Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Clinton, Obama, and the Compassion Forum: Impressions From an Outsider

Last evening, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democratic Presidential candidates, appeared at the Compassion Forum at Messiah College in Pennsylvania to address matters of faith, values, and public policy. Today, the news media has focused on the latest name-calling between these two candidates — one being called an "Annie Oakley" wannabe and the other a San Francisco "elitist "(and as a Republican I am tempted to think that both may be right). Even when acknowledging the event, the New York Times felt obliged to begin its account by reporting that the candidates “exchang[ed] frosty glances Sunday night as their paths briefly crossed on stage.” As a consequence, very little attention has been given to the fascinating, and sometimes deeply substantive, discussion about faith and life and politics that unfolded in Pennsylvania last night. Given that this blog is devoted to religion in public life, I have presumed to attempt to fill in some of the gap with my personal impressions of this exceptional episode in American political life.

Now some might cynically dismiss last night’s forum as nothing more than another political event, and one that was carefully staged to arrest the Democratic Party’s declining support among people of faith in recent years. Of course, the forum was a political event, constructed around the ongoing race for the presidential nomination and featuring the two surviving candidates in one party. Nonetheless, I think a fair observer should acknowledge that this forum, both as it was planned and as it developed last night, was something more than a grimy campaign operation engineered to score political points.

Instead, persons of all faiths and political backgrounds should be encouraged that this great political party has begun to recognize the electoral folly of aggressive secularism and is taking considered steps to display greater respect for persons who take religious faith seriously. Through the largely balanced questions posed by the moderators and religious leaders in the audience, and the good faith (pun intended) cooperation of the two candidates who appeared, the forum well-served the purpose of exploring the religious sensibilities of the candidates and their views on the role of religious faith in public life. And for those of us who study religion and public life, it certainly was compelling television.

After watching the forum last night, and reviewing the transcript today, I offer below some observations from the perspective of an outsider. Because both of these candidates have long since disqualified themselves from receiving my own vote this November (on the sanctity of human life, genuine educational reform as the greatest engine for social progress, the necessity of free trade to world economic health, etc.), I have no dog in the ongoing and increasingly rough and tumble fight for the Democratic Party nomination. And while the conventional wisdom until a month ago had been that Senator Obama would be the more formidable opponent to Senator McCain this fall, prognostications have become considerably muddier in recent weeks and neither appears better positioned today against the Republican candidate. The thoughts that follow are openly impressionistic, which may be appropriate for a forum that was somewhat touchy-feely in nature (and I mean that in a good way).

In a departure from prior candidate meetings, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama appeared separately last night, offering their thoughts at greater length, without interruption, and with less of a need to play one-upmanship on the other candidate. They responded to questions in a conversational manner, moving more easily from one subject to the next and following up with additional pertinent thoughts that later occurred to them. They each spoke about how faith has been present in their lives, sustained them in times of difficulty, affects the manner in which they make decisions, and influences their public policy positions. While face-to-face debates between political candidates serve an essential purpose in identifying the central issues, sharpening the differences, and testing the candidate’s ability to perform under pressure, last evening's more tranquil and dignified venue was a refreshing change and was especially well-tailored to the nature and content of this forum.

As someone who has not generally held a positive view of Senator Clinton’s personality over the years, I was surprised to find myself captivated by, drawn into, and even moved by passages of her narrative. She left that positive impression on me, not only through her words, which were well chosen but do not read as especially eloquent in the transcript printed today. Rather, I was taken with her calm and open demeanor, friendly and yet dignified exchange with moderators and questioners, and earnestness when speaking. Between the two, Clinton appeared more comfortable in addressing the personal dimension of faith, even as she attempted (admirably in my view) to shift the discussion away from a focus on herself to relate how she had been moved by the faith of others. Indeed, her stories about other people of powerful faith were most attractive and revealed a comfort in sharing the spiritual limelight with others. Telling the story of a woman whose son and grandson were murdered on the streets of Philadelphia, Clinton said that this person knows “God is with her,” even while not understanding why these tragedies have happened. “Determined to be the person that she believes God meant her to be,” this woman rises each day with “a smile on her face to go to her daycare business,” which Clinton aptly describes as a “moment of grace.”

By contrast, while certainly not visibly nervous, Senator Obama struck me as awkward of speech and manner at several points during the evening, appearing to struggle to find the right words. He also tended more often than Clinton to fall back on sound bites or pre-packaged themes from his campaign (although neither candidate went too far astray from the subject at hand). Perhaps this measure of uneasiness reflected his self-consciousness about these sensitive questions given the criticism he has received in recent days about some of his less than sensitive statements about people of faith. Fearing that he would step on another land-mine, Obama may have been unduly cautious, thus leaving an impression of less than complete comfort. While I found Senator Clinton to be personally inviting and thoughtful, Senator Obama came across to me as sometimes leaden in his expression, gamely trying hard but not quite succeeding in finding the right voice for the occasion. Please understand I do not mean to say that he made any serious mistakes or faltered badly, or that he failed to make significant contributions to the discourse. Rather, I found that he was simply unremarkable, not manifesting the confidence and eloquence that has regularly been on display when he speaks before an approving crowd at a campaign rally.

On substance, both candidates spoke to the importance and support of personal faith and to how their faith influences their political views. Neither faith nor works were neglected by either. That being said, their faith narrative varied markedly in emphasis. Senator Clinton spoke more directly to the importance of personal faith for the individual within a community of believers, that is, to faith for its own sake. Senator Obama focused more on the “social Gospel” of church-connected social service and political activities. Thus, Clinton began by saying how she had “felt the presence of God in my life” since her childhood and saying that “I don’t think I could have made my life’s journey without being anchored in God’s grace and without having that, you know, sense of forgiveness and unconditional love.” By contrast, Obama moved immediately to speaking about political organizing and political topics, saying “I am a devout Christian, that I started my work working with churches in the shadow of steel plants that had closed on the south side of Chicago, that nobody in a presidential campaign on the Democratic side in recent memory has done more to reach out to the church and talk about, what are our obligations religiously, in terms of doing good works, and how does that inform our politics?” Indeed, Obama explained that he had been drawn to church through “the social gospel, the need to act and not just sit in the pews.”

Immediately following the forum, the instant pundits also identified this difference in focus, which they saw as to the advantage of Obama. They opined that Obama had succeeded by speaking more directly about how his church involvement and political activities were intertwined. In my view, these commentators miss the point yet again and fail to apprehend how these contrasting approaches to discussion of faith are likely to be received by most people of faith. For most people of faith, the transcendent reality lies in the faith itself, bringing about a transformative relationship with God. For Catholics, faith is centered on salvation through Christ, renewed through the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. To think of faith as a primarily a tool for social services and political platform positions is to mistake the effect for the cause. While the Democratic Party has lost ground with people of faith in part because of its political positions on social issues that are antithetical to orthodox or traditional values, its principal error has been a tone-deafness about the central role of a vibrant faith in the lives, the very identity, of many people. Certain core political issues certainly matter to people of faith and may be central to electoral choices. But one must begin by understanding the person as a person of faith before moving directly to the political. In my view, Clinton better connected with the traditional sense of religious faith during the forum. While by no means ignoring that personal faith dimension, Obama devoted his primary attention to the political implications. I think that's a meaningful difference, and one that may resonate.

As it appeared to me as someone not present but watching carefully on television, the atmosphere in the auditorium also changed between the two appearances, in a manner somewhat parallel to the different emphases on dimensions of religious faith. During Senator Clinton’s session, the audience appeared very attentive, was respectful and quiet, as they carefully and sympathetically considered her words. Applause was restrained, from the moment of Clinton’s entrance and throughout her dialogue with her interlocutors. The room was quiet, almost reverential at points. I had the feeling, or at least that was the disposition I was surprised to find in myself, that people were captivated with Clinton’s narrative about her own faith and about the faith she has found in others. They wanted to listen and were reluctant to intrude.

By contrast, when Obama entered the room, his supporters not only loudly applauded but boisterously cheered his entry, while he glad-handed down the aisle. The more demonstrative nature of Obama’s supporters in the crowd, occasionally breaking into the conversation with applause, was sometimes jarring to me. Moreover, I had the impression that Obama sensed it as well, as he appeared on more than one occasion to frown when the dialogue was interrupted by applause, perhaps appreciating that this animated political style was out of place in this dignified and thoughtful setting for careful reflection on faith and values. Rather than drawing energy from the applause, Obama sometimes appears unsettled by it and became more halting in his answer immediately afterward. Or so it seemed to me. The very fact that the candidates appeared separately and were able to develop their answers at greater length, without the need for a snappy and aggressive back-and-forth with an opponent, presumably was designed to break the political rhythm and allow for thoughtful engagement. Obama's supporters in the crowd appeared unable to depart from a rally style and adapt to this alternative venue.

Interestingly, my substantative reaction to the candidates’ views on the propriety of even having such a forum was nearly the mirror-opposite of my impressions of their religious faith narratives. Moreover, I was greatly disappointed and even alarmed by the clumsy and evasive remarks by each on the most important human rights issue of our time, the sanctity of unborn human life. But closing this over-length posting for now, I’ll save commentary on these other points for separate posts in the next couple of days.

Greg Sisk


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