Faithful Politics

Being faithful with our politics, not political with our faith.

Debate Review: Thanksgiving Family Forum

It seems to me as though the 2008 elections just finished, so I have not watched a single debate this year.  It’s going to be a long election season (still 11 months left), so like a nuclear clean-up team, I try to only expose myself in small doses.

I do not enjoy political primaries.  The mudslinging, the over-reporting of ‘scandals,’ the underreporting of substantive issues, complete lack of nuance, and infighting leave a bad taste in my mouth.  Furthermore, I don’t extend a lot of trust to politicians, much less when they are obviously targeting the vote of a specific audience.  I hate being pandered to; simply quoting the Bible will not win my vote.

So it was with some cynicism that I started to watch the Citizen Link Republican Primary Debate.  It took place at First Federated Church in Des Moines, Iowa the Friday before Thanksgiving.  The main Republican contenders, minus Romney,* sat around a table done up to look like it was waiting for a holiday feast.  Basically, if a person was going to attempt to pander to the social conservative vote, this would be the perfect environment in which to do so.

So let’s see how the candidates did.  I’ll summarize each participant’s performance, and then evaluate the debate in general.  I’ll try to evaluate the candidates based just on this debate, not on what I’ve heard about them elsewhere.  Remember, these are my personal views.  Please read my other articles on this site if you would like more perspective on my opinions and biases.

Herman Cain: Unimpressive.  He wasn’t quite as eloquent as the others, some of his answers wandered off-topic.  His response to the moderator’s question about state rights didn’t make sense.  (Do the governors have the right to tell Washington ‘no’ on issues of morality? C: If it’s morally wrong.)  I did like some of the remarks he made, such as emphasizing that the role of government was to ensure a level playing field for its citizens.  Also, he stated that freedom and morality cannot be divorced- you can’t infringe on others’ liberty or life, including the unborn.

Michelle Bachmann: While no one can doubt her devotion to the pro-life, anti-gay marriage causes, her answers revealed a candidate with something of a martyr mentality about Christianity in our society.  She believes that pastors on the right are being censored, which I don’t think is accurate.  Her answer about the morality of war was unclear, trying to have her cake and eat it too, answering that she would commit overwhelming force for a vital interest, including special forces with increased interrogation powers, without defining either of those terms.  She then added a throwaway line about being careful of unnecessary foreign entanglements.

There is no doubt in my mind that she would be a fierce, sincere defender of life and traditional marriage, but she didn’t go into the ‘hows’ or very deep into the whys, so I question how effective she would be.

Rick Perry:  Good, but not a standout performance.  He didn’t come across as well prepared as Gingrich or Paul, and not as passionate as Bachmann or Santorum.  He mentioned the tenth amendment several times, saying that issues like education and healthcare should be left up to the states.  I agree with his proposition that foreign aid should start at zero (even Israel, he allowed), forcing us to reevaluate the countries that we give to.  Some of his ideas seemed far-fetched, such as abolishing the Department of Education and turning its responsibilities over to the states.

Newt Gingrich: I think Gingrich was the winner of this debate.  He was very specific about his policy proposals, very eloquent, started most of his remarks with a pithy quote or book reference, and had several ‘money’ lines that drew cheers from the audience.   (On OWS: ‘Go get a job right after you take a bath.’)  I also appreciate that he recognizes the value of American belief in general- that it is acknowledgement of an absolute morality, and an eternal life, that causes us to believe in inalienable rights and give value to human life.

Rick Santorum: Santorum was also a very strong participant.  You could have heard a pin drop as he told about his daughter, born with a rare birth defect that the doctors said was a death sentence.  He became emotional as he discussed the issues of abortion and special needs children, and how if the government makes our medical decisions, people like his daughter would not have been given the care they needed to survive (she is still alive today at 3 yrs old).  He and his wife homeschool their children, and he spoke strongly for giving parents more choices for educating their children.  I also liked his answer to the question about the morality of war, describing the current conflict as a small battle in the long war between Islamic extremism and the West, which has intensified through new technology.  He would be in favor of a military strike on Iran to prevent them from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Ron Paul: I found Paul to be a convincing participant, but he was unable to connect with the audience on a personal level like many of the others did.  I found myself agreeing with just about everything he said, mainly because I agree with the premise that the federal government’s duty is to enforce the law and provide a level playing field- anything else should be left to the state government or the family.  Contrary to what is said (or implied) by Bachmann and Perry, morality starts in the family and the culture, and is then reflected in the government.  If the government were to assume the role of promoting morality, it would lead to a loss of liberty.

Overall, the debate was very engaging and revealing.  I came away from it less cynical about the candidates- for the most part, they struck me as sincere in their beliefs, and devoted to protecting unborn life, the family, and their faith. I will most likely vote for whichever of this group wins the nomination. In the end, especially on domestic issues, I must agree with Ron Paul.  Bachmann and Perry are right about diminishing religious freedom in America; faith-based adoption centers should not be shuttered for their objection to placing babies in same-sex families.  Pastors should not be afraid of speaking their mind on politically ‘hot’ issues.  But I would not want to see the government become more oppressive, even if it was helmed by someone with my exact beliefs.

The main thing that I didn’t like about the debate was that it forced the candidates to confirm their faith- specifically, Christian evangelical faith.  I happen to share this faith, but I absolutely disagree with the idea that we should judge others on the sincerity of their faith- this is between the individual and God.  We should use wisdom and discernment to find the leader who will be the most wise, effective, and respectful of human life.


*According to the event website, Romney was invited to participate.

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  1. hey Tim, enjoyed reading your post, which I thought was well measured and thought-provoking. Was particularly intrigued by this statement: “Morality starts in the family and the culture, and is then reflected in the government. If the government were to assume the role of promoting morality, it would lead to a loss of liberty.” If you take laws as a (admittedly flawed) legislation of morality, don’t all governments promote morality? Please elaborate.

    • Chris! Thanks for the comment.

      In that statement, I was trying to clarify the difference between bottom-up morality and top-down morality. Bottom up would be small scale, i.e., parents teaching their children to respect others, not to steal, to care for the less fortunate, be good citizens, etc. Top-down would be the imposition of moral rules on a society. Yes, every law has its basis in some form of morality, and a government may share my moral values exactly, but there’s a big difference between a parent teaching their child to have good table manners, and a government enacting laws criminalizing bad table manners. The former leaves the individual sovereign over their own choices, and the latter would require huge losses of privacy, huge costs for the government to install cameras and hire whistleblowers- not to mention that it wouldn’t be as effective.

      So which moral choices should the government be involved in? I admit that I haven’t worked this all out myself- I would probably come pretty close to John Stuart Mill in saying that government’s role is to protect society, and leave the individual free.

      To put it another way: as a Christian, I believe society would be better off if everyone were followers of Jesus Christ. But a law requiring people to follow Christ would be ridiculous and tyrannical.

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