Why the “Compassion Forum” Bothers Me

I don’t have cable television – and thus no CNN – and I did not see the "Compassion Forum" on Sunday night, the discussion about faith and compassion with Senators Clinton and Obama.  But I’ve read some of the news coverage, including a skim through the transcript

The whole concept just bothers me.  I’d gladly ask questions of faith when my synod elects a bishop or when my congregation votes to call a pastor.  But why ask questions about faith to the person who wants to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?  I just don’t see the point.

Kudos to John McCain – the Republican – for not showing up.  For once, we have the Democrats pandering to religious leaders while the Republican shies away from speaking of faith.

Clinton and Obama may each have strong faith.  They may also have passionate perspectives on the Designated Hitter.  They might also have opinions about whether Bob Dylan’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival was an unfortunate sellout or a siesmic shift in the history of rock and roll.  But these are not the kind of issues that will come across the President’s desk in the Oval Office.

Here’s one question posed to Senator Clinton:

BROWN: Let’s talk about your faith. And we warned people the questions
tonight would be pretty personal. So I want to ask you. You said in an
interview last year that you believe in the Father, Son and the Holy
Spirit. And you have actually felt the presence of the Holy Spirit on
many occasions.  Share some of those occasions with us.

Huh?  How is this relevant to the Presidency, to leading our military in war or our government in providing for the common good?

And here’s a question posed to Senator Obama:

MEACHAM: Senator, do you believe that God intervenes in history and
rewards or punishes people or nations in real time for their behavior?

Again . . . huh?  How is this relevant?  We’re electing a Commander in Chief, not a Pastor in Chief.  Give me a break.

To be fair, many of the questions were not explicitly about theology, faith or the Bible, but about social justice, freedom, and hunger, and other issues related to compassion around the world.  These (otherwise valid) questions could just as easily been asked in a normal presidential debate, but in the context of a discussion of faith (on the campus of a Christian college) these questions took on a greater hue of morality and faith. 

But again I ask the question – why?  Why do we need to ask faith questions of our political leaders?

Some will say that this kind of forum helps us understand who the person is, how she or he makes decisions, and what kind of leader they will be in the White House.  Perhaps this will help voters of faith relate to the candidates.  After all, voters in 2000 said that they found George W. Bush more likable than Gore.  Likability, relatability are important qualities these days in politics.  Whole lot of good that criterion did us.

When McCain, Clinton or Obama is sworn in next January as President of the United States, they will pledge to uphold not religious truth or faithful doctrine, but the Constitution and laws of this land.  Please, let us quiz our candidates on matters of law and governance, politics and policy, not faith and theology.

Perhaps in a few days I’ll respond to the "substance" of the forum, to the candidate’s answers and what their answers reveal about their personal faith and their politics.  And too, perhaps, I’ll look at what impact having such a conversation has on political discourse and the separation of church and state. 

But . . . what if we had an atheist candidate?  If religious conversation is now a pre-requisite for becoming president we’ve set up an unconstitutional, uneasy, unnecessary, and unhelpful expectations for candidates to speak in terms of faith while they’re running for the presidency.  That is, the Compassion Forum represents a kind of religious litmus test.  This can’t be good for democracy and the first amendment.

And I also fear that this forum is bad for religion – for the political pandering it inevitably seeks, the religious lip service it inevitably generates, and the narrow presentation of faith that such a forum inevitably offers.  Is this good for anyone?

I pray and I vote, and I’m passionate about both.  But when I vote, I don’t care if my president prays.  That is not why I elect a president.  Rather, when I vote I care that she or he can do a good job carrying out the tasks of the presidency.  And nowhere do I see faith or religion in the president’s job description. 

Forums such as the "Compassion Forum" risk blurring the lines between religion and politics, and hurting both in the process.  And that bothers me.

Published by Lutheran Zephyr

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

4 thoughts on “Why the “Compassion Forum” Bothers Me

  1. While I feel some of the same discomfort that you feel about these questions, I do think that a person’s faith does affect their feeling, views, and actions, especially how they treat people. So how do we get at those issues?
    A person could parrot the theology of the church, believing it either unthinkingly or actually having gone through some faith crisis which caused them to ponder it more deeply, but that person could still not apply it to deeper actions and reactions in society. This is relevant, but how do we get at this through questions?
    The current president professes a great faith. Perhaps that is behind his positive leadership in getting money to help fight malaria and AIDS in Africa. He was modest when asked directly about this. But then, we have the war and all that entails.
    Sound bite questions and answers will never really address the faith issues that are important. But if possible, I would want to know about a person’s faith-in-action beliefs when I vote.

  2. Chris,
    I had the opportunity to be at Messiah College for the Compassion Forum so I read your post with great interest. I think the major reason for the event was to force the major candidates and the national media to face questions dealing with a broader moral agenda than we usually see in the presidential election process.
    It is true that the CNN questions tended toward the inane and irrelevant. But the faith leaders who asked questions leaned toward hard policy questions on global climate change, domestic poverty, the global AIDS pandemic, etc. The sponsors of the event, Faith in Public Life, the ONE campaign, Oxfam, and Messiah College wanted to press the moral questions. (As an aside I think one reason McCain did not come is that he did not want to face these “liberal” questions. He knew that he would not fare as well as the Democrats on these questions in front of attentive religious audiences.)
    So I actually think the forum was a good thing. It really wasn’t a pandering event. What it was was a remarkable coalition of interfaith groups from right to left, putting policy questions to the candidates that otherwise get short shrift in an era when the candidates are bowling and scarfing down a bump and beer for the cameras.

  3. I agree also. Actually, one of the reasons I support Hillary is because of her being shaped by the Methodist tradition, which I trust. (It didn’t “take” on George W., unfortunately.)
    But I don’t like to see candidates being put through the ringer on theological issues. In a liberal democracy, that’s kind of creepy.
    On this, I like Luther’s practicality. “I’d rather be governed by a smart Turk than a dumb Christian.”

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