Vice President Joe Biden listens as Congressman Paul Ryan speaks during the vice presidential debate in Danville, Ky.
Moderator Martha Raddatz has been justly praised for her commanding performance at Thursday’s vice-presidential debate. Permit me to suggest, however, that her treatment of faith and values issues may have left a little to be desired.
During a short segment on religion, a cathedral-like solemnity suddenly overcame the previously animated Vice President Joe Biden. That’s because the issue at hand was abortion. When Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan skillfully pivoted that conversation to “religious freedom,” the vice president’s grand high spirits continued to dissipate. The Democrats, the deflated veep’s body language seemed to acknowledge, must tread cautiously here.
Biden’s troubles began when the moderator asked the candidates to specify “what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion?” She then encouraged Ryan with the words, “please talk personally about this, if you could.”
The problem is that such an appeal, inadvertently and subtly, bolstered a core conviction of the Religious Right. Namely, that personal religious convictions should–nay, must–serve as a politician’s guide to policy formation. Ryan, for his part, was more than happy to talk personally about this. “I don’t see,” he intoned “how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do.”
Those who are not on the Christian Right, however, don’t feel that one’s personal feelings on a given issue must dictate one’s political stance. And here is why Biden struggled. He couldn’t just speak personally about abortion. In fact, his entire approach to the issue rests on not engaging the abortion issue from a personal level.
Advocating a position strikingly reminiscent of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (a Catholic), Biden opined: “I accept my church’s position on abortion . . . Life begins at conception in the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here.”
Notice that Biden cast his argument in terms of severing the personal from the political. He would not force (religious) others to live by his private religious scruples (which are, apparently, pro-life). He couldn’t, then, just speak personally on the issue, insofar as public service is not, for him, about endowing one’s personal convictions with the force of law.
Under cross-examination from Raddatz, Ryan offered that “we don’t think that unelected judges should make this decision [regarding the legality of abortion]; that people through their elected representatives in reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process should make this determination.”
Thus, the representative from Wisconsin intimated that the repeal of Roe v. Wade would occur in either the legislative branch or on the state level (Of late, Ryan has suggested that decisions about school prayer should be left to the states). When the congressman reiterated his belief that life begins at conception, Raddatz missed the opportunity to ask a crucial follow-up as to whether he favored the controversial “personhood amendments.”
Truth be told, once Raddatz limited her questioning to abortion, she placed Biden on the defensive. For Ryan skillfully pressed his advantage by widening the discussion to include the administration’s HHS mandates and its assault “on the religious liberties of this country.”
Given the opening, Ryan pounced: “They’re infringing upon our first freedom, the freedom of religion, by infringing on Catholic charities, Catholic churches, Catholic hospitals. Our church should not have to sue our federal government to maintain their religious liberties.”
Biden’s mood darkened—as I have noted elsewhere the Obama team would be very happy to never address the sensitive question of “religious freedom.” The vice-president’s two attempts at a redirect to the more Democratic-friendly terrain of Catholic social teachings on the poor failed to click. Had Raddatz followed Biden’s lead Ryan’s mood might have darkened as well.
Jacques Berlinerblau is an associate professor and director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and author of “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom .”