Debating the Value of the Debates

file404 / Shutterstock

Conceptual abstract background: Communication. file404 / Shutterstock

Why, exactly, does it matter if President Barack Obama gave a lackluster performance in the recent presidential debate?

These quadrennial campaign sideshows have nothing to do with one's capability, preparation, aptitude or suitability for the presidency.

Why does Gov. Mitt Romney's spirited performance matter? What does a “victory” by one candidate mean, other than momentary bragging rights?

Surely we know that these debates are about as meaningful as an Oscar winner's thank-you speech. What we want from a president is a steady hand in dealing with a wicked and wayward world, a collaborative spirit in bringing a broad reach to government, and a magnanimous spirit in consoling war widows, helping victims of disaster, protecting the weak from the relentless predations of the strong, and trying to preserve an “American Dream” to which all, not just a few, are invited. We want signs of character, not a telegenic mien.

Presidential debates are like first visits to possible in-laws. You hope not to belch at supper — and then you return to the world where you are actually exploring marriage and building a life.

QUIRK: PBS CEO Paula Kerger Addresses Big Bird Craze

SAVE THE BIRD meme by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.

SAVE THE BIRD meme by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.

OK, the @firedbigbird tweets have been hilarious.

And it's almost understandable that America has given so much attention to the Big Bird comments from Tuesday's debate. (@Firedbigbird had more than 31,000 Twitter followers as of late Friday afternoon.)

I mean, Romney's comment was definitely a "zinger." 

We get it. It's funny. But come on. 

On Thursday, Public Broadcasting System (PBS) CEO Paula Kerger talked to CNN about the issue, and she couldn't believe the iconic children's TV star has gotten this much attention either.

Priorities of the First Presidential Debate: Q & A with Marianne Williamson

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Monitors are tested during preparations for the Presidential Debate on October 3. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Editor's Note: Tweet @newshour to ask the candidates to #TalkPoverty in Wednesday's debate.

Marianne Williamson, a bestselling author and convener of the upcoming Sister Giant conference on women and politics, has called on President Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney to address “a meaningful array of topics” – including poverty, money in politics and incarceration rates in the U.S. – tonight during the first presidential debate. 

Williamson talked to us earlier today about these issues, which are particularly pressing for Christians who take Matthew 25 seriously.

The interview was edited for length and content.

Q: What are you doing to get these issues out there?

A: Having a voice and creating your own platform is not all that difficult with today’s technology. I think what’s happening now is that, firstly, people are realizing that. Secondly, people are realizing that there are certain things that need to be said that simply are not being said as loudly as other things being said. When it comes to a politics of conscience, why wouldn’t we expect that during the debates there would be a conversation about the 23.1 percent of America’s children living in poverty, or the 34 percent of poor children, or the 46 million Americans living in poverty?

Spirited Debate

I was invited to appear on a Detroit radio show this past week called Christ and the City, hosted by Christopher Brooks. It’s a right-leaning talk show with an evangelical focus, but I was energized and encouraged by the conversation because it was respectful and substantive. We didn’t see eye to eye on much (as you’ll hear), but we made space for the differences, trusting that listeners would reflect on the broadened perspective, with the hope of being enriched in the process.

The premise of the interview was a discussion of my book, Banned Questions About the Bible, but you’ll soon realize as you listen that we got into all sorts of other interesting topics, such as salvation, interpretation of scripture and the difference between “Truth” and “Fact” in the Bible.

6 Suggestions for Christians for Engaging in Politics

Democrat / Republican sign, eurobanks /

Democrat / Republican sign, eurobanks /

With the Republican and Democratic National Conventions having taken place over the last two weeks, we can officially say that we’re entering the election season (i.e., that time when the general public begins to pay attention).

A couple of friends who pastor churches in non-D.C. parts of the country asked me if we feel the need to address politics at The District Church, being in the very belly of the beast (my words, not theirs). Specifically, they were asking: Given the intense polarization and often-unproductive arguing that we see around us, even in the church, about the need to address how we interact with those who disagree with us.

So far, we haven’t needed to. In our church community, we have Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and yes, even people who don’t care about politics; we have Hill staffers, White House staffers, activists, advocates, lobbyists, policy wonks, and more — and we’ve all come together as the body of Christ, recognizing that our allegiance is first to Jesus before any party or even country.

Even so, every four years (or every two, if you pay attention to mid-terms; or all the time, if you’re even more politically engaged), posts about politics pop up with increasing frequency on social media, eliciting often-furious back-and-forths that usually end up doing nothing more than reminding each side how right they are and how stupid the other side is.

