As part of Sojourners/Call to Renewal's 2007 Pentecost conference in June, we hosted the three Democratic presidential front-runners in a "Faith, Values, and Poverty" candidates forum broadcast nationwide by CNN. I was joined by Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook, Rev. Joel Hunter, Rev. Sharon Watkins, and Monsignor Kevin Sullivan in questioning the candidates; CNN's Soledad O'Brien moderated the forum.
In answering personal questions, the candidates showed that faith is both personal and real for them. When John Edwards spoke of how he and his wife, Elizabeth, were actually "dysfunctional" for a time after the tragic death of their son, and how only "the Lord" got him through that—nobody on either side of the political aisle could have doubted the authenticity. After what many thought was an inappropriate question about Hillary Clinton's marriage, the senator responded with a spiritual depth and maturity that deeply impressed everyone who was watching—even her political enemies. Barack Obama spoke of how his moral commitment to the vision of what Dr. King called a beloved community rose out of his faith. The questions about faith, as they often do, ended up revealing more of the honest humanity of these candidates than we often see, and took them off their stump speeches.
But at the same time, and very significantly, these three candidates showed the capacity to connect their personal faith with the great moral and public issues of the day—to poverty in particular, to criminal justice, to immigration, health care, energy, and even to the problems of good and evil and war and peace. John Edwards said his faith compels him to spend the rest of his life seeking to end poverty; Barack Obama insightfully argued that believing God to be on your side is dangerous in making foreign policy decisions; Hillary Clinton, in response to a question from a representative from Catholic Charities, showed a deep understanding of the religious notion of "the common good" and applied it to what good political leadership requires.
Other questions raised everything from rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to finding common ground on abortion. And given the short time, there were many questions that didn't get asked. Joel Hunter wrote after the forum that he would have liked to ask more about how the candidates arrive at a moral decision in politics. "Issues will come and go, stances will sometimes change, and circumstances will affect how a value is put into practice," he said. "But the one thing that seldom changes is the process of how we determine right from wrong. Are there certain points of reference, like the Bible, or the teachings of somebody, or a past mentor that the candidate thinks about? Are there particular people that a candidate consults before he or she determines what is morally right in a case? How much is prayer involved, and what do they look for in an answer?" Other topics I had prepared questions on included global poverty and the Millennium Development Goals, the candidates' views on how government and faith-based organizations should (or shouldn't) work together, and whether the biblical command "be not afraid" should have a role in foreign policy decision-making.
SEVERAL POLITICAL PUNDITS and media commentators described the forum as "unprecedented" and "groundbreaking." I think it was, for two big reasons. First, the presidential forum on faith, values, and poverty clearly showed that faith is alive and well on both sides of the political aisle and that God is, indeed, not a Republican or a Democrat. It served to help level the playing field on faith and politics, where the Republicans have enjoyed a decided advantage for several decades now.
Second, it clearly moved the faith and politics debate far beyond the narrow two-issue agenda of abortion and gay marriage, which have for so long been "the religious issues." This time the religious themes focused on the fundamental biblical issues at stake in how we treat the poor. The traditional hot-button issues weren't ignored, with a very thoughtful exchange between evangelical pastor Hunter and Hillary Clinton on how we might actually find some needed common ground on the divisive matter of abortion. But this time religion focused on social justice, and that was a welcome relief from the discussion over many years now.
A good and fair discussion of how a candidate's faith shapes his or her political values should be viewed as a positive thing—it's as relevant and appropriate as many other facts about a politician's background, convictions, and experience for public office. In political campaigns, the more talk about values the better, and religion is a primary source of values for many Americans. Clearly, minority religions and nonreligious people must always be respected and protected in our nation. But the core commitments of religious liberty need not be compromised by an open discussion of faith and public life.
Some people just want candidates and citizens to keep their religion to themselves, at least in the public arena. They don't want anybody to speak out of their own faith tradition or to affirm the role of religion in shaping values for American public life. They believe in an absolute separation of church and state, that faith and politics just don't mix—or shouldn't. But most of the nation is willing to engage in the important discussion about the proper roles of religion, values, and public policy. And on that June evening, three candidates began that discussion. We have extended an invitation to the leading Republican candidates to participate in a similar forum in September.
All this holds great promise for the future. I am convinced that the discussion of faith and politics, religion and public life, will be a very different one—and a far better one—in the election cycle of 2008 than it has been for a very long time. That broader conversation, with both sides participating fully, will be better for the country, for politics, and for the faith community.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.