Faith Focus in Debates Viewed as ‘Breakthrough’

Post a Comment » Written on January 4th, 2008     
Filed under: News
By Stan Friedman

MANCHESTER, NH (January 4, 2008) – The focus on the religious faith of presidential candidates has been like a dream come true for Dale Kuehne, pastor of Emmanuel Covenant Church in Nashua, New Hampshire, and associate professor of politics at Saint Anselm College.

It’s also busy time for Kuehne (top photo), who personally handles all of the arrangements relating to candidates, the media, and audience participants. For a closer look at how that works, please see An Inside Look.

Kuehne“I’ve been yearning for it,” he says, sounding like a child who received his long-awaited first bike for Christmas. “Until now, we have been almost completely unable to get candidates to talk about faith in a serious way.”

That, he says, has been especially true of Democratic candidates. In the past he and another Evangelical Covenant Church pastor, Bob Bergquist, have hosted town forums in which candidates could discuss the intersection of faith and politics, but only Republicans agreed to participate.

The candidate forum sponsored by Sojourners/Call to Renewal at its Pentecost 2007 last June “was an unprecedented breakthrough,” Kuehne says. “I thought it was terrific. I thought it was one of the best discussions of candidates and their faith.”

Democrats have continued to talk about their religious commitments. “Democrats don’t want to concede the issue,” says Kuehne. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been the most vocal.

As excited as Kuehne has been about the new interest in faith and politics, he says the forum and other recent press coverage has been far from perfect. He points to the current news stories regarding other stories about the campaign in Iowa.

A win by Mike Huckabee will be credited to his being a Baptist minister, and a loss by Mitt Romney to his being a Mormon, Kuehne said on Wednesday. Although religion definitely played a role in Iowa’s caucuses, such political observations oversimplify the issue, he added.

He scoffs at the stories about Huckabee’s supposed use of a “floating cross” in a commercial in which he wishes the audience a merry Christmas. Huckabee also was taken to task by some who thought he should have used what some argue is the more politically correct “happy holidays.”

“When you’re an ordained Baptist minister, you can’t run from it,” Kuehne says. “People don’t respect that.”

DebatesHuckabee will need to show that he will be president of all people and not just of Christians, Kuehne says, if he is to allay any fears about his candidacy. “I don’t think Huckabee can be compared to (televangelist) Pat Robertson,” as has sometimes been suggested, says Kuehne. Robertson took second place in the Iowa caucuses during his unsuccessful 1988 bid for the Republican nomination. Much of his support came from Evangelicals.

Romney also faces the same challenge, Kuehne says. Just as John Kennedy had to allay the fears of some voters because he was Catholic, Romney has had to talk about his Mormon faith. Still, Kuehne believes that people – including Evangelicals – are willing to vote for Romney as long as they share common values.

Although religion played a role in the Iowa caucuses, that will not be the case in Kuehne’s state, he says. “In New Hampshire, religion won’t make a difference.”

As excited as Kuehne was about the Sojourners/Call to Renewal event, which was broadcast by CNN, he was disappointed that only Clinton, Obama and John Edwards were invited. Voters were cheated because only the three leading candidates were invited, Kuehne says.

“Having only three Democrats at the conference was a terrible mistake,” Kuehne explains. Sojourners/Call to Renewal founder Jim Wallis said that he believed the three who did participate were the only candidates with a legitimate shot at winning their party’s nomination, noting that having more participants would have made the forum unwieldly.

Such comments have left Wallis open to criticism that he is trying to be a kingmaker, Kuehne says. They also angered representatives of at least two other candidates at the time. After the June 3 Democratic debates, representatives for the Christopher Dodd and Joe Biden campaigns cried foul when talking with Covenant News Service.

To read two Covenant News Service stories of the Democratic and Republican debates in June, please see Democrats and Republicans.

John Larson, a Connecticut congressman working with the Dodd campaign, said anointing the frontrunners ignored historical precedent. “At this point, John Kerry was at five percent; Bill Clinton was at five percent.” Larson stated that a key debate in the 1960 election between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon dealt with issues of faith. “Faith and politics are inextricably tied,” he added.

Jim Ryan, the senior advisor for Biden in New Hampshire, said his candidate “is a man of great faith; it is shown in his actions.” He added, “We both have a fascination with the thoughts of Thomas Aquinas,” and the men frequently discuss the catholic theologian’s philosophy.

Kuehne also says some debate and forum questions also have been handled awkwardly.  He appreciated the question put to Republicans at the Saint Anselm debate last June about what they considered to be the biggest moral issue of our times, but took issue with asking whether the candidates believe in evolution or creation.

The question, he says, bordered on bigotry. “You ask yourself why these questions are asked of Republicans and not Democrats. They play to stereotypes.”

Asking whether and how often a candidate prays and what their biggest sins might be, also are inappropriate – certainly as main questions, Kuehne says.

The media currently is struggling to ask appropriate questions because they genuinely don’t know how to have discussions of faith and politics, Kuehne says. He also believes
the awkward nature of the questions spring from America’s general ambivalence toward major questions that have been with the country since its founding: What constitutes the separation of church and state, as well as the importance of character versus competence.

Responses by people to the debates and Pentecost 2007 forum have included cries of hysteria that they violate the separation of church and state. Kuehne scoffs at the idea, noting they are only debate questions.

The character versus competency debate has taken on a new life over the years as evidenced in the way the media handles the personal lives of presidents. Most of the media was aware of John Kennedy’s affairs, but had an unspoken understanding that such activities should not be reported. The press is now all too willing to report such salacious stories.

The character versus competence question is a false dichotomy, Kuehne says. “I want both. I want a person of excellence, and I want a person of character. As Christians, we should be looking at both.”

Questions about a person’s religious faith can play a role in learning more about a person’s character, Kuehne says, but adds that the lack of a religious faith should not exclude a candidate from consideration because they still can be people of good character.

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