Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The Democratic Presidential Candidates Discussion on Faith

On Monday evening, June 4, Sojourners and CNN hosted a Democratic Presidential Candidate forum on Faith and Politics with the top three Democratic Candidates, John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton. The additional Democratic candidates for president were given a forum for discussion during the following hour on the Paula Zahn show. While not a huge CNN fan I am a fan of Sojourners, and decided to watch the forum and give this, one man’s opinion of the events that transpired. I will later on post a video of the highlights of that forum on this article, the link to the transcript of the forum can be read by clicking here.

Before going into my commentary I have to once again give clarification. This is one mans opinion; it is not an endorsement of any political candidate as I haven’t made up my mind as to who I will support. I will say, the issues facing those of faith are far more substantial than many in the church, and many in the press give credit for. I was amazed for example that the ongoing continual issues involved gay marriage, prayer, and abortion. All three are significant issues within the cultures of politics and faith, but they are not the only issues. The leading candidate for both the Democratic and Republican Party at this point are both pro choice candidates. That being said, all of those involved in the political process with faith issues must look at the entirety of the candidates, not just a single issue.

Now an additional note; I am going to make comments that may offend some that is not my intent. I think it important to realize that on my thoughts, I could easily be wrong. My views are a little unique because I am trained in the area of psychology and counseling. One of the things I am knowledgeable of is the ability to read a persons body language, their tones, and actions. I have a pretty good perception, as a result of experience and training as to when a person is being honest or not. I will try to not make statements like, “this person was not honest in their answers and presentation.” Instead I will make comment like, “This person seemed to not be comfortable when answering the question or describing their feelings.”

I will actually be making comment on two programs, and two different sets of candidates, the first program featuring the top three candidates and then the final featuring the remaining candidates. I will comment on how I think the person did, and if the discussion on faith and politics helped or hurt the person.

The initial program featured each candidate for a 15 minute segment. The moderator did an excellent job of asking hard questions, and holding the candidates to their time limit. There was a panel of individuals who would ask questions and a question submitted on line via the internet. The candidate could respond to the question for as long as they wanted, up to their 15 minute time limit. If they answered only one question in that time, that was the only question they were asked.

The first candidate up was John Edwards, the former Senator and Vice Presidential Candidate from South Carolina. I’ll be honest, while providing answers that may displease many fundamental Christians such as his views on Evolution and Creation; I think he did a pretty good job. One of the things I actually liked and appreciated about John Edwards was he answered the questions naturally and focused on the Christian mandate to help the poor. He also referred to the fact that all people are sinners and in need of Christ forgiveness. I believe, among all of the candidates; John Edwards lifted himself up to garnish more respect from me than any other candidate during the debate with the possible exception of one other I will mention later on. He openly spoke about falling away from The Lord, and coming back to Christ later in life. He also spoke openly and I felt quite appropriately about the importance of prayer in his life and the reality that Christ has been able to help him and his family through many tough situations. I have to say at this point before going to the next candidate that in my opinion, he seemed to be the most sincere person on the initial panel. His answers did not seem to be rehearsed or scripted in any way. He stayed on point and did a great job of answering questions. Of all of the candidates presenting on the initial forum, John Edwards likely did the best of any to help his position with many persons of faith voting in the next election. Edwards was the only candidate who was quite open about his opposition to Gays being allowed to get married. He offered up an answer that seemed to be caring, yet at the same time recognizing the traditional perspective of marriage. He did seem to support the concept of civil unions, but also alluded that this should be a church, and state issue.

On a closing note about John Edwards, I must also comment on his ability to relate to the audience. There is little doubt that he received the most applause, and the most laughter of any of the major three candidates. While being able to relate to a group of people is not the most important part of a candidate, he had the ability to make me laugh along with him, while at the same time feeling passionate about the things such as the rebuilding of New Orleans that he was passionate about.