So I figured I’d try to offer a few suggestions on how we can engage with one another on matters of politics in healthy ways.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s GOP Convention Blessing Prompts Debate

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

The news that New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the nation’s most prominent Catholic prelate, will deliver the closing blessing to the Republican National Convention in Florida next week was seen as a huge coup for Mitt Romney, the party's presumptive nominee. But the move has also prompted a sharp debate within the church over the increasingly close ties between leading bishops and the GOP.

“The cozy relationship between a sizable portion of U.S. bishops and the Republican Party should be cause for concern, and not just among progressive Catholics,” Michael O’Loughlin wrote in a post on the website of America magazine, a leading Catholic weekly published by the Jesuits.

“Cardinal Dolan’s appearance in Tampa will damage the church’s ability to be a moral and legitimate voice for voiceless, as those who view the Catholic Church as being a shill for the GOP have just a bit more evidence to prove their case,” O'Loughlin concluded.

Gore Vidal and the Death of Refined Public Repartee


Gore Vidal in 2004.

Back in the 1970s, when I still was living near William F. Buckley in Switzerland close to my parent’s ministry, L’Abri Fellowship, from time to time the author would visit my mother and father for tea.

My late father (the theologian Francis Schaeffer) and Buckley had little in common apart from a shared love of art, the Swiss Alps, and a sense that the West was in a decline that only Christianity could reverse — even if they would not have agreed on what that word “Christianity” meant. WFB was a bon vivant Roman Catholic and Dad was a “biblical inerrancy” fundamentalist.

Dad would serve tea, but I could tell that, as the afternoons wore on, Buckley might have preferred an offer of something a bit “stiffer,” as the Brits call a real drink. Later, in the early '80s, Buckley and I  were comparing notes about speaking (I’d just addressed the Southern Baptist convention before I fled the evangelical scene), and he mentioned that he agreed with Winston Churchill who said, "You can't make a speech on ice water."

Dad was a teetotaling Presbyterian. Notwithstanding, Buckley — perhaps to annoy my father — once said, rather pointedly, that he always demanded a couple of glasses of wine before taking to the podium.

When I learned of Gore Vidal’s passing Wednesday, I recalled Buckley talking to Dad and me about how Vidal and he used to go hammer-and-tongs arguing on TV — mostly on Buckley’s program Firing Line — only to go have a drink together after the show.

'God Particle' Discovery Ignites Debate Over Science and Religion

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN. Photo via Wylio (

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN. Photo via Wylio (

The Higgs boson is perhaps better known by its sexier nickname: the "God particle."

But in fact, many scientists, including the physicist for whom it is named, dislike the term.

In 1993 when American physicist Leon Lederman was writing a book on the Higgs boson, he dubbed it "the goddamn particle." An editor suggested "the God particle" instead.

One thing is clear: The July 4 discovery that marked a new chapter in scientific knowledge also reignited debate over the universe’s origins — and the validity of religious faith as scientific knowledge expands.

The Higgs boson explains why particles have mass — and in turn why we exist. Without the boson, the universe would have no physical matter, only energy.

The cosmological implications are hotly debated. Can God fit in a scientific story of creation?

Is Free Enterprise Moral?

Arthur Brooks, Gordon's President D. Michael Lindsay and Sojourners CEO Jim Wall

Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, Gordon's President D. Michael Lindsay and Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis.

On Nov. 30, at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis and Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, debated the question, "Is Free Enterprise Moral?"

The event was sponsored by the Center for Christian Studies and the Jerusalem and Athens Forum at Gordon as part of the college's ongoing "Faith Seeking Understanding" lecture series.

Watch complete video of the debate inside...

Gang of Eight: GOP Candidates Debate o' the Week

GOP Presidential Candidates, image by DonkeyHotey via Wylio (

GOP Presidential Candidates, image by DonkeyHotey via Wylio (

Another week, another Republican Presidential Debate.

This time, eight of the GOP candidates for the nomination spent their evening putting forward their beliefs on the issues of foreign policy and national security. The topics ‘debated’ (out of respect for Debate teams around the country, I use inverted commas) were not surprising – Afghanistan, Iran, the Arab Spring, Israel, foreign aid, immigration.

But there were a few things that the candidates did say that caught my attention as I read through the transcript this morning – particularly in relation to foreign aid and immigration.

It was encouraging to hear at least one candidate come out and support the positive impact and geo-strategic importance that non-military development assistance is playing on the African continent (even if he did accidentally call Africa a "country.")