Funny how topics seem to emerge out of the blue and suddenly begin to take on a life force of their own.
Rose-Anne Clermont's thoughtful explorations in her series "A Current between Shores" of the role different life issues have played in the lives of her mother and her mother in law have always been interesting. Other people's lives and views always are, to me. But her joint interview "On Religion" seems to have special relevance this week.
Starting on Sunday evening, in what seemed to be a total departure, the political dialog in the United States has been strangely focused on defining the place and merits of religious faith -- something many believe should be exclusively a matter of private choice, not a matter of public policy. On Sunday the curiously named (and to me, even curiously conceived)first-ever "Compassion Forum" was televised from Messiah College in Pennsylvania, in which Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the two Democratic contenders for the presidency, took questions from two TV reporters, a select group of ministers from various religious traditions, and from an evangelical Social Justice outreach group called the Sojourners.
The candidates responded thoughtfully and at length as to how their Christian faith informed their political views and how it would influence their leadership if they should become President. Topics ranged from "Why does a loving God allow innocent people to suffer" to predictable and surprisingly blunt issue-focused questions such as "Do you believe that life begins at conception?" Regardless of their answers to specific questions, what was clearly demonstrated was the very real role that faith plays in the lives of both Democratic contenders. The very revelation that these highly educated, highly intelligent people put a high value on faith makes some of their more secular supporters squirm with discomfort...
The event also marked the emergence of a Democratic party which seems to have finally realized how important faith, and the values informed by faith, are for much of the American electorate. It is also an acknowledgment of the historic role that faith-informed values have played in the American experience. In past elections, this entire topic was presumed to be an area reserved more for Republican politicians.
My own adult daughter was close to horrified to hear Barack and Hillary speaking of having faith and was definitely offended that ministers and Sojourners were getting to press their concerns. My own feelings were more ambivalent.
I was raised by devout Irish Catholics who never questioned their faith. It never occurred to them that their children might not continue to live that faith as fervently as they had done. I have one first cousin who is a priest, who worked among runaways and street people in Boston for years and later ran a parish for decades. His sister was the President or head of a national order of nuns. Although we are more than 20 years apart in age and I grew up in suburban DC, not in an Irish neighborhood in Boston, I know them to be exceptionally bright people who committed themselves very early on to doing what they could to make the world better for others, and who consciously committed to living their own lives in a continuing attempt to be the best human beings they could. I believe such people exist and that their motives and efforts are to be respected. I do not believe they are always right in their judgments, but that they try compels my respect. I place equal value on their fellows among Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and every other religious or ethical group making an honest attempt to live a spiritual, selfless life. They may not succeed, but they try.
To my amazement I realized that the focus on faith would take on yet another dimension on Wednesday, April 16th, when Pope Benedict will arrive for a six day visit to the US amidst a huge media blast. Curiously enough, in the first such move in his presidency, President Bush together with Mrs. Bush and his daughter Jenna will meet the Pope's plane, "The Good Shepherd," on the tarmac in Washington DC. The Pope will go on to appear in New York City after DC. The response of the faithful will border on the frenzied, I would think.
Planned or not, all this is taking place in the midst of a hotly contested political primary race. The next primary election will be held in Pennsylvania on April 22nd. There are nearly 70 million Catholics in the United States, about 20 percent of the electorate, and they represent about 30% of the Pennsylvania electorate. This has led to speculation that Catholics, who could tip the balance in a close contest, especially in Pennsylvania, may be looking to the Pope for some guidance. Yet what he spoke of pre-trip (admirably) was that he was "ashamed" of the rampant pedophilia which has been exposed within the US Church in recent years. As he should be. His positions on abortion, on Islam (hostile), on immigration and on solving poverty are also sure to get attention. Whether one of those issues turns into a political football because of what the Pope says remains to be seen.
Rarely in my lifetime has religion garnered so much attention in a political campaign in one week. "On Religion" gives us a historical context in which to view this week's events. Although it's a long time since I've considered myself religious, perhaps it's time we took a dispassionate look at the concerns of those who are, and give them credit for what they feel and what they contribute to our society. There has to be room for us all at the table or we are not the people and society we think we are and want to be.