Kudos to Gwen Ifill for asking questions about Darfur and climate change at last night’s debate. Darfur in particular was a pleasant surprise. It’s very easy to let the genocide fade from the campaign as it falls out of the news and economic anxiety mounts, so putting it on the agenda for a nationally televised debate was an important and deliberate decision. Notice the streaming line graph at the bottom of the screen gauging approval ratings among undecided voters — they respond overwhelmingly to the call for action to stop the slaughter.
Next week, let’s have some questions about climate change as a moral issue. The policy questions are most important, but these debates are also a teachable moment for the American public about climate change’s catastrophic, disproportionate impact on the world’s most vulnerable people.
Over at his Boston Globe blog, Articles of Faith, Michael Paulson notes that Friday night’s presidential debate at Ole Miss, which centered on the economy and foreign policy, “was completely free of talk about religion — a marked shift in language choice from the words used by both candidates during their acceptance speeches at their party political conventions,” despite the fact that issues with strong religious underpinnings such as Iran, Israel and terrorism.
Paulson’s observations come at a time when people of faith are increasingly expressing that the economy and the way our country handles its business overseas fall under the category of moral or “values” issues.
While the candidates certainly don’t have to invoke the name or language of any faith to recognize an issue’s gravity, it will be interesting to see how these topics are framed going forward. Will they dialogue with voters (and each other) about the inherent moral and spiritual ramifications of our nation’s actions, or will rhetoric be devoid of these dimensions?
Reporting and commentary on Sarah Palin’s nomination suggests a great deal of uncertainty about what evangelicals and socially conservative voters will do on Nov. 4.
On the one hand, James Dobson and Tony Perkins say she is an extemely reassuring and exciting addition to the Republican ticket, and David Brody thinks tapping her was an effective, game-changing move:
For the most part, social conservatives and the Evangelical base are now about to come fully on board…Anytime you have motivated Evangelicals behind you it means your candidate is in a good spot. Watch for pro-family organizations and the McCain team to now start working together to get out the vote. This CAN NOT be emphasized enough.
But Eric Gorski’s first report from the Republican National Convention provides a counterpoint — evangelical voters there haven’t received the memo:
At Eagle Brook Church, Minnesota’s largest evangelical Christian congregation, there was zero talk of politics on the eve of the Republican National Convention. Church pastors politely declined an invitation to a GOP prayer breakfast this week…
Conservative Christian activists on hand for the GOP convention in nearby St. Paul are suddenly energized about McCain’s campaign, thanks to the addition of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to the ticket, McCain’s recent performance at megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s candidate forum and the party’s new, tougher platform on abortion and gay marriage.
The looming challenge for Republicans is building the same enthusiasm in “values voters” that fill evangelical churches each week.
Nor is there evangelical consensus at the national level. As reported by Suzanne Sataline in the Wall Street Journal, Rich Cizik’s take sounds more tuned in to the facts on the ground:
“I like some of the personal choices she’s made, such as carrying a Downs child to term,” Cizik said, referring the governor’s infant son who has Down Syndrome. “So will millions of evangelicals.” But he said he and other evangelicals need more information about Palin’s views on the environment and global affairs. “I don’t think evangelicals are going to vote for this team for superficial partisan reasons. I think lots of people are looking beyond labels this time around.”
Conservative evangelical biographer Stephen Mansfield, who wrote books on both Bush and Obama’s faith, takes it a step further:
What is certain is that there were better choices. In an election largely about judgment, McCain may have just made another mis-step.
So it looks like there’s nothing approaching consensus about Sarah Palin in socially conservative or centrist evangelical circles.
Rick Warren’s Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency powerfully demonstrated last night that religion is not the exclusive domain of any one political party or ideology and that the faith community has an important role to play in fostering civil political discourse in America.
During the primary, Faith in Public Life organized the Compassion Forum in Pennsylvania with Sens. Clinton and Obama (Sen. McCain was unable to attend), featuring questions from members of the Compassion Forum Board – a diverse coalition of faith leaders from across the ideological spectrum – to elevate compassion issues: poverty, HIV/AIDS, climate change, abortion reduction, genocide in Darfur, and torture.
Faith in Public Life asked Rick Warren to join our efforts with the Compassion Forum Board to elevate compassion issues in the election by hosting another Compassion Forum with the presumptive nominees of both parties leading into the general election. Based on our experience organizing the Compassion Forum, we were happy to consult and advise Saddleback in the initial stages of planning for the Saddleback Civil Forum, but this was Saddleback’s event. While we certainly would have framed a number of the questions differently and focused more on compassion issues Rick has championed, we applaud him for providing a civil forum for discussion that moved beyond the gotcha-questions and partisan sniping of traditional debates.
We look forward to working to continue building bridges to find common ground for the common good and to elevate issues of compassion as important faith and values issues in the 2008 election and beyond.
Mark Silk pointed me to today’s CBS poll showing that white evangelicals support John McCain over Barack Obama 58 to 24, with 15 percent undecided. As Mark points out, if those 15 percent break 50-50, Obama’s 31-32% share would be a major improvement on Kerry’s 21% share in 2004. A ten point gain among a bloc that makes up approximately a quarter of the electorate seems like a heck of a payoff.
A couple of caveats, of course: That 50-50 break is a big if — there’s a case to be made that the undecideds could break strongly in either direction — and it isn’t clear how white evangelicals are defined here, so we might have an apples-to-oranges issue.
However, the potential gain here could be a game-changer. It reminds me of Bush’s 9-point gain among Latino voters in 2004. His campaign saw an opening with a solid Democratic constituency, reached out, made big gains, and set the precedent that the Democrats couldn’t take them for granted. (As Latino evangelicals are demonstrating this year.) If the Democrats pull this off among white evangelicals, that’s roughly 2.5 million votes picked up, and a couple of swing states sewn up
It bears mention that Bill Clinton won one-third of white evangelicals in 1992 and 1996, so Obama’s potential success isn’t exactly unprecedented. But Clinton no doubt got a boost from actually being a Southern Baptist running against classic country club Republicans. The real question, in my mind, isn’t whether the Obama campaign’s outreach is worthwhile. It’s whether future Democratic candidates’ success among white evangelicals will depend on their personas as opposed to their strategy and infrastructure. Time will tell.