The next candidate on the forum was Barack Obama, the Senator from Illinois. In the past I have seen, and even posted with The Virtual Pew a wonderful scripted presentation on faith and politics given by Obama. I was impressed with that particular presentation and the attitude of Obama. Like most of the Democratic candidates there were issues that would displease some Fundamental Christians. For Obama it seemed to be the issue of Gay Marriage and abortion. Virtually all of the candidates stated we should find ways to greatly reduce the number of abortions. Obama was strong on other points, he was outspoken about the reality of evil, and his support for Israel. Both points that will set well with some conservative and fundamental voters.
Obama spent most of his time answering a single question from Jim Wallis. I have to be honest, I was disappointed. He seemed to ramble and never really addressed the issues until later in his presentation. He did not seem as comfortable with an unrehearsed presentation as he has in the past with a rehearsed presentation. While there were some good ideas related to ways he would help the poor, there didn’t seem to be the passion as exhibited by John Edwards. I was also disappointed that Obama didn’t speak more about his faith and the importance of it. I realize a huge part was due to his addressing of a single question. In the past I have been a part of organizations where many meetings take place with long discussions. There are often long discussions where little ever actually gets done. Obama was doing a lot of talking, but with such a style as to ramble on.

If looking at just this presentation, Obama likely hurt himself with many voters looking at faith related issues. He did work at building bridges between Republicans and Democrats, but he unfortunately seemed to come off more as a politician than someone passionate about the issues. As mentioned earlier, he has done a much better job of this in the past, but this was not his best presentation.

The next candidate was Hilary Clinton. I have to give the moderator props here, right off the bat she hit Hilary up with a tough question regarding the incorporation of faith, and her living in a family where infidelity had been an issue. Hilary did a good job of answering the question and I was impressed. Hillary also gave the best, if not most passionate answer regarding the need to greatly reduce the number of abortions. If listening to just her words, or reading just the transcript of this presentation, I would have had a great deal of respect for what she had to say. That said, watching her was another thing all together; it was obvious that Senator Clinton had rehearsed a great deal of what she was going to say. It didn’t seem to me that there was much passion in the things she was presenting. I do believe she helped her position among many swing voters.

The following program, looking at the additional candidates and faith featured, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, and Dennis Kucinich. An interesting note about the four candidates on the Paula Zahn show is they were all Roman Catholic. While I had liked some of the things I had seen on Bill Richardson, I had been put off by some of the things I had read and heard from Dennis Kucinich. A lot of what I thought would change after watching this exchange. I will focus a little more on this as these candidates were not given the time of those on the first hour.

Paula Zahn brought up with each candidate how their views differed a great deal, and was in fact in opposition with the Catholic Church. Not a single one of these candidates supported their church or their churches position on issues such as gay marriage, and abortion.

The first candidate up was Senator Joe Biden. I have to give him credit; he started out in an open and honest way talking about how he turned his back on God after his first wife and daughter were tragically killed in an accident. While some may have expected a little dishonesty on his part, he was brutally honest. I admire that in a person, a point of honesty in such an emotional and important debate on faith.

Senator Biden also spoke about how he prays the Rosary each day. There was no sense of a personal prayer outside of the Rosary. He also spoke about the concept of forgiveness. He was asked if he was able to forgive the terrorists who flew the planes into the towers on 9/11/01, he stated that while able and easier to forgive others for what they had done to him, he was unable to forgive the terrorists for what they had done.

Senator Biden also made an eloquent argument that as a nation, and as a party, the Democrats have just as much faith, and worship the same God as do many Republicans. On this point Senator Biden did a great job. Unfortunately, I don’t think Senator Biden came off well in the conversation with Paula Zahn, in many ways he didn’t have much emotion, wasn’t personable and while presenting some good objectives, didn’t seem to have passion about those perspectives. I personally believe many of faith will look at this and be turned away from Senator Biden.

The next person up in discussion was New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. Richardson also a Roman Catholic spoke early on about how his grandmother influenced him when she had him, as a young boy say his prayers each night in Spanish. When asked if he still prayed each day, he dodged the question by stating he still prays and that his Roman Catholic upbringing helped to form his sense of social conscious in the world.

Governor Richardson spoke quite a bit about the “social consciousness” of the church and how that should drive individuals’ actions. He spoke about how Government could also be a strong factor in the establishment of social consciousness. There were several policies he presented here, and it was as if his focus was on the policy with little support of his faith being a catalyst for those views.

When specifically asked about homosexuality and abortion he was in opposition to the views of the Roman Catholic Church. One of the things that surprised me was his strong support for Civil Unions and strong opposition to gay marriage. I couldn’t help but think this seemed to be a political position as his support of the gay community didn’t seem to support his opposition to gay marriage.

When asked about Heaven, Governor Richardson spoke about how he didn’t think of it often because his plate was so full with other things. He changed the conversation very quickly, speaking about how he prayed, how he believed in God, and told a story about how a crucifix given him by his Grandmother when he was young would protect and help him in baseball games as a youngster. It was not clear if Governor Richardson has a relationship with God. It was hard to tell if he took his faith seriously. I may be wrong but I believe it would have been better to be honest about this as many will be confused.

In the initial outset I liked Governor Richardson, he was one of the candidates I was even willing to consider supporting, but after this particular discussion, I believe that for myself, and many people of faith that take faith issues seriously, they will loose some respect for Governor Richardson. Of all of the candidates, this discussion may have hurt him more than any other.

The next Democratic Presidential candidate to discuss their faith was Senator Chris Dodd. He started off the conversation brilliantly when discussing how talking about ones faith, if not natural could end up hurting themselves. I was impressed with Senator Dodd’s ability to speak freely and comfortably about his faith and belief in the Roman Catholic Church. He also spoke of how his wife was Mormon. He spoke about how his children would eventually have to make decisions of their own and the importance of it being their decision. I also liked the thought that a person’s faith is what drives their decisions and belief system. Senator Dodd on this point illustrated how his involvement with the Peace Corps in the 1960’s was driven by faith. There was comment about the social consciousness driven by the Catholic Church, and that a part of his faith was to address the social consciousness as opposed to the individual confrontation in certain areas. He seemed to recognize the need to do this in certain areas as he addressed needed policy to look at areas such as violence in television, movies, and video games.

When asked about his position on homosexuality Senator Dodd discussed his views of how he felt homosexuality was not a sin and how he supported gay unions. Senator Dodd stated that he viewed his position as somewhat different as the church and that his view of spirituality was driven by how you treat people. One could argue that he took a more humanistic approach to the concept of “sin” and issues such as homosexuality, abortion and other areas where he had differing views than the Church.

I will comment some on the Senators position on abortion. He was clear that with the law being what it is, that he thought it important to find ways to greatly reduce abortions. He spoke quite effectively here on the need to find ways of treatment, assistance and other programs that would reduce the number of abortions. While he recognized this was a differing view, the support of abortion, from his church, he discussed the need to address the issue within the laws that currently existed.

I came into this not knowing a lot about Senator Dodd. I must state while I disagree with some of the positions, (as I do all the candidates) I was impressed with his eloquence, and his ability to articulate his views. He impressed me as someone who may be a good leader and possible to bring people together. I don’t know how the faith community will view him though. I think some of the areas will bother some, yet the ability to lead and articulate his views will bring others in. Senator Dodd is the only candidate that if I had to say how he did I would say it is a toss up.

Lastly in the discussion on faith was with Democratic Presidential Candidate Senator Dennis Kucinich. Of all of the candidates, I likely had one of the lowest initial opinions of Senator Kucinich. In some ways, his comments quickly changed my position. Senator Kucinich has been seen as the peace candidate and the war opposition candidate. That is where the discussion started.

As one with Anabaptist leanings I was somewhat impressed with Senator Kucinich’s view on the importance of love as opposed to an attitude of hate. He spoke about the need to incorporate peaceful policies and objectives in government as opposed to oppositional perspectives that cause conflict. One of the things Senator Kucinich looked at when addressing this was more of a universal world view as opposed to a specific individualistic national view. On this topic, he will gain support from some within the faith community, while loosing support from others. I suspect the majority of those taking issue with a position like this will be people who never supported him to begin with.

A reoccurring theme that continually came up and again supported by Senator Kucinich was the issue of “not whether God is on our side, but are we on God’s side.” This is a somewhat interesting concept that causes one to think. It is one that could potentially cause some people of faith to rethink their positions on several issues and candidates. I can’t help but think this is a strategy used by the Democratic Party which is one of the reasons it came up so often during the two programs, at least 4 times at my counting. In this discussion Senator Kucinich spoke about how truth, peace, love, social, and economic justice are also issues of faith that should be addressed. Senator Kucinich alluded to the point that as people of faith, if these are issues of faith, then people of faith have some responsibility to live up to God’s expectations. An interesting point was the point that nations also had responsibility to live up to God’s standards.

One of the things Senator Kucinich promoted was the need to develop a Department of Peace and Non Violence using the teachers of great religious leaders like Jesus Christ, Gandhi, and others to develop a system and program that looked at ways of promoting peace in all types of situation, from world politics, domestic issues, racial violence, violence in the schools, violence against gays, and even family violence among others. He was specific to point out how a nation founded on Christian principles should follow these Christian principles and how we needed to see them as a way to practice our faith. In some ways, the incorporation of Christian principles, for a specific cause, hasn’t been spoken about more by any other candidate than this Senator Kucinich. If thought about, this could be one of the most controversial positions taken by any candidate. I have to admit, on these issues, on the Department of Peace and Non Violence, Senator Kucinich promoted that addressing the conflicts and needs within our own country, we could begin to see a “healing hand” bring the American people together.

