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  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Six more religious questions for McCain and Obama

Posted by James McPherson on August 18, 2008

In my view, John McCain and Barack Obama both did OK in their Saturday night back-to-back discussions with Rev. Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church. McCain did better than I expected and probably came out a bit ahead.

McCain did so well, in fact, that some critics thought he must have had the questions ahead of time. Despite Warren’s assurrences (and apparent belief), McCain and/or his key staffers may in fact have heard most of Obama’s interview, since McCain was in a car with staffers rather than locked away in a soundproof room during that time.

Still, though I have decreasing regard for McCain’s honesty, I doubt that he needed to cheat. His answers were shorter and more direct, and he came across as more focused, largely because he used most of the questions–as good candidates do during what has come to pass for political “debates“–as opportunities to regurgitate his stump speech. He said almost nothing that regular watchers of politics hadn’t heard repeatedly, but his answers did play to much of the Saddleback audience.

Obama’s longer, more conversational and less focused answers weren’t helped by Warren’s repeated interjections of “uh huh,” but the pastor was clearly nervous at the beginning and got better as the evening went on. Obama gave the worst answer of the night (about when life begins), with McCain’s answer about what qualifies a person as financially rich the second-worst. Neither candidate made a huge gaffe, though it remains to be seen which segments will be most heavily viewed as out-of-context YouTube videos. McCain also benefited from getting to go last (ask Shawn Johnson and Sandra Izbasa if that matters).

In truth, however, I doubt that the discussion will have much of an effect on anything. Given a choice of a religious/political discussion on a Saturday night in August, most of the relatively few people who were home watching television were tuned to the Olympics. McCain was going to get the conservative evangelical vote, anyway, though he may have boosted his credibility with the folks he once termed “agents of intolerance.” Obama may have countered the ongoing fiction that he is a Muslim, though the people stupid enough to believe that may not be able to figure out how to vote, anyway–and if they do, they weren’t going to vote for Obama.

I am a bit troubled that the candidates felt they needed to attend a church-sponsored discussion at all, a further complication of what I see as an often negative relationship between religion and presidential politics. It would bother me less if the candidates felt equally compelled to answer questions from a union leader, a state governor, the mayor of a major American city (New Orleans or New York, perhaps?), a panel of teachers and parents, and a panel of economists.

And though I think Warren did a decent job, he failed to ask a few questions that I would have in a forum such as this one. Though I likely will never see them answered by the candidates, I’ll post a half-dozen of those questions here:

  1. Catholics who practice birth control or have abortions sometimes are criticized for hypocrisy because they act in opposition to what the pope has professed. Since the leadership of every major religious denomination in the United States opposed the Iraq War, does that suggest hypocrisy among those churchgoers who favored the war–including President Bush and those in Congress?
  2. What is or should be the role of a church denomination’s leadership, for you and for Christians in general?
  3. Catholics make up roughly a quarter of the U.S. population,  and Jews only about 2 percent. Since five of nine Supreme Court justices are Catholic and two are Jewish, isn’t the court seriously out of balance?
  4. How do your views of the death penalty correspond with your Christian faith?
  5. As president, you are expected to represent the entire nation. Name one Muslim and one atheist whom you count among your friends and advisors.
  6. Discuss your views of evolution and “intelligent design,” and how you feel they should be taught in public schools.

10 Responses to “Six more religious questions for McCain and Obama”

  1. willpen said

    Thank you SO much for this. My head has been spinning out of control for the last few days, trying to make sense of this all. You have put into words what I have been feeling.

    Your questions are both intelligent and diverse. Why shouldn’t we insist that this same type of forum be done by other groups.

  2. morsec0de said

    “Catholics make up roughly a quarter of the U.S. population, and Jews only about 2 percent. Since five of nine Supreme Court justices are Catholic and two are Jewish, isn’t the court seriously out of balance?”

