because of legal flaws---that he never has to vote on the issue again
in national politics. His heart seems in the right place. I mean,
the second paragraph constitutes a hearts and minds approach that I'm
very much in favor of---but one that has nothing to do with national
political measures.

- TL
John Fea said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Fea said…

Great points. As you note, the terms "pro-choice" and "pro-life" are problematic, especially when it comes to the 2008 candidates. (I might also add that Obama does use the term "pro-choice" or at least I think he used it the other night at the Compassion Forum).

Having said this, I think that most ordinary evangelicals (the many who still make voting choices based on a candidate's view on abortion) still operate under the traditional pro-life and pro-choice rubric, as "tired" as those categories may be.

On one level, all three candidates might be considered "pro-life"(although it is up for debate as to whether Obama's vote against the ban on partial-birth abortion qualifies him as pro-life) beause they want to make abortion rare. Fair enough.

But for most average evangelicals "pro-life" means overturning Roe v. Wade, even if it does mean taking a federalist approach to the matter and letting the states decide. Thus McCain is their guy.

Most who want to protect life, I would argue, don't understand the possible ramifications of McCain's federalism. In other words, if Roe v. Wade was overturned and states like New York, New Jersey, California, and Illinois still opt to keep abortion legal (which is very likely to happen), there is a chance that the yearly number of abortions may not change because these are states with such large liberal populations. But I think you are also correct, Tim, to suggest that grassroots mobilization at the state level might turn the tide the other way in more red or purple states.

I guess it comes down to whether or not those who want to keep abortion legal, but put reforms and programs in place to limit unwanted pregnancies can co-exist under the pro-life tent with those who see all abortions as a threat to the dignity of human life and thus want them to be illegal. I don't see these two camps co-existing anytime soon.

I think there needs to be a lot more education on these matters.
Tim Lacy said…
Dear John,

Thank you for the thoughtful, rational reply.

You took the words right out of mouth with regard to overturning Roe and the necessary, subsequent state-by-state decisions in places like NJ, NY, CA, and IL. But all must remember that the hearts and minds approach can work both ways: it's no guarantee.

Many people want to talk about voting records on this or that bill (i.e. partial birth abortion). But, why don't people ask more questions about riders, exceptions, and specifics? Many bills receive negative votes not because of their main thrust, but because of attachments. With that, I can't say anything conclusive about Obama's negative vote. I'll have to look more into that bill.

Disclaimer: I'm not today inclined toward any of the three major candidates. Hopefully this will remove some heat from any readers who want to interpret my passages one way or another.

- TL
Kelly J. Baker said…

Newsweek published an article by Lisa Miller last week on evangelicals and abortion. She argues (similarly to you) that evangelicals are tired of the strident debate, and limiting debate between pro-life and pro-choice factions. She interviewed one evangelical, who wanted abortion to be "legal" and "rare." Thus, getting rid of abortion was no longer on his agenda, but rather decreasing the amount of abortions. The article is located at

Interestingly, my students in my Gender and Religion class, some of whom are deeply religious, seem to have a more complicated take on the issue that moves beyond polarization. They seem to be wrestling with the issue to uncover how we can discourage this practice while providing more support and options for women.
Anonymous said…
Thanks, John, for posting this--I was hoping you'd do a post on this! I've got a link and discussion up at
rjc said…
Tim, can you explain why you think that Obama's position that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare" is not "pro-choice," or is something new? That phrase is pretty standard among pro-choice folks, I think. I googled it, on a whim, and I see that it's been used since the 1990s (it was Bill Clinton's view on abortion, too, for example).
Tim Lacy said…
Dear RJC,

Yes, the phrase has been around for awhile. But it does not ~have to~ mean "pro-choice." That's most certainly what it meant, I think, in the 1990s. But things can be reappropriated in history. I wondered if Obama's use indicates something more conservative---in part because of his religious experiences. I mean, couldn't a pro-lifer technically qualify as someone who believes abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare"? It's a vague phrase that serves political types well, but philosophically it could indicate a range of positions.

- TL
Russ said…
On the Newsweek article by Lisa Miller, it's worth noting two things about the the Rev. Adam Hamilton, pro-choice evangelical she interviewed as supposedly representative of a shift in evangelical thinking. First, it's striking that Miller goes out of her way to note that Hamilton is a graduate of Oral Roberts University, but somehow forgets to mention he's his M. Div. is from Southern Methodist University (not exactly an evangelical institution, and that he is ordained in the United Methodist Church. The UMC is officially pro-choice. The second thing to note is that Adam Hamilton says he was not accurately represented in the article, and what perhaps should have been newsworthy is that this United Methodist megachurch (how often do you see those words together?) pastor is in fact pro-life, and believes abortion is morally justifiable only in cases of rape or incest, when the health of the mother is in jeopardy, and severe fetal abnormalities that would prevent the child from surviving outside of the womb.

Adam Hamilton's blog:
Russ said…
On the Compassion Forum event, I'm not at all surprised McCain declined to attend. My assumption, going by the sponsoring organization, was that this would very much be a religious left event, bi-partisan only in the way that Jim Wallis says "go beyond right and left..." and then vote Democrat with all your might. Granted the presence of questioners like Frank Page provided some balance, but aside from him aren't most of the evangelicals John mentions are known primarily because they were in opposition to the religious right - Joel Hunter, the megachurch pastor who became nationally known when he resigned from the Christian Coalition, or Richard Cizik, VP of the NAE who I think few had heard of until he came into sharp conflict with James Dobson. Were it not for Samuel Rodriguez's question (one of the few non-softballs), abortion would not have been that prominent in the debate.
Carmeen said…
I disagree. Sen. Clinton's response to Pastor Hunter was reassuring. Sen. Clinton will make difficult presidential decisions carefully, with input from knowledgeable individuals, welcoming disagreeing positions, pressing on to the right decision. Sen. Clinton gave testimony that Christianity has given her life its direction. Substantial evidence supports Sen. Clinton is intelligent, insightful, detail oriented, strong, and believably a Christian.

Did it not raise a thought or two when you heard Sen. Obama say he believes in evolution? Do you choose to overlook that evolution is not compatible with Christianity?

John Fea said…
Russ: I am glad you jumped in. I was intrigued by your Compassion Forum post. You say: "My assumption, going by the sponsoring organization, was that this would very much be a religious left event, bi-partisan only in the way that Jim Wallis says 'go beyond right and left...' and then vote Democrat with all your might."

I think there may be some truth to this asssesment of Wallis and the Compassion Forum generally, but I was wondering if you could elaborate on this remark a bit more. Who, for example, do you think might have brought more balance to the event? David Gushee, if I understand him correctly, is somewhat of an evangelical moderate. (Used to teach at SBC's Union University and has a new book out with Baylor Press on moderate evangelicalism). Of course Page is quite conservative. Hunter and Cizik are also generally conservative in theology. I believe there is an inerrancy expectation to be a leader in the NAE (Cizik) and Hunter's church is as mainstream evangelical as you can get. A quick look at their website shows that they are hosting a Michael W. Smith concert, they have a Billy Graham style gospel message posted, and Hunter lectures at Reformed Theologial Seminary and has written a book called "A New Kind of Conservative."

Perhaps Faith and Public Life needed to invite more compassionate conservatives like Michael Gerson or Marvin Olasky or John Diulio (who by the way spoke at Messiah tonight) to ask questions. Would this have brought some more balance to the event? What do you think?

What would it take to make this a legitimately bi-partisan event? Should they have invited Christians to ask questions who are *not* concerned with some of these "compassion" issues? Does the fact that abortion was not stressed make this a "religious left" event?

I am genuinely curious to hear your take on this and I think it will contribute to this ongoing conversation here. Thanks.
John Fea said…

Thanks for posting this and for joining the conversation.

I think Hillary gave a very presidential answer to Rev. Hunter's question. In this sense, it was good, but still a bit rambling. Indeed, it was somewhat "reassuring."

What bothered me was her lack of specificity. I think any presidential candidate might have answered the same way that she did. The best part of her answer was this: "But I do have a sense of the process by which I will try to approach them. (life or death issues). And it really is rooted in, you know, my prayer, my contemplation, my study. I think you have to immerse yourself in advice, information, criticism from others. I don't pretend to even believe that I know the answers to a lot of these questions. I don't."

I think Rev. Hunter wanted to hear specifically how "prayer, contemplation, or study" will help her make these decisions. Just how does her faith would inform these matters. Will she spend time in prayer before approaching these issues? What will she study? How will she "contemplate?" Who will she go to for advice on how to act morally in the world? Her clergyperson?

Now I do not think presidential candidates need to reveal everything about their religious life in order to be president. I am often uncomfortable with the kind of religious litmus tests Christians place on candidates. But if these candidates are going to go to forums like this to appeal to religious voters, say they are Christians, and claim that their faith will play a role in their approach to the presidency, then I think it is fair game to ask them to be specific.

I was not particularly jarred by Obama's remarks about evolution. There are many people who embrace evolution and evangelical faith.
John Fea said…

I just learned that the Compassion Forum invited Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council to the event, but he declined to come. The event and the sponsoring organization, "Faith in Public Life" was also endorsed by Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee.
Russ said…
John: I was trying to look at it as if I were a McCain adviser (100 more years!). Of course, I don't know exactly what information was available to them when invited, but given the sponsoring agency and some of the questioners (Wallis, obviously, but with someone like Cizik - if they knew anything about him, it would likely be his conflict with James Dobson), I don't think I'd see much advantage for McCain to go.

From my own perspective, someone like Hunter makes for an interesting choice, someone who has expanded his political vision without dropping family issues, abortion, etc. Olasky would have been a good choice to my mind, as would John Diulio, since another thing I noticed about the event was a curious absence of Catholics. Maybe I missed someone, but I didn't recognize any of the questioners as Catholic.
Russ said…
John: I just read the link you listed and also Perkins's response. His comment about the "board" seems strange; from what he says, I wonder if he really mean Faith in Public Life's board.
Carmeen said…
I know Sen. Clinton. Sen. Clinton is a Christian. A vote for Sen. Clinton is a vote to put Christian values in the White House.

Sen. Obama said he is a Christian. Sen. Obama also said he believes in evolution. You have stated there are many people who embrace evolution and evangelical faith. In the strict religeous sense, evolution is at odds with Christian beliefs, that is, God created Adam and Eve and life began with Adam and Eve.

Credibly, a vote for Sen. Obama may not put Christian values in the White House.

Anonymous said…
Here is very thoughtful analysis of the event

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