EARLIER THIS WEEK PRESIDENTIAL hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama got a chance to brandish their religious credentials before a conservative Christian college in rural Pennsylvania, site of the next Democratic primary contest. The Compassion Forum, hosted by Messiah College and CNN, allowed the candidates to discuss their faith and explain how it informs their politics. We learned little about their religious principles, however, and much about the murky political theology that has attracted evangelical audiences to their message.
For most of the evening, co-moderators Jon Meacham and Campbell Brown couldn't decide if they were managing a forum on religion and politics, a theology seminar, or a faith-based segment of Dr. Phil. Meacham asked Clinton a loopy question about whether she senses "moments of grace" in her life. Clinton spoke about forgiveness and unconditional love. Brown asked her to name her favorite Bible story. She offered some thoughts on Esther. Then came this existential item: Why do you think a loving God allows innocent people to suffer? "I have just pondered it endlessly," she said. "But . . . there is no doubt in my mind that God calls us to respond." Clinton's answers were modest, if not always precise, and she got applause for her earnestness.
But what does any of this have to do with being president? No matter how the candidates answer questions of this sort, they tell us next to nothing about their ability to confront an economy in recession, for example, or a nuclear-armed Iran.
Obama was asked--in the gentlest of terms--to explain what he meant by his recent comments at a San Francisco fundraiser, in which he claimed that many voters have "gotten bitter and cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." His dissembling reply was yet another Obama Abomination. He wasn't demeaning people's faith, he insisted. "What I was saying is that when economic hardship hits in these communities, what people have is they've got family, they've got their faith, they've got the traditions that have been passed onto them from generation to generation. Those aren't bad things."
Those aren't bad things. Note the deception: When privately addressing the base of the Democratic party--the extreme political and secular left--Obama shares in their echo chamber of disdain. In the same breath, he derides those who "cling" to an embittered faith alongside nativists, isolationists, and stalwarts for the Second Amendment. His upper-crust cohort despises them for their rejection of enlightened liberalism. They are bitter people and they cling to bad things, he tells them. In Pennsylvania primary country, however, Obama needs the votes of this cranky, confused, clutching cacophony. They hold on to good things, he now says, things passed down through the generations: faith and family. It was a master-stroke of retroactive self-editing--ignored by the audience and CNN's so-called moderators.
Obama is not the only candidate skilled in this technique, of course. Yet Clinton, for all her own machinations, nevertheless voiced an honest confession about Obama's formulation and the radical drift of her party. "You know, the Democratic Party, to be very blunt about it, has been viewed as a party that didn't understand and respect the values and the way of life of so many of our fellow Americans," she said. "It did seem so much in line with what often we are charged with: Someone goes to a closed-door fundraiser in San Francisco and makes comments that do seem elitist, out of touch and, frankly, patronizing."
On that point, no issue has created more problems for the Democrats with social and religious conservatives than abortion and end-of-life issues. Clinton--who would seek no restrictions on abortions of any kind--nevertheless tried to strike a moderate-sounding position by affirming that "the potential for life begins at conception." She acknowledged that there are "people of good faith" in the pro-life camp, a view rejected by many of her party's leaders and activists. To her credit, she criticized China's forced sterilization policies as "an intrusive, abusive, dehumanizing effort" to control the lives of its citizens. It would be hard to find a stronger condemnation of China's policies from the conservative Heritage Foundation.
On the question of the moral status of the fetus, Obama pleaded humility: "I don't presume to know the answer to that question." He is supremely confident, though, in the rightness of the regime of legalized abortion. He believes that the unborn have "a moral weight" in political life. But what that means on the Obama scales of justice--or how his Christian faith might guide his search for a democratic answer--remains an utter mystery. Obama was also asked to explain his remarks last week that young women should not be "punished with a baby" if they have an unintended pregnancy. "Well, keep in mind, on that same day, I said children are miracles, and so I think it's important not to parse my words too carefully here." Yes, we'll leave the parsing to the professionals for now.
The problem with candidate forums on religion is that they invite the very thing that many voters claim to detest: faith-based political pandering. The candidates did not fail to deliver. Clinton praised Pope Benedict XVI, who visits the United States this week, as "a strong voice on behalf of what we must do to deal with poverty." The Vatican--along with Catholic swing voters in Pennsylvania--might be surprised to learn that a papal blessing for liberal anti-poverty schemes was in the works. Jim Wallis, president of the left-leaning Sojourners and a Democratic advisor, rose to inform Obama that the faith community seeks a "new commitment" from politicians to reduce poverty: cut the number in half within ten years. The fact that Wallis has spent a career advancing government programs that aggravate the problem of poverty and family breakdown was beside the point. Obama did not flinch: "I absolutely will make that commitment."
Media elites are openly fawning over the ability of these Democratic contenders to talk the language of faith--as were many audience members at this week's forum. The "God gap" between the Democratic and Republican parties, many claim, is narrowing. Amy Sullivan, a self-styled "progressive" evangelical and Time magazine editor, has consulted Democratic leaders for years. She now sees "a real generational shift" of the evangelical community toward her party's program for social justice. E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post columnist and a liberal Catholic, delights in the break-up of the evangelical attachment to the Republican Party. "It is a great sell-out of religion," he says, "to insist that it has much to teach us about abortion or gay marriage but little useful to say about social justice, war and peace . . . or our approach to providing for the old, the sick and the desperate."
Here on display is the impoverishment of a Christian political concept, that of social justice. Religious liberals have shaped, and perverted, the idea for decades. They talk as if social justice could be achieved in societies that assault human dignity and degrade human sexuality. Missing in all this is a deeply Biblical view of what it means to be human and to live out our binding obligations. In this, liberalism neglects the supreme dignity--and the tragedy--of our fallen nature. By denigrating the debates over abortion, bioethics, marriage, and sexuality, the religious left has abandoned the moral axis of any vision for a just society.
It is a hopeful sign that voters of faith, especially conservative Christians, are broadening their political concerns to tackle issues of poverty, the environment, and human rights. The narrow agenda and angry political style of the religious right--manipulated by Republican leaders for decades--demands to be challenged. The identification of the gospel with a partisan agenda has done untold damage to our politics and to the public integrity of Christianity.
But there is a danger in the opposite direction as well, of course. To paraphrase Barack Obama, clinging to illusions about the redemptive power of politics or political leaders is not a new temptation. Yet it would be strange, and deeply troubling, if this ancient conceit found a safe haven in evangelical colleges, especially at those called Messiah.
Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy and a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.