Obama and McCain at Saddleback

All righty . . . watch me tiptoe into delicate territory.  This is not a political blog — that is to say, I don’t want it to be partisan, I don’t want to make it about promoting one party or politician or another.  But HIV/AIDS and related issues intersect all too often with politics, so it comes up, and needs to be dealt with.

Tonight the major party US presidential candidates participated in a “civil forum” at Saddleback Church, moderated by Pastor Rick Warren.  It was broadcast live and in full by CNN, and it was very, very interesting.  (Which, by the way, is not how I would describe your average scene of politicians talking.)  Warren asked some great questions — frankly, I can only hope that some of the media figures watching this forum will pick up some cues on what’s worth talking about and what’s not.

I doubt this is going to come as a big surprise, but I was especially interested in hearing what the two candidates said about issues relating to health care, social justice, and so on.  Happily, Rick Warren is well-known for caring about these issues, and asked some questions that got at them.  The conversation didn’t touch directly on HIV/AIDS much at all, but I’ll highlight some things that I see as connecting to AIDS and related issues, either directly or indirectly.  It will probably become clear that I think one candidate addressed these issues more effectively than the other, but I really will try to be fair in my coverage of each of them.

On orphans, slaves, and PEPFAR

First just let me say, Rick Warren gets major kudos from me for asking bringing up orphans and human trafficking.  You could practically hear World Vision and IJM cheering in the background.  These were probably the questions that related most directly to social justice issues — unfortunately, Warren didn’t ask about HIV/AIDS, poverty, or the environment, which I expected he would, but he clearly didn’t get to all of his questions, and maybe he ran out of time for those.

Warren asked the candidates what they thought about the huge number of orphans around the world (many of them having lost their parents to AIDS) and whether they would support an emergency plan for dealing with the situation, something akin to PEPFAR.

One good thing to hear in response to this was that Obama strongly endorsed PEPFAR (both he and McCain have supported it in the Senate).  Obama said he would consider working with NGOs and other international groups on emergency aid for orphans, and added that there needs to be a focus on keeping children from becoming orphans by strengthening healthcare in the developing world.  Basically, he kind of dodged the question, which was probably a good idea, because it was far from clear what Warren actually had in mind in terms of a PEPFAR-like approach to the orphan crisis.

When asked the same question, McCain immediately started talking about promoting adoption in the US.  That’s definitely one of his pet issues — he has an adopted daughter himself — and I definitely applaud him for that stance.  That being said, however, I don’t think he actually answered the question Warren was trying to ask.  It seemed like a good answer, but for a different question.

Obama gave an emphatic answer to Warren’s question about addressing human trafficking, saying it “has to be a top priority” and that as president he would try to speak out about the issue, strengthen the tools needed to prosecute traffickers, and work with other countries to crack down on the problem.

I don’t think Warren got to this question with McCain (it was almost the last one he asked Obama).  Someone please leave a comment correcting me on this if I’m wrong!

On faith

Warren asked both candidates what it means to them to follow Jesus, and how that impacts their day-to-day lives.  Both basically said that it means they’re forgiven through their faith in Christ (Obama in particular gave a pretty good short-form statement of the core concept of Christianity).

McCain went on to tell a rather touching story about meeting and being helped by a Christian guard during his time as a POW and, as he described it, worshipping together for one small moment.  This was actually a great illustration of what it means to belong to the Church universal (a.k.a. the “big-C Church”), and could, I think, serve as a good reminder of what it means to be part of a community that goes beyond all borders.

After briefly explaining his beliefs themselves, Obama went on to talk about how he sees Christianity shaping his responsibilities.  He talked about the need to do God’s will, and to be shaped by biblical calls to justice, compassion, etc.  He even quoted part of perennial favorite Micah 6:8: “[…] And what does the LORD require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (NIV).  (Cheers from the Micah Challenge crowd.)  Frankly, I thought Obama did an impressive job of walking that fine line between the extremes of social gospel on the one hand and social disengagement on the other.  Put more positively, I think he managed in his answer to draw on the strengths of both classic evangelical and classic mainline churches.  Broadly speaking, I really appreciated the fact that Obama spoke so clearly about both the benefits and the responsibilities associated with Christianity.

