Faith in Public LIVE returns to dissect June 4′s Sojourners candidate faith forum. Eric Sapp of Common Good Strategies, Rabbi Andy Bachman, a private blogger and Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim, and Jamison Foser of Media Matters, will trade posts on what the event means for religion and politics in America, and how it gets covered in the mainstream media
Part 7: Eric Sapp: Does Faith Need Public Life?
First, a number of comments raised the issue of whether the questions asked at the Faith Forum and fact that it focused on faith might be unconstitutional and threaten to violate the establishment clause or the requirement that we have no religious test for office. I just want to make sure we keep in mind that the Constitution governs the laws of the land and legal requirements for office and in no way forbids certain topics or questions from entering the political discourse (in fact, the whole freedom of speech part ensures that they can). We can’t have a law requiring every elected official to be a member of a certain denomination, but there is nothing at all in the Constitution that forbids or discourages a candidate from talking about his/her faith, voters from voting for someone solely because of their faith, or reporters from asking about a candidate’s faith. For better or for worse, our Founders trusted voters to make up their own minds for their own reasons and just wanted to make sure anyone could legally run and that voters were not forbidden access to information they would need to make a decision.
Some people may think a candidate’s faith should not affect a voter’s decision, and they have every right to make that argument. But I think the conversation will be more fruitful if we avoid over-stating the case by arguing that statements of faith by candidates threaten to violate the Constitution.
I really enjoyed reading Andy’s post and the question he raised about what all this stuff means for religion (completely outside any political consideration). I agree with many of his concerns about the state of religion in America today…or at least “in America yesterdayâ€–I sense we are at the beginning of a deep and real change in this country as people of faith are waking up from a self-serving slumber and beginning to look outward again. I’d argue that Andy’s concerns about the state of religion in this country are precisely why people of faith should engage vocally in the public square.
Of course, in saying so I betray my Calvinist/ Niebuhrian world view that government does not necessarily corrupt and debase anything it touches. There are clearly others who argue that the mere fact that a candidate speaks about faith automatically makes what is said insincere and diminishes faith. But I believe that the faith community only remains relevant and responsive to God’s call by engaging the world and worldly systems that govern it. Personal or even communal piety is not enough. If faith is leading people toward a life of service to God and an understanding that such service cannot be separated from a deep and abiding love of neighbor, at some point those people will have to wrestle with systemic injustices that require engagement in the public square. And when they do, and they should feel comfortable saying that they do so because of their faith.
Part 6: Jamison Foser: Stop reinforcing the media’s flawed assumptions
Eric and Rabbi Bachman have both offered thoughtful comments about what the public learns from discussions of the candidates’ faith, among other matters. I’m going to continue to focus on the media element of this conversation, in part because that is what I do, and in part because I don’t presume to have the insight on those questions that my co-discussants bring to the table.
“Blaming the mediaâ€ may not, in and of itself, solve the problem. But calling the media — loudly, frequently, and forcefully — on their flawed treatment of, to plug our hosts, faith in public life, is an essential step in reaching a solution. Another essential step is to stop reinforcing the media’s flawed assumptions and coverage. Every time someone says “progressives need to talk about our faith,â€ they reinforce the notion that progressives don’t talk about their faith. That’s a pretty good way to ensure that the media continues to portray progressives and people of faith as mutually-exclusive groups. It’s a pretty good way to ensure that journalists keep suggesting that progressives’ faith is not authentic.
In other words, if progressive leaders think it is important for the public to know about their faith, they should continue to tell the public about their faith. If they think they may not be communicating their faith effectively, they should seek ways to do it more effectively. But they should stop stipulating to the false idea that progressives have not previously talked about their faith. That may make us feel a little better, but it reinforces the misguided notion many in the media (and, as a result, the public) have of progressives as irreligious. (The same is true of countless other topics, by the way. The media regularly portrays progressives as weak on security; progressives react by endlessly declaring their need to show the country they are strong on security issues. That doesn’t combat false frames, it reinforces them.)
