I'm sure you all tuned in to CNN for the 25th debate between Democratic presidential hopefuls last night. (You didn't opt for the new episode of "Desperate Housewives," did you?)
The Compassion Forum, just in case you missed it, was a discussion at Messiah College about the role faith plays in the two remaining Democratic presidential hopefuls' lives. (Republican candidate John McCain declined to appear.) It wasn't exactly a debate – the candidates appeared in sequence – but it brought the pair to the same stage before the same audience.
Earlier in the race for the White House, candidates were asked irrelevant questions like "What's your favorite Bible verse?" "What's the biggest sin you've ever committed?" and "Do you believe in the virgin birth?" There was some of that last night, but fortunately there was also some substance.
Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama explained how their faith informs the political positions that have defined their respective campaigns. Both touched on ending poverty, securing reproductive health rights for women, promoting sound science and preserving the planet for future generations.
In speaking with both Clinton and Obama, moderator Campbell Brown acknowledged that a lot of Americans are "uncomfortable" because they think "religion already has way too much influence in political life and public life."
Clinton said earlier in the evening that faith is a "legitimate political issue," but should be discussed delicately and with deference to each individual's conscience.
"It is so personal[;] the spiritual journey that each of us takes or doesn't take," she said.
Obama echoed that sentiment later in the debate. He said "people of religious faith have the same right to come to [the] public square with values and ideals that are rooted in their faith,...[but] where we start thinking that, 'Well, you know, I've got a direct line to God,'... that is incompatible with democracy."
It makes me very uncomfortable when we grill candidates for any public office on theological questions. As Thomas Jefferson put it, "I never will...admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others."
So when Clinton was asked to share some occasions when "you have actually felt the presence of the Holy Spirit" or whether she has "a favorite Bible story," I think we're veering too much off topic. When she was asked why "a loving God allows innocent people to suffer," that's also too deep into theological territory for a political debate. Even theologians have trouble answering that question, let alone politicians.
That said, we have a right to understand how a candidate's faith will shape his or her public policy decisions, and I think getting those answers depends on asking the right questions.
Some of the questions asked last night were similar to the 10 questions Americans United encourages voters to ask all candidates.
One of those questions deals with the future of President George W. Bush's "faith-based" initiative. Obama said he would keep the initiative going "as long as it's within the requirements of our Constitution."
"We make sure that it's open to everybody. It's not simply the federal government funding certain groups able to evangelize," he said.
Clinton wasn't asked about the initiative's future, but did use other inquiries about her faith to explain her proposed public policies. When asked whether she believed life begins at conception, for example, she briefly explored how her faith has helped her conclude that the "potential for life begins at conception." As president, she said she would continue her campaign to keep abortion legal but to make it "safe and rare."
I wish Obama and Clinton had been asked this: "Do you think everyone's religious freedom needs to be protected by what Thomas Jefferson called 'a wall of separation' between church and state?" That might have told us a lot.
It also wouldn't have hurt to have someone from one of the Humanist organizations asking a question. After all, millions of Americans profess no allegiance to any religious denomination; they're part of the great mosaic of America and ought to have their shot at the microphone too.
CNN's Compassion Forum didn't assuage my concerns over faith's place in the political process, but it handled the topic better some others heretofore.