As the controversy over Barack's "bitter" comments continues (at least in the minds of the pundits who get answers to whether it's an issue or not by asking themselves), I watched tonight's Compassion Forum on CNN to see how Barack would handle the subject before a faith-oriented audience. Given the essence of the charge being made against him - that he is an elitist who is out of touch with those American's for whom religion is an important part of their lives - I figured this would be a key opportunity for Barack to show whether or not he is in touch with religious people.
I will write about how well I believe Barack met this challenge in a moment. But first I have to say that what surprised me was that - based on specific comments Hillary made about her own religious beliefs - I found myself unexpectedly measuring how in touch she is with religious people as well. That's why I'm calling this essay "Is Hillary Or Barack More Faithful To Their Religious Principles?"
But getting back to Barack, if the measure of whether a person is in touch with religious people is how religious is that person him (or her) self, then I believe Barack met or surpassed any standard that an objective person could use. And here's why:
Barack didn't just talk the talk. He walked the walk.
First, he explained his use of the word "cling" in his remarks at the San Francisco fundraiser by referring to how he has, himself, clung to his faith during difficult times... (and he's certainly lived through difficult times, including searching for a personal identity in the absence of a father.)... meaning that he doesn't see "clinging" as a bad thing. He wasn't using that terminology in San Francisco in a condescending way.
Second, he was very eloquent in discussing the role of religion in life. On the relationship between science and religion, he said he believes God created the Earth in six days, but that those days may not have been 24 hour long days as we have come to define them. He also said "From the Genesis story (comes) the importance of us being good stewards of the land." "My faith teaches me to take an intergenerational view... we are borrowing this land from our children," he said. He went on to talk about how religion can help with our efforts to stop global warming. "Because it's going to be hard to do, we have to find resources within ourselves to make the necessary sacrifices. Believing the planet is here for more generations to come, religion can bolster our ability to make those sacrifices... and I hope to rally the world to meeting the challenge of global warming." He also talked about religion in the court of public opinion (it belongs there, but in a humble way that doesn't assume that people with other opinions shouldn't be there too), regarding abortion and end of life decisions (he also came from an inclusive point of view), regarding human rights as relates to the use of torture (he was absolutely against it, including "subcontracting torture to other countries"), and regarding poverty (he accepted the challenge to commit to reducing poverty in America by 50 percent in 10 years and gave a whole, integrated systemic answer to what that would require).
Third, he walked the walk in the one way he could in this forum (but also in a way consistent with how he has conducted himself during the campaign). He "turned the other cheek" and refrained from attacking Hillary when responding to her charge that he is an out of touch elitist based on his "bitter" remarks in San Francisco. He explained what he had been talking about in that setting, but then referred to the take on his comments offered up by Hillary (and John McCain's campaign as well) as part of the old-style politics he wants to change. And, as proven after the forum when CNN played the tape of the defense he offered at an event earlier in the day, he used humor to address the attacks on him... not anger - even though at the beginning of the forum the moderator Campbell Brown mistakenly claimed that his "Shame on her" statements at that earlier event were said in anger. The tape showed that they were said in a sarcastic not angry tone of voice, which Campbell Brown acknowledged after watching it herself. You can watch this 8 minute tape here. Am I saying Barack never gets angry? No, of course I'm not. But as you will see in this video (imperfect person as he readily admits he is) he works very hard to practice the principle "Love thy neighbor" even in a situation where you might say he has the "right" to be angry (because he's being slammed with his own words taken out of context).
As delighted as I was to watch Barack on the subject of religion and his political life, I was equally delighted to watch Hillary on the subject as well. And given that each candidate spoke for about 45 minutes (separately, with Hillary going first and then leaving when it was Barack's turn), it was a really rich conversation.
Now, Hillary said many fine things too. I really appreciated how open she was in talking about difficult subjects, some of which (like abortion and end of life decisions, and global warming) were identical to those Barack talked about while others (human rights in China) were not. I have no doubt she would bring a spiritual perspective to the policies she would seek to implement. And I have not doubt that she practices her faith in her personal life and that it helped her become the person she is today just as religion helped Barack become who he is today.
But on the subject of faith and "politics as process"... in other words, faith and how she personally interacts with people and makes decisions when formulating policy... I experienced a huge disconnect as I listened to her speak.
About 11 minutes into the program - and after, in answer to being asked about Barack's controversial comments, she had reiterated her position that he was elite and out of touch and that this was a perception that the Democratic Party had worked hard to overcome in the minds of working class voters - Hillary said "Politics is not a game, because (with it) we have a chance to let other people live up to their God given potential."
Helping people fulfill their potential in the world of politics. As I heard her say this, all I could think was "How can you talk about politics in that context when, in practice, you see it as a never ending battle against all those bad political people out there?" and "Why - if you want all people to reach their potential - are you running a campaign in which you are trying to tear Barack Obama down by twisting what he says around and using other half-truths and deceptive tactics?" (I know some may say I'm wishing for a utopia, but that kind of campaign is possible. Just look at how Mike Huckabee campaigned against John McCain towards the end.)
Three or four minutes later, Hillary got into the spiritual aspects (the best way I can think to call it, given the nature of the show) of her decision making process. With as much sincerity as I would expect from anyone speaking what they believe, she said "You have to be willing to expose yourself to many points of view before you make a decision."... "You can't just surround yourself with people with whom you agree."..."I hope I will never be dismissive of people who don't agree with me."
Listening to her say these things, two thoughts came to mind. Either she believes this is who she really is while being completely unaware that she really is the opposite... or she is saying what she thinks her audience wants to hear, while knowing it isn't true.
Why did I have these thoughts? Because I know that she prefers her "town hall meetings" to be very controlled situations with friendly (and sometimes even "planted") questions... I know her national health care task force rejected serious discussion of a single-payer system... and that a Democratic Congressman whose name is escaping me at the moment and who wanted to help the health care task for was told to get lost (except Hillary actually used profanity).
There are other examples I'm sure we can all think of that demonstrate that Hillary actually suffers from "smartest person in the room" syndrome... partial evidence of which is her inability to admit that she ever makes a mistake.