I hope religious progressives who recognize the flaws in media coverage of them and their beliefs don’t make the mistake of thinking that if only they communicate a little more clearly, the media coverage will improve. The notion that “sure, the media’s coverage is deeply flawed, but if we just work harder, they’ll start treating us rightâ€ is common among progressives, but it isn’t correct. That’s the same attitude that led Democrats to think that the media’s relentless harassment of the Clintons in the 1990s was unique to them, and once there was a new standard-bearer, it would all be different. Then they thought the same thing about Al Gore. Then they recognized that the media (dishonestly) hyped Howard Dean’s scream, but only because he was so flawed. Then John Kerry. Many progressives still believe it was his fault, and that of his staff, that he was portrayed as a flip-flopping Frenchman who lied about his war record. And so we come to another election season, and the media pays more attention to John Edwards hair cut and Hillary Clinton’s marriage than their plans to combat poverty and improve health care. Shouldn’t we understand by now the sheer improbability that the reason why nearly every prominent progressive is covered this way is because they are all so fundamentally flawed, while nearly every prominent conservative is a tough, straight-talking Reaganesque giant of a man? That maybe the biggest problem isn’t that progressive leaders and staff aren’t good enough (though, as with everyone, they could be better) but that the media isn’t good enough?
Progressives who want to change the media’s coverage of them should understand that simply working harder and smarter and choosing better leaders is insufficient. Progressives must also call the media on their errors and false assumptions. And they must stop reinforcing those assumptions in the name of combating them. That isn’t about making anybody “feel a little better.â€ Instead, it is essential to the change progressives are trying to bring about.
Finally: In the reader comments below, Mike M writes “The biggest thing missing from CNN’s discussion of faith was the voice of an atheist, or even the voice of a religious believer in something other than the Judeo-Christian tradition.â€
Mike is, of course, right. Our discussion — hosted as it is by an organization named Faith in Public Life — has naturally focused on faith. But one need only remember the round-table discussion about atheism that CNN’s Paula Zahn hosted earlier this year (a discussion that included not a single atheist) to recognize that those Americans who are not religious have been even more marginalized than religious progressives.
Part 5: Rabbi Andy Bachman: Stop Talking, Start Walking
I agree with all the points made here in this exchange and want to offer one more observation.
While it’s true that a Progressive Religious Voice is critical to the political debate given the hegemony of the Religious Right for the past decade at least, it’s equally true that we acknowledge this as a deep shift in American politics over the past generation and allow ourselves to ask the questions for why this has occurred.
I would argue that the general debasement of American politics began with a variety of disillusionments that began even earlier than Vietnam, a timeframe often referred to in journalists’ analyses. The Conservative movement, as we have seen from history, has its own roots of disillusionment in its own response to the Cold War and fear of Communism; post-WW II prosperity; the opening up of society to “other”
voices, and the Civil Rights movement.
The Progressive movement’s disillusionment comes from similar places, though liberals have arguably benefited more from a more open society.
What is interesting to note is the degree to which American society has grown more fractured, more individualized, more narcissistic, causing both Left and Right to retrench themselves in more “traditional” modes of engagement–faith and micro-communities.
The Mega Church movement, for instance, can be seen as both a step forward and a step back. It is essentially and alternative society set up in the midst of a broader society which is constructive in its engagement with itself but destructive toward the broader mandates of civic obligation.
In the Jewish community, I find a similar manifestation in the challenges of increasing interest in Jewish spirituality. It calms the nerves and centers the individual; but it also runs the risk of being narcissistic and escapist from the more classic, American Jewish social action oriented identity so familiar to us for the past few generations.
In my most cynical moments, I fear that religion in our day is often used to put people to sleep while greater powers ally themselves for machinations that are beyond our control.
How is it, for example, that as more and more people discover “spirituality,” an unjust war rages on; our civic leaders are generally not held accountable; genocide continues in Darfur; and increasing numbers of Americans (not to mention the rest of the world) are living below the poverty line?
Yoga mats, meditation retreats, spirituality: maybe we’re advocating too much serenity. Maybe we relgious leaders are part of the problem.
We argue that there is transcendental experience to be had beyond the iPod and the cell phone–but are we pushing yet another form of escape?
Our only hope, arguably, is by arguing in favor of an active civic engagement. I’m not sure it has to be made on religious grounds.
In the final analysis, it’s not about what we say or “believe” but about what we do.
Perhaps that is the most radical religious statement one can make today.
