Did we really need a Compassion Forum?

The press is already dutifully lining up to report on last night’s “Compassion Forum” in Pennsylvania, where Senators Clinton and Obama allowed themselves to be thrust into a “Dog and Pony Show for Jesus” contest to see who could “out-God” each other. At the end of this column I’ll get to some more specific observations from the event, as promised in my short summary last night, but first I would like to address a broader question. Was this really necessary – or even desirable – in an American election?

While a few important topics in the political arena – such as poverty – were raised last night, let us make no mistake. This was not a forum on compassion. This was a forum on religion, plain and simple. This issue I place before you today is whether or not this is a valid criteria for selecting our leaders and one which the media should be enabling.

While we seem to be constantly discouraged from discussing this inconvenient fact, there is no religious test when qualifying a person to run for President of the United States. This is abundantly clear, far beyond a brief nod in the First Amendment, in both the letter and spirit of the laws of our land. The common response to this runs along these lines: “Wait a minute there, bucko… nobody is saying that you have to be a Christian to run for president. We’re just saying that it’s an important aspect of the candidate’s character which we want to consider when voting.”

True enough. The fact is that every American can use any yardstick to measure candidates when determining who they will support. Unfortunately, this includes the full spectrum of possible “criteria” depending on who you ask. You might say that you will only vote for a black candidate and, if more than one are offered, you would like an on-stage melanin count to make sure you’re voting for the blackest one offered. Are you within your rights to do this? Of course! Would most of us want to base our political choices based on your guidance? Maybe not so much. And should such a “forum” be proposed, the media would fall all over themselves to decry it and never even consider airing the event.

The point is that the media are ready and willing enablers of a process which systematically eliminates any and all possible candidates who don’t pass “the god test” with a high enough score. This is the one area which really should not be a “test” to be president and, in fact, could readily be described as as unfair religious bigotry to which the press and the public are willing to give a wink, a nod and a smile and just let it pass. Mitt Romney seems to have learned the hard way that Main Street America is not about to vote for a Mormon. Should a candidate raise their head who was otherwise qualified in all areas, but was an agnostic, atheist, Muslim or Hindu, it seems that they would quickly be hounded from the stage, and our media would be leading the whip-wielding pack.

Enough of my pet peeve for today. I sat through this entire show and came away with some observations which were probably not very surprising. First of all, the listed moderator, Jon Meacham of Newsweek, was nearly invisible. The woman who shared the stage with him (my apologies… checking several sources this morning I simply cannot find her name) pretty much ran then entire affair. And the amount of bias on display was dismaying. I had at first wondered about John McCain’s decision not to attend this event, but seeing the treatment that Barack Obama received on that stage, I could hardly blame him. With the blatantly-tilted field of battle that Obama faced, it’s hard to imagine the welcome McCain would have gotten.

The opening questions truly set the tone for the evening. Senator Clinton took the stage initially and the first question was nothing to do with her, her faith or her relationship with the Almighty. No, it was an invitation to slam the Senator from Illinois. Loosely-translated, she asked, “Tell us, Hillary… why is it, do you think, that Senator Obama is such an elitist, gun-hating, heretical snob?” Obama’s first question, at least, was along the same lines. “So, Barack, what is it that made you such an elitist, gun hating, heretical snob?”

To be fair to the event’s creators, there were a couple of semi-tough questions, such as the ones on abortion and when life begins which were asked to each candidate. However, the rest seem to have been custom-tailored for each of the participants. The questions for Hillary were a series of softballs to make any junior varsity team proud. “What were the moments in your life when God spoke to you most powerfully? What’s your favorite Bible story? And isn’t Jesus just wonderful?” (Oh, yes… yes, He most certainly is!)

The special questions for Barack Obama took on a somewhat different tone, to say the least. He was grilled on Jeremiah Wright, why pregnancy is a “punishment” for women and, near the end, one of my favorites. With a sneaky smile on her face, the moderator asked Obama “if God wants you to win this election.” It was played-off as a light-hearted bit of levity, but was clearly a trap laid to see if Barack would fall into the same hole that George W. Bush did and declare that his victory was part of God’s inevitable plan. Much to her great disappointment, I’m sure, Obama fended off these gotcha moments time after time, protesting that he wasn’t wise enough to know what God’s plans were and casting doubt on others who might claim that they did have the Almighty’s ear.

At such political events we often hear accusations that the organizers “plant” the audience in favor of one candidate or the other. If CNN attempted this last night, they failed miserably. Throughout Hillary’s session, the moderator seemed to pause after each answer, smile and look expectantly out to the audience for their approval. Unfortunately, the crowd was largely silent, with only a few brief smatterings of applause at the very end. Mostly they seemed polite, approving and essentially waiting for the next question. During Obama’s portion, however, she attempted to move on quickly after each response and then seemed annoyed when she had to wait for the frequent rounds of ovation for him to die down.

I don’t know how much we learned last night to help us evaluate the Democratic candidates, but I thought both of them were gracious and answered the questions put to them in a dignified fashion. From my vantage point we once again saw Senator Obama being fast on his feet and refusing to be hog-tied in a sneak attack. None of this, however, answers my original question: did we really need this display as part of the 2008 campaign?

  • Davebo

    Ironically, all I can say is AMEN!

  • runasim

    Is this kind of faith grilling necessary? I wish I could say ‘no’.

    I’m infuriated by the role questions of religion play in elections. Having Jesus in one’s heart doesn’t really say anything about how that would traanslate into specific policies. God sems to guide politicians to polarly oppsite practices. How did Pres. Bush get from being born again to his torture policies?

    I couldn’t care less what church a candidate attends. Just tell me what policies are proposed.

    On the other hand, religion is important to a lot of people. Even though I’m an atheist, I have to ackowledge that fact as part of the reality in the USA.

    This kind of forum is the worst possible way to bring religion into the political arena. . By oversimplifying and playing to the controversy quotient, the result is the distortion of both faith as such and of its role in leadership.
    It might be different if the questons and the moderation were put in the hads of someone with a philosophical, rather than a commercial, bent. Alas,, that’s not happening.

    However, once such a forum is offered, how can one refuse to participate? In the wake of the onctroversery over small town Americans, any Democratic candidate was compelled to take part.

    To see Democrats as opponents on the question rather than allies is very disturbing and ,also, dumb. While I’ve defended Hillary against overly zealous attacks, in this case, I think she misvalculated, badly.

  • PaulSilver

    For me the value of these kinds of discussions are to see how the candidates deal with the difficult issues they are competing to solve. What are their facts, perspectives, assumptions, and how do they deal with mistakes or misunderstandings. The more I can see them perform in public the more confident I am about how they are likely to perform in Private.
    I still would prefer the candidates have a number of straight up classic debates.

  • templestark

    Good question.

    I would say yes, if only because of the format. I think it helped to have two different discussions with questions from moderators and much more intelligent questions from the audience.

    I am NOT a person of faith and still I appreciate what makes others tick and informs them.

    I thought both candidates did better in different areas. I would have like the same questions asked of each candidate, and whomever came second not to be able to listen to the first.

    Still, except for a couple of the questions, there was strong intelligence on display. And I trust both of these candidates not t o have any desire to inject religion into the public policy arena.