Senator Kucinich also spoke about the sacrifices of those who have died in Iraq and other wars. He spoke of how their sacrifices, under all circumstances need to be seen as being pure and for love of country. He also stated that the President of the United States has an obligation to see to it that those making those sacrifices should never have their lives put on the line for anything other than the defense of our country. On this point Senator Kucinich alluded that our country was involved in a war we got into under false pretenses. He quoted scripture here, rather freely when stating, “That which is crooked can not be made straight.” He was open and blunt about the need to get out of Iraq immediately and that we were there for the wrong reasons.

When asked about the role of faith and the emphasis being placed on it Senator Kucinich was clear that he felt faith was a deserving issue of discussion. He emphasized that people not only look at what a particular candidate may say regarding faith, but how they live their faith. He was essentially saying that politicians have an obligation to let their faith drive and influence their actions. He also commented that there can never be enough emphasis placed on faith and that the founders of America intended there to be an open discourse and discussion on issues of faith and spirituality. While he recognized that there should be separation of Church and State, he also emphasized that the separation of Church and State was never intended to separate us from spiritual values.

Senator Kucinich also addressed his differences with the Roman Catholic Church. Specifically in the area of abortion he stated we as a country need to do everything necessary to prevent and reduce the number of abortions. One of the ways to do this was to provide programs such as prenatal care and more help for the mother, as well as the need to increase and promote the concept of adoption. He stated that with the incorporation of these and other programs we could develop a system where the number of abortions would be greatly reduced and he felt that on this issue many could come to a point of being united.

He was brief, due to time, on the issue of homosexuality but pointed to the Constitution and the fact that all people should be treated equal according to the law. On this point Senator Kucinich pointed out that whether gay or straight, all people are children of God and should be treated accordingly.

I have to say, I was impressed with the tone, and convictions of Senator Kucinich. He freely included Scripture in a natural way in his discussion with Paula Zahn, and freely spoke about faith and the importance of people of faith impacting society. Many looking at this who are strong fundamentalists or conservatives will not consider voting for Senator Kucinich no matter what because of what are perceived as liberal ideas. For those who are centrists though or are looking at other points of faith, they will be attracted to what Senator Kucinich promotes. He was the clear winner of those interviewed on the Paula Zahn show. I wish he had been on the first program with the top 3 candidates as he would have influenced many more persons who are looking at faith issues.

While it seems like much of the media was focused more on Senators Clinton and Obama, I couldn’t help but admire the presentations of Senator Edwards and Senator Kucinich as I felt they were the clear winners of the discussion in regards to influencing people of faith. I was also impressed and think a great reminder for all of us was the words of Jim Wallis as he quoted Jesus towards the end of the first discussion. This was stated in the context of the reality that many focus on a single issue, (as have I in the past) such as abortion, gay marriage, prayer in school and so forth. We were reminded that being a Christian is about much more than a single issue. This is exemplified in the first words of Jesus as he begin his ministry as is outlined in Luke 4: 18, 19

Luke 4: (18) "The Lord's Spirit has come to me, because he has chosen me to tell the good news to the poor.
The Lord has sent me to announce freedom for prisoners, to give sight to the blind, to free everyone who suffers, (19) and to say, `This is the year the Lord has chosen.' "

Yes from the words and mission of Jesus, as spoken about himself, there are many more issues than just a few that we commonly hear about. May God grant us the ability to make wise decisions and seek after his will and his direction.

It is my understanding that a similar format will occur with the Republican candidates. If able to catch it and find out when it is on, I will comment on their presentations as well.

In closing, I hope this has been of some value. I have to say, for me, the clear winners were Senator John Edwards and Senator Dennis Kucinich. Both had views and positions I liked, but I was more so impressed with the natural flow of their conversation and the obvious perspective that the issues being discussed were critically important to them. I could trust them on what they said, whether I liked it or not. For all people who are concerned about spiritual issues, this debate should have been a must watch. Thankfully as long as the topic of spirituality and faith are on the talking points, we will all be better informed to make the decision we need to make in America.
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