Part 4: Eric Sapp on Why Dems Must Express Their Faith… and Get Heard, Despite the Media
There is no question that the mainstream media is pretty darned guilty of the pot calling the kettle black when they pontificate on how Democrats don’t understand the faith community. It can be painful to listen to some reporters try to explain what an “evangelicalâ€ is or what various groups in the faith community think and hold as their true priorities. And it can be frustrating to watch as a reporter stands in judgment of the depth and sincerity another person’s faith…especially when some of those reporters do not claim to be people of faith themselves. The media should be better, and I applaud folks like Jamison and others who work to make them so and have the connections and influence to try to move things from the inside.
But for those of us on the more political end of things, for Democrats in general, and people of faith who are disappointed with the one-sided media coverage, blaming the media may make us feel a little better, but it won’t solve the problem. The media is the way it is because it has bought into the very well-coordinated and heavily tested rhetoric of the religious right and Republican spin machine which (up until recently) the progressive community and Democrats have largely allowed to exist in a vacuum. If we are going to change the discourse, we need to make our voices heard and build up credibility on these issues.
Our doing so may raise concerns like the ones Andy expressed in the second half of his post. I completely understand how people can argue that it is not important to them to know what a candidate “believes.â€ As Andy also pointed out in his post, however, the political and religious discourse does not exist in a vacuum. If we are silent about our faith, the definition of faith will be created by those on the Right who are willing to speak out. And for that reason alone, we cannot be silent.
But I would argue that we should be willing to talk about our faith for more reasons than simply to balance the right and help educate the media. Although some people may only want to know a candidate’s policy positions, many voters want to feel they understand how the candidate reaches decisions and feel like they can trust the candidate to do what is right. In our form of government, we are electing representatives to make decisions about situations in the future or to vote on bills that are never as simple as “reduce povertyâ€ or “support public educationâ€. No one knows what your elected representatives will actually be called to make a decision on, and so feeling you can trust them to make the right decision or decisions like you yourself would make is a pretty effective way of choosing the person who will represent your interests in government.
For many voters, more than understanding “whatâ€ a candidate stands for, they want to know the “why.â€ Why does a candidate believe in policy such and such and why do they claim to take a certain position on a given issue? If a candidate’s moral compass that guides their decisions is rooted in their faith, that is important to share. I would argue that when Democrats do so from a place of religious humility, ours will be both a much more effective faith witness and also will be done in a way that does not in any way infringe upon the establishment clause of the Constitution.
I look forward to your thoughts,
Part 3: Jamison Foser on Media Coverage Missing Out
Hi Eric and Rabbi Andy,
Thanks for having me, and for your thoughts to kick things off.
If Monday night’s forum “represented a significant shift in the faith discourse of our nation,â€ as Eric writes, someone should tell CNN. Based on their coverage of the forum they televised, CNN doesn’t seem to have changed at all. The network’s reporters apparently still think of Democrats as irreligious, and still think of “moral issuesâ€ as limited to abortion and homosexuality.
In their coverage of the forum, CNN anchors and correspondents repeatedly suggested that it was unusual to see Democratic candidates engage in expressions of faith. This is one of the basic myths about faith and politics that the media repeats over and over: Democrats are supposedly irreligious. But there’s nothing new about Democratic candidates who are people of faith; in reality, you’d be hard-pressed to find a high-profile progressive politician — now or in the past — who hasn’t spoken publicly of his or her faith.
Indeed, Sen. Barack Obama’s response to Soledad O’Brien’s question during the forum about whether God is “on the side of U.S. troopsâ€ in the “war on terrorâ€ offered a coincidental reminder of this fact. Obama began his response by quoting Abraham Lincoln: “I always remember Abraham Lincoln, when, during the Civil War, he said, ‘We shouldn’t be asking whose side God is on, but whether we’re on his side.’â€
Obama was referring to one of Lincoln’s most famous quotations, but there’s another reason it may have sounded familiar to viewers: Sen. John Kerry quoted it in his 2004 speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination.
