After a campaign overflowing with God-talk – the Compassion Forum and the Saddleback Forum , Obama’s reaching out to Evangelicals and Palin’s energizing the religious right – religious references were almost absent from the Vice Presidential debate.
Palin quipped that Biden’s wife (a teacher) would “find her reward in heaven”, and Biden asked God to protect our troops – and that was about it.
There was a brief mention of Roe v. Wade, a dignified discussion about same-sex relationships, and the typical back-and-forth on Iraq and Afghanistan. But no lectures on Christian morality from Sarah Palin, no mention of Catholic faith by Joe Biden, no debate about whether ‘radical Islamic extremism is the gravest threat we face’ (a frequent McCain applause line) in the foreign policy section.
Maybe the most God talk that happened last night was in the homes of Republican strategists, who you could almost picture pointing to heaven like a wide receiver who just caught a touchdown pass, grateful beyond belief that their Vice Presidential candidate brought some coherence to the debate along with her folksy charm.
You have to wonder what those strategists are going to tell Palin now, though. Remember, conservative Christians like James Dobson were tepid about McCain until Palin – who many view as one of theirs – was selected for the ticket. Who knows what the Dobson crew thought of Palin stressing how tolerant she was of same-sex relationships last night. Remember how big a deal a hard line on the same-sex marriage issue was to the Republicans in 2004? Well, there was no talk of Constitutional amendments to define marriage or direct references to religion in that whole discussion last night – just oblique statements about “tradition”. Which meant there was no joy in Colorado Springs last night.
As well as Palin did in the debate – and I found her generally fluent and likable – that most important audience of hers, conservative Christians, might have been left a little lukewarm.
I predict that faith is going to return to center-stage in this campaign sooner rather than later, and not only because Sarah Palin needs to put it up front in her speeches to please social conservatives.
We typically think about religion only in the context of social issues (what does a candidate’s faith tell them about abortion or same-sex marriage), or foreign policy matters (why is there so much religious conflict in the world), and since those two topics are taking a backseat to the economy, God talk seems to have faded from the scene.
But I actually think our financial problems make faith an even more important issue in the campaign. When the economy hemorrhages jobs, and government has to cut programs because of a lack of tax revenue, it is inevitably faith-based groups who step up and provide the safety net.
I was with John DiIulio – Bush’s first Director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives – a few weeks ago and he emphasized to me the gargantuan amounts of direct service work faith communities provide in areas like job training, child care, homeless shelters, family counseling, and the like. Those programs are going to need to expand as our economy spirals downward, and it’s going to be the time, talent and treasure of people in churches, synagogues and mosques who are going to lead that effort.
Obama has put forth a plan for his White House to work with faith groups on providing direct services to communities – the type of services that are even more needed during hard economic times.
It’s time for McCain to respond with his own plan, and for all the candidates to stress just how much we are going to need Americans of all faiths and no faith at all to help each other through what promises to be a very painful period.