On good and evil

Probably the two most interesting questions for me were, 1) what is America’s biggest moral failing? and, 2) “Does evil exist, and if so, do we ignore it, do we negotiate with it, do we contain it, or do we defeat it?”? (Just as a side note, I thought the phrasing of that question was one of the few low points in terms of Warren’s moderation — all four options he listed are loaded terms that have often been used as political catchphrases.  Not great choice of words, in my opinion, but on the whole an excellent question.)

I actually thought both candidates gave quite good answers to the first question.  John McCain talked about America’s failure to look beyond its own self-interest (or Americans’ failure to look beyond their own self-interest — he seemed to lean more in that personal direction in the later part of his answer).  I’ve written before about what I see as the need for nations to think much less in terms of their own restricted interests and much more in terms of the good of humanity, so I was pleasantly suprised to hear McCain bring this up.  Frankly, I wish he’d taken the idea futher — he seemed to pretty much toe the line on American self-interest in his answers to some of the other questions — but I very much appreciated the fact that he got it in there at least in the one place.

Obama said he thinks America’s greatest moral problem is its failure to care for “the least of these” (referencing Matthew 25:31-46) domestically and throughout the world.  I thought this was a great answer, encompassing problems of injustice, lack of compassion, exploitation, and plenty more.  Essentially, this passage says that whatever believers do for the needy among them, it is as if they were doing it for Jesus Himself.

Anyway, as I said, I thought both candidates gave really good answers to the question about America’s moral failings.  There was much more of a contrast between their responses to the question about dealing with evil, which you can watch below.

I have to say, just based on the comments on that video’s YouTube site, it seems like Obama’s getting a lot of flack for being overly ambiguous or nuanced on that answer, but I actually thought he gave one of the best and most realistic descriptions of what it means to live in a fallen world — a world with evil in it — that I’ve heard in a long time.  Yes there is evil, yes we can and must fight it.  But we shouldn’t think we (whoever “we” is in a given situation) are exempt from evil ourselves, or think that we can’t go wrong if only our intentions are good.  Evil is much more pervasive than we might like to think, and we have to be humble enough to take that seriously.  (I hate to pull out this out of the theological bag, but . . . total depravity, anyone?)  As Obama very rightly said, only God can completely defeat evil, but we all should do our part as “soldiers” in that battle.

Now that I’ve said all that, it probably won’t surprise anyone that I was pretty dismayed when I heard McCain’s answer to the same question.  For one thing, by saying so unequivocally that we should / he would “Defeat it” (i.e. defeat evil), he missed the points that Obama so eloquently made.  From a religious perspective, I’d say the problem with the attitude he embodied can be summed up in the ever-popular catchphrase, “God is God and we are not.”  From a social policy perspective, I think that kind of thoroughgoing, unquestioning confidence in one’s own (or one’s state’s) righteousness is both naive and dangerous.  As for the fact that in his response McCain seemed to see “evil” as a synonym for terrorists of the “radical Islamic extremist” variety . . . well, that opens up all kinds of problems.  A few questions that sprang to my mind: what about social and economic injustice? what about people dying because they can’t get the healthcare they need? what about wars and ethnic violence, discrimination, hatred, exploitation, apathy, greed . . . and on and on?  Don’t those count as evil?  Don’t those evils exist?

Perhaps ironically, I thought there was a lot of food for thought in the candidates’ answer to that question — not just in terms of policy, but also from a philosophical and theological perspective.


It’s probably pretty obvious at this point that I think Obama came across better in the forum, at least in terms of the issues I tend to look at for this blog.  Part of the reason is that he just talked more about justice/compassion sorts of issues.  In this respect I think he was more responsive to the questions being asked and the points Warren was trying to get at, while McCain was more dogged in sticking to the big talking points of his campaign (Iraq, national security, energy, national security, Iraq . . .).  Obama also gave much more nuanced answers.  I find it more than a little depressing that a lot of people seem to see this as a negative for Obama.  The world is complicated — HIV/AIDS presents a prime example.  Sometimes you really need nuance, not quick yes/no answers.  (By the way, I’m not saying that McCain doesn’t have nuance in his thinking, just that he wasn’t expressing much of it in the forum.)

Anyway, there you have some of my thoughts on the Saddleback forum.  I was grateful for the opportunity to hear the candidates talk about some of these issues, and hope they’ll come up in future debates.  In the meantime, to learn more about health and poverty issues in the election, check out health08.org and ONE Vote ’08.  (A July 22 blog post on ONE Vote shows McCain talking up ONE on MSNBC.)


~ by h.e.g. on August 17, 2008.

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