During that speech, Kerry also declared “I don’t wear my religion on my sleeve, but faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day, from Sunday to Sunday.â€ And here’s how Kerry closed his speech: “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.â€
During that year’s presidential debates, Kerry spoke of “Godâ€ more often than President Bush: Kerry used the word “Godâ€ eight times, Bush did five times. In the third debate, Kerry gave a lengthy description of how his “faith affects everything that I doâ€ — his childhood service as an alter boy, an explanation that his faith is why he “fight[s] against poverty … [and] to clean up the environment … [and] for equality and justice.â€ He told viewers “Faith without works is deadâ€ and “God’s work must truly be our own.â€
John Kerry used the opportunity of the largest audiences he would have during his entire campaign — his convention speech and the presidential debates — to speak of his faith. He used his highest-profile appearances to tell America of his childhood service as an altar boy; that is faith guides everything he does in public life; and that his faith drives his efforts to “fight povertyâ€ and “clean up the environment.â€
Could Kerry have spoken more effectively about his faith? Could other progressives? Perhaps; I leave that question to others. But it simply isn’t the case, as the media so frequently suggest, that Democrats don’t talk about their faith. (For more details of CNN’s repeated suggestions that Democrats don’t talk about religious beliefs and values, see this new item on Media Matters’ site.)
Even after she watched a series of Democrats discuss their faith, CNN’s Paula Zahn apparently couldn’t quite believe it: she repeatedly suggested that the Democrats’ faith might not be “authentic.â€ In one example, she asked the Rev. Jesse Jackson “do you think Democrats have been too timid about talking about their faith, Reverend Jackson, if it is, in fact, authentic faith?â€
We can’t have a reasonable and informative national discourse about faith and public policy in this country as long as the media continues to (falsely) portray Democrats as irreligious and openly question the authenticity of their faith.
Nor will we have that discourse until the media stops behaving as though “faithâ€ means “opposition to homosexuality and abortion.â€
Unfortunately, that assumption seemed to drive Zahn’s questioning of Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Richardson. Zahn interviewed the four Democratic presidential candidates about their faith as a follow-up to the forum, which involved only Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama.
Just minutes after listening to Jim Wallis criticize the fact that “We have had a very narrow, restricted conversation, as if there are only one or two religious issues,â€ Zahn treated viewers to … a very narrow, restricted conversation, as if there are only one or two religious issues.
Zahn asked Dodd, for example, if he feels pressure to wear his “faith on his sleeve,â€ if he believes that “homosexuals are sinners,â€ and four questions about abortion (I’m including “Do you take communion,â€ as it was asked in order to set up the abortion questions.)
And those were all of the questions Zahn asked Dodd — not a single question about Dodd’s beliefs about anything other than abortion and homosexuality.
She asked Richardson about abortion, too — even asked him “Do you ever worry that, when you meet your maker, you’re going to have to defend yourself?â€ for being pro-choice. Then she asked him if he thought homosexuality is a sin.
Zahn didn’t ask a single one of the four candidates a single question about poverty, or about Darfur, or the environment, or the death penalty, or any of countless other issues on which the candidates views may be informed by their faith. But again and again she asked about abortion and homosexuality.
Delia Gallagher, CNN’s “faith and values correspondent,â€ explicitly argued that the issues that matter to “value votersâ€ are abortion and gay marriage. “Those are the standard, traditional value-voter issues,â€ she told viewers. “That’s a bloc of voters that’s not going to be swayed, probably, by the Democrats coming out and talking about faith, because, at the end of the day, they’re going to say, well, where do they stand on the issues?â€
But while CNN may think that the only issues relevant to a discussion of faith are abortion and homosexualities, the American people disagree. In fact, as Media Matters noted in our recent report detailing the underrepresentation of progressive religious leaders in the media, “An exit poll taken by Zogby International in 2006 … showed that the ‘moral issue’ cited most by voters was the Iraq war, and that more than twice as many voters cited greed and materialism or poverty and economic justice as ‘the most urgent moral crisis in American culture’ as those who cited abortion or same-sex marriage.â€
I’ve focused primarily on CNN’s overall coverage of the forum, including Zahn’s interviews with the four other Democratic candidates, rather than the forum itself. Rabbi Bachman noted that the forum “was framed under the glare of news and entertainmentâ€ and included “questions that were as fitting for a gossip column as they were political-religious discourse.â€
There were some good questions, though (at least in the actual forum, if not in Zahn’s interviews) and some even better answers. Detailed, substantive answers about a range of topics.
But, sure enough, the Associated Press article about the forum focused on personalities rather than policies — Hillary Clinton’s reliance on her faith in God during her marital difficulties and John Edwards’ statement that he sins every day. The only mention of poverty in the Associated Press article? “Edwards, wearing a purple tie to match Sojourners’ signature color, promoted himself as the candidate most committed to the group’s mission of fighting poverty.â€ That’s it. No details, just a passing mention of the fact that Edwards talked about poverty — and wore a purple tie.
