No two events in this political season stand in starker contrast than last night's ABC Democratic debate and last Sunday's CNN Compassion Forum.
Rather unbelievably, ABC anchors used 50 minutes of airtime attacking Democratic candidates on tabloid issues, including a line of questioning from George Stephanopoulos lifted from right-wing pundit Sean Hannity. Almost as an afterthought, the final questions turned toward actual issues including the economy and war. The ABC Web site was flooded with complaints from viewers-both Clinton and Obama supporters-calling the debate "awful" and "asinine," and the live audience heckled and booed the moderators. In Philadelphia's Constitution Center, ABC devolved into sensationalist TV, making for an embarrassing irony between inane content and an impressive setting.
Just four days ago, hundreds of religious leaders gathered at Messiah College in Pennsylvania for the Compassion Forum aired by CNN and sponsored by Faith and Public Life. At that event (I was in the audience), both the moderators and audience members addressed the Democratic candidates with serious questions ranging from personal beliefs to theological concerns - such as the problem of evil and moral issues of poverty, torture, AIDS in Africa, abortion, and global warming. The Forum was intelligent, offering each of the candidates 40 minutes to discuss genuine issues that have an impact on people's lives and the human future. Those in attendance appreciated the thoughtfulness and depth of both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, as demonstrated by warm applause and enthusiasm for the opinions and policies outlined by the candidates.
At the end of the forum, I was talking with a friend, Professor Shaun Casey of Wesley Theological Seminary. I asked him what, in his professional opinion, was the most striking aspect of the discussion. Without hesitating, he replied, "The political maturation of the evangelical community. They asked sophisticated, serious questions and demonstrated a genuine political coming-of-age."
The evangelical leaders were, of course, not alone in political maturity. The Forum audience comprised evangelical and mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists. This diverse group-representing a broad range of faithful Americans in congregations and communities across the nation-really cared about compassion issues and how the candidates would provide leadership around these concerns. Their questions were not the only mark of spiritual maturity-their ability to gather together around shared concerns for the common good signaled a religious "coming-of-age" in a pluralistic nation as well.
If American religious leaders-evangelical, mainline, Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist, and Muslim-could gather respectfully and ask probing, important questions, why can't ABC News? It may well be time for some soul-searching over at their network. I suggest they ask themselves a question: "What Would Peter Jennings Do?"
Diana Butler Bass holds a doctorate in American religion from Duke University. She is the author of six books, including Christianity for the Rest of Us (HarperOne, 2006).