Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Politics and Faith

(Warning: I am embarrassingly ignorant in regards to American politics, so take my observations here for what they're worth. I claim no authority on any of the candidates, and what I've written is entirely based on my impressions from the program I watched.)

A couple of nights ago CNN hosted a forum on faith and politics. Jim Wallis, the author of God's Politics: why the Right gets it wrong and the Left doesn't get it, was the organizer of the event. The organization responsible is called Soujouners: Christians for Justice and Peace, and you can find more info about them here. The event was a 'debate' between the three leading Dem candidates. Edwards, Obama, and Clinton were each allotted 15 min to answer a series of questions about how their faith guides their "moral compass." The forum wasn't meant for the candidates to show off how religious they are so they could win the evangelical votes, rather it was meant to show how the beliefs they do have will likely affect their decision making as a political leader. If a candidate does have faith in some religious belief system, and if they are genuine believers, then their beliefs will undoubtedly affect how they lead the country. You can read the full transcript of the debate here, though I think it's more beneficial to watch it (Here are the links courtesy of Wilson: part 1 ... 2 ... 3 ... 4 ... 5 ... 6 ... ).

Edwards started off the show, and I think he was very honest about how his beliefs translate into his political policies. For example, he admitted that personally he doesn't believe that gay marriage is right (from a Biblical standpoint), but he also recognizes that his belief about gay marriage can not dictate federal policy on that issue:

"I think there's a difference between my belief system and what the responsibilities of the president of the United States are. It is the reason we have separation of church and state. And there are very good people, including some people that I'm very close to me, my daughter who is sitting in the front row here tonight, feels very differently about this issue. And I have huge respect for those who have a different view about this. So I think we have to be very careful about ensuring that the president of the United States is not using his belief system and imposing that belief system on the rest of the country. ... I think what that means in this case is the substantive rights that go with partnerships, civil unions, for example, and all the subsequent rights that go with that, should be recognized in this country, at least in my judgment, should be recognized. And I think it is not the role of the federal government to tell either faith-based institutions, churches, synagogues, what they should or should not recognize. Nor should the federal government be telling states what they should recognize. "

Because Edwards isn't against awarding those rights to gay couples, he could have lied about his personal beliefs and said that he himself agreed with gay marriage. But he was honest, even though a good deal of Americans don't share his belief. So I thought that was good. More importantly, though, he recognizes that often the moral issues that Christians focus on are not always the most important ones(most urgent anyway). While gay marriage, stem cell research, etc are all very important moral issues, they are are not the only ones that the Christian faith speaks to. Edwards, rightly I think, wants to get at the moral issues that Christians should really be worried about. For example, his big concern is eliminating poverty, a problem that he's been passionate about before he ever became a politician. The problem of poverty is largely ignored by politicians who give lip-service to Christian values. Why? Because helping the poor (and I mean really helping -healthcare, good education, work that pays, whatever is needed for a decent life) is very costly, and they'd hate to give up their own comfort to help those in need. Also, there's a dangerous tendency in Christian thought that says the poor deserve to be poor because somehow they've brought it upon themselves. Well, I think that's horribly mistaken, and I highly doubt Jesus would have told a poor person that they deserve to be poor and they should go bugger off (excuse the language).

After Edwards it was Obama's turn, and I have to admit that I was left completely unsure of how his faith (the substance of which he didn't really explain) specifically relates to his politics. He would answer a question, and I would think: wow, that sounds great. Then I would think on what he said, and I wouldn't be able to determine much substance to his answer. It seemed to be more rhetoric than anything else, though I have to admit that he was the most captivating speaker of the three. But that's not enough in my book. One of his more memorable quotes:

"Now, how do we then realize that faith? How do we make sure that it actually lives, that it's not just something that we talk about? A couple of things that we have to do is to fix our politics, and we have to get beyond what Dr. King called the "either/or mentality" and embrace "the both/and mentality." And our politics have exacerbated this notion of either/or."

I'm not entirely sure what this means, but it sounds wonderful. I think I just want a picture of how he will practically apply this mentality. I'm sure there's a way, and I know he was short on time, but I was hoping for more policy ideas. He did mention something about early childhood education and prison reform, but after that I'm unsure of how he planned on addressing the poverty question (which is what that quote was a response to, in part).

Lastly, we have Clinton. Now I'll be honest, I've always been unsure about this gal, and I don't have a good reason why. I think she is one of those "tough" politicians that Galston talks about, and that makes me uneasy, even if that means she does a better job because of it. But, after this forum, she earned brownie points from me because I felt like she was really honest. They started by stricking a low blow by asking how her faith carried her through her husband's adultery, and she handled that well (but not too well, which made it seem genuine). When asked what she asks God for, she responded:

"Sometimes, it's, you know, obviously praying for discernment, for wisdom, for strength, for courage, praying for my family and my friends, I mean, praying for people whom I don't have any personal connection with..."

Not that I could ever know for sure, but one of things I pray for is that our country's leaders will be going to God in humility and asking for wisdom. My prayer is that they ask for discernment, and that they actually listen to God's answer. If our president is honestly going before God on her knees, then there is hope yet for our country. They also asked her about her thoughts on abortion, and her answer really struck me. She is prochoice and I'm undecided. One thing I do believe, no matter what, is that women should never have to be in a position where they feel like they have to make that sort of choice. No woman should feel like she has no option other than aborting her child. Hillary agrees:

"[I want] abortion [to be] safe, legal, and rare. And, by rare, I mean rare. And it's been a challenge, because the pro-life and the pro- choice communities have not really been willing to find much common ground. And I think that is a great failing on all of our parts, because, for me there are many opportunities to assist young people to make responsible decisions. There is a tremendous educational and public outreach that could be done through churches, through schools, through so much else. But I think it has to be done with an understanding of reaching people where they are today."

It's time the two camps banned together and actually started to help the situation of these women (through prevention, or assistance once they are pregnant). So I think Hillary was right on track with where we need to go from here, and she was certainly right about bridging the divide between the two groups.

So, overall, I enjoyed the show. I think it's important that we don't shy away from talking about faith and politics. If a candidate is a believer, in anything, then it's important for us to know what that is and how that will affect his or her presidency. If we don't talk about these things, who will? I'm also glad that this was a forum for the democratic candidates, because that party is often accused of not defending values. I think the candidates did a good job, but I'm still not really impressed by any of them yet (not radical enough for me? who knows). There will possibly be another forum in the fall for the GOP dudes, which should be interesting. We shall see. If anyone else happened to watch the show, let me know what you thought...


Wilson said...

YouTube has the video in six parts:

1 ... 2 ... 3 ... 4 ... 5 ... 6 ...

I must confess that I am highly skeptical of our ability to "eliminate" poverty. There are, after all, thousands of homeless in Sweden, which ought to have solved such problems by now if any country can (at least if any can do so through government action).

I'm not saying the poor deserve their lot -- by no means -- but a lot of poverty does result from self-destructive behavior (as well as the selfishness of other people, which is just as difficult to remedy through government action). I'm pretty sure that eliminating poverty would require eliminating drug abuse, alcoholism, illegitimacy, and illiteracy, for starters. And we haven't exactly seen that government action is an effective solution to most of those problems.

Lindsey said...

Thanks for the links! I suppose I should have guessed that it could be found on youtube. And I know I'm being very idealistic to want to shoot for total elimination of poverty. I'm young, and I can have lofty (even unachievable) goals still. I'm not naive to see that as a realistic possibility, at least not in the near future. But it doesn't hurt to aim high, right? Aim high, miss high. If total elimination is the goal, then we won't be satisfied when we get half, we'll keep going. It's a goal that doesn't allow you to get complacent.

And I haven't reconciled the choice/luck egalitarian thing yet. How much of someone's misfortune is actually their own fault? There are so many factors it's hard to tell. Clearly choices should count, but there's a lot not in people's control (including their natural dispositions, how they were raised, etc). So it's a hard call. I suppose I'd rather err on the side of helping them anyway, just in case. But you're right, that's an important issue to think about too.

Wilson said...

Heh, heh. Or else aim high, fall farther. ;-)

I don't really think I'm interested in assigning blame for poverty. That does not strike me as a helpful approach at all, and I believe that mercy is a moral obligation in any case.

But I do think that we have to be realistic about ways and means, recognizing that there's usually a lot more to poverty than a mere lack of money.

And also that government programs can have unintended consequences. For example, Edwards' push for a universal living wage and right to unionization might actually exacerbate extreme poverty by making it harder to find low-end employment at all. Some companies simply can't afford to pay as many people at $15/hour as they can at $6. And better-heeled companies could afford it but would send more jobs overseas instead. (Admittedly, that would alleviate poverty in the short term in Bangalore.)

But that's just my talking off the top of my head about an academic field that is not my own, so I should probably stop. You've done a much better job discussing politics than I'm about to do with economics.

Lindsey said...

You give me too much credit. I really know nothing about politics, and even less about economics. I wishfully think I'm some sort of amateur philosopher, but I'm not even that really.

And of course that means I have ideals that I have no way of implementing. I suppose I ought to come down out of the clouds long enough to consider how such things could really be done, but that's so much more difficult than just thinking about it. I admit my failure on that account. I listened to the candidates to see where their hearts were at, and I paid much less attention to whether or not their hearts could really achieve what they wanted.