    If makeup in the population is the basis for Supreme Court justices, then 5 of the 9 should be women.

  3. James McPherson said

    “If makeup in the population is the basis for Supreme Court justices, then 5 of the 9 should be women.”

    True–and I think we’d be better off if that were the case. Thanks to both of you for the comments.

  4. Matthew Brashear said

    Affirmative action?
    Are we still beating that drum? I agree that in an ideal world those who are the most qualified would represent an organization’s demographical make-up. Unfortunately for absolutely everyone involved affirmative action is still in play and people other then white males are being held to a lower standard. This is not progression it is regression. Regression of the equality of all people. Regression of an organizations ability to hire and promote the most capable and qualified. Regression of our society’s ability to grow and desegregate itself from the status quo. I one day hope to see the end of the raciest and sexist policies of affirmative action so that we as individuals and as organizations can look upon one another as equals not to be judged separately but simply blindly.

  5. taylor Siluwe said

    I agree, more women on the Supreme Court — WONDERFUL. And the last two questions hit me the most — I always wondered why so many extremely intelligent people have run for office in the country and none will come out and admit to being atheist. It makes one wonder exactly how devout some who claim to be really are. If only we could get candidates to discuss these questions …..

  6. Mike Ingram said

    Now Jim, I’m concerned with your being “troubled” by the church venue. I was happy to see it and for some religious themes questions to be asked. The format made this a wonderful event. I would welcome the end of CNN, CBS etc asking stupid generic questions and giving candidates 45 seconds to respond to a complex question. I’d welcome more true Lincon Douglass formats, or a place where a Rick Warren could ask real follow ups.

    I do not disagree with a union hall setting for NAFTA questions (esp for BHO), nor some (union and non union) teachers at a public school or other topic specific venues. But as I fear religious themed questions will get short shrift anyway, I welcomed the venue and the unique setting.

  7. James McPherson said

    Thanks much, all. Mike. I agree with you about a true debate and about follow-up questions (and don’t get me started on the ludicrous nature of the network “debates”!). But even though I think the issues raised were valid (and as noted I’d have liked a few more answers), my concerns with the venue are twofold:

    First, this is the first “joint meeting” of the two, if you can call it that, and probably the only one that will not be one of the actual debates. So in that way it puts faith issues above the economy, education, environment, etc.–which in my view is correct for Christian individuals like you and me, but not as an overall perspective of government for the president of the U.S.

    Second, I don’t think either of these guys has that perspective, anyway. This didn’t seem to me to be a natural setting for either, and I think both of them were there more to pander and cover their behinds than to provide illumination. Of course, maybe that’s just part of the process.

  8. […] addition, as I suggested yesterday with my discussion of the Saddleback Church forum, the nation also is poorly served when it […]

  9. Matthew, Re: affirmative action

    I’d suggest visiting the Harvard Implicit Associations Test website. https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/

    If you read up about the project and understand that most Americans (including minorities) have powerful internal subconscious biases, perhaps you’ll understand why we have good reasons to give certain people an advantage over others. It can really help even the playing field.

    Taylor, Re: religion in candidates

    There are some very telling polls that suggest that 50% of Americans would refuse to vote for a candidate if that person were an atheist. If I recall, 5% said they would refuse to vote for a black candidate and 10% would refuse to vote for a woman (though the actual numbers may be different), but it is abundantly clear to me that a presidential candidate MUST be Christian to have a serious chance at winning in this country.

    And that, Jim, is why this forum happened. I suppose the candidates feel they have to do more to court the Christians in America – many non-Christian voters are probably already in Obama’s pocket already, it seems safe to say, and to expand his support Obama needs to pander to the more moderate and even conservative Christians specifically.

  10. James McPherson said

    Thanks, Grady, for the comment and the Harvard link. And I also agree with you about the candidates feeling they need to court/pander to Christians (in part because significant percentages of them turn out to vote, which can’t be said for all groups).

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