Is there any doubt that the biggest impediment to what Eric described as a “significant shift in the faith discourse of our nationâ€ is not the purported lack of faith on the part of progressives, but the media’s highly flawed coverage of the intersection of faith, public policy, and politics?
Part 2: Rabbi Andy Bachman’s conflicting impressions.
Dear Eric and Jamison,
In watching the 3 leading Democratic candidates debate their views on religion, I had two conflicting impressions.
One, it’s a good thing that, in response to the ascendancy of the Religious Right in American politics, the Progressive religious community is being heard now as well. Many of us religious leaders have been frustrated by the dominance of one religious voice in the public discourse and it’s refreshing to hear a greater diversity of expression in that regard.
However, as I listened to Edwards, Obama and Clinton articulate themselves quite clearly, I grew increasingly depressed. Because the truth of the matter is that I don’t care whether or not my president goes to church or synagogue on any given Saturday or Sunday. I want my president to execute their job with the best talent they can find, in the most efficient, caring, and ethical way in service to all citizens of the country–believers and non-believers alike.
It matters not to me what the President “believes.” I want a government that works, that cares for the disadvantaged, that defends us when we are under attack as a nation.
That the “debate” was framed under the glare of news and entertainment, with a beautiful cable newscaster smiling her way through questions that were as fitting for a gossip column as they were political-religious discourse. And that juxtaposition was the true source of my despair.
We seem to have lost our way as a nation and have certainly strained that once strong fence of separation between “church and state.”
We liberals have to talk about religion not because we want to but because we’re competing for votes in order to put our man or woman in office over their man or woman.
I understand it as a pragmatic strategic move.
But it strikes me as fundamentally insincere and a dangerous precedent for the future of our country.
Rabbi Andy Bachman
Part 1: Eric Sapp, Democratic Candidates Go A-Sojourning
Dear Rabbi Bachman and Jamison,
I’m looking forward to our discussion of last night’s important forum and what it tells us about religion and politics in America. Thanks for joining me, and thanks to FPL for having us.
It has been about 24 hours since over a thousand people gathered at George Washington University to hear the three leading Democratic presidential nominees talk about faith. My guess is that people reading this blog follow politics pretty closely, and so it won’t come as a complete surprise that we are using the words “Democratsâ€ and “faithâ€ in the same sentence–after all, Democrats have made major strides in their faith outreach since ’04. But it is worth thinking back to where the Party (along with the broader faith discourse in this country) was just a few years ago, and the change in both since 2004 is truly miraculous. As a Christian and a Democrat, last night was an answered prayer for me. And after giving myself a day to let my thoughts percolate, my two main take-aways for that evening are 1) it was a great night for the Democrats and 2) last night represented a significant shift in the faith discourse of our nation.
Some of you might question my second point. After all, there was hardly any discussion of poverty despite how this event was billed and the fact that it was sponsored by the “liberal evangelical group, Sojournersâ€ (as they have been referred to in basically every story I’ve read–you can always count on the mainstream media to wrap everything up in a nice little box). And there was no discussion of the environment or Darfur or AIDS in Africa. We definitely need MUCH more discussion of those issues, but for a first of it’s kind event, there was a risk that the Sojourners forum would become an “our Bible vs. your Bibleâ€ debate about whether Christians should support poverty or families, as if the two are mutually exclusive. In my view, that would not have furthered the national faith discourse and would not have helped the Democrats. Although many of us were hoping for more on the “compassion issues,â€ we got a good range of discussion from poverty to abortion and from high theology and policy to the deeply personal.
The result was that Democrats were able to address a wide range of issues that allowed them to speak to both religious conservatives and liberals. But more important than any of the issues in my opinion was that we saw the three leading Democratic candidates open their hearts and bare their souls about what they believed, why they believed, and how their beliefs influence their lives. For the first time, I felt that instead of hearing from the “candidates,â€ I was hearing from John, Barack, and Hillary. No doubt the religious right and Republican spin machine is going to start throwing bombs at this event, but this is exactly the sort of open, humble, an authentic discussion Democrats need to be having.
I look forward to your thoughts,