Some Thoughts on Substance at Saddleback

My thoughts on the Saddleback Forum on the Presidency? Overall, I thought John McCain looked and sounded really old. I thought he spoke in sound bites. I thought it was absurd that he had to reach back some forty years for a story about his faith. I agreed with young Brian and Lauren in that he reminded me of a grandpa reliving (and relying on) his glory days rather than a future-focused leader. In short, I thought Obama was the more thoughtful, engaging candidate.

It may surprise some readers that I was not particularly bothered by Obama’s answers on abortion and stem cell research since I’ve been a vocal opponent of both. Life is certainly more precious to me now than ever in light of my son’s death earlier this year. However, like other evangelicals and post-evangelicals, I’m much less likely to base my vote on these issues than I might have been in previous elections. 

The reasons are myriad, but I’ll start with this: there are moments when I feel like a statistic—just another mother of a young, black man who died a tragic, senseless death in the context of a racialized society. Whether I look at his death from a psycho-social perspective or a purely medical one, issues that relate to the quality of life for African Americans are viscerally important to me in this election cycle.

Given my interview focus for this event, I was struck by the disconnect between the predominantly white evangelical audience’s responses and the concerns of their African American brethren, which, in my interviews, centered on the economy and health care. Jobs and good health go together, in case anyone was wondering.

I wish I could write about a particular health insurance nightmare that my family is currently dealing with, but I am not at liberty to do so. The situation is akin to one I blogged about some time ago in regard to a black mother whose teenage son had died from a heart defect. The boy’s brother had the same defect and had already suffered two heart attacks. He could not work and thus could not afford the medication that would keep him alive. He had been repeatedly turned down for Social Security benefits. This situation is unconscionable. It’s also a pro-life issue that hits me where I live.

I’ve wanted to publicly say for a long time that my goal as a pro-life writer is less about legislation and more about letting women know that having their baby will not ruin their life; doing so will enrich life in challenging, wonderful ways. I believe this more now than ever. I have often wondered why we get so upset about the fate of embryos if we really believe their souls, if they have them, go to be with God. My concern in regard to hESC research has, for some time, centered on who we are as human beings and as a society when we view life, even nascient life, as disposable. These issues are, of course, important matters of law about which I come firmly down on the pro-life side. I just no longer buy the argument that this should be the foundational issue upon which one should base their vote.

As an opponent of hESC research and as a patient advocate, I object to science being pursued and politicized because of the abortion debate. Both candidates were wrong on this issue Saturday night. As I reported here in March, hESC researchers themselves are beginning to declare hESCs a dead end in terms of cures. Why then the excessive investment of limited resources? Why is this still even a question worthy of presidential debate? How about instead asking if the candidates favor regulation of the IVF industry? Even some hESC researchers and IVF doctors are asking for this.

Warren asked two unique questions in my view, the one about making adoption easier and the one about human trafficking. I was glad to hear Obama commit to making adoption easier, particularly if it prioritizes children lingering in foster care here in the United States.

On the human trafficking question, I’m a bit more cynical. As a person acquainted with a SoCal mega-church culture that covers up the sexual abuse of minors and punishes those who speak out, this topic sounds like a feel good way to oppose something far away. Sex slaves in Asia. It costs little for the average American to oppose that from an armchair in suburbia. Not so easy to turn in Uncle Ted when he’s providing financial support to a struggling single parent family, or to risk one’s livelihood when Uncle Ted is a well-connected pastor. If I’ve learned three things about sexual abuse of minors when it’s up close and personal, they are 1) people generally won’t talk, 2) when they do, they will be socially punished, and 3) perpetrators are rarely prosecuted. I wonder, also, how many Orange County evangelicals include in their definition of victims of human trafficking, the undocumented migrants who’ve unwittingly sold themselves into slavery to get across the Mexican/US border? 

As to the question of evil, I found both men’s answers frightening for reasons articulated well by Crunchy Con columnist Rod Dreher. Earlier today, he wrote:

Obama’s nuance, it seems to me, is another word for vagueness. Quinn, a liberal, thinks Obama’s taking a pass on answering Warren’s query about when an unborn child (or, if you prefer, the fetus) acquires human rights is a sign of a supple mind. In fact, by refusing to explain his views, Obama was either being purely political, or revealing that he is not a careful or inquisitive thinker about one of the most critical moral and political issues of our time. “Above my pay grade” is a pure dodge. There is a pro-choice answer to that question, one that I happen to disagree with, but that’s at least philosophically valid. Obama chose not to give it. Why? And why is it considered intellectually respectable by the likes of Quinn that Obama declined to give a straight answer to this question? There is a certain kind of intellectual that sees muddleheadedness as a virtue. It’s the classic liberal weakness: to find, or to seem to find, reasons to excuse evil, or to avoid a confrontation for disreputable reasons.

On the other hand, Kristol views McCain’s utter clarity as a sign of virtue. How anybody can emerge from the Bush years and the Iraq experience with the same Manichaean view of the world and America’s role in it is flabbergasting. But there it is. If Obama was too abstracted — and he was — then McCain was too concrete, and his concreteness was itself a form of ideological abstraction. In other words, by seeming to refuse to recognize complexity in the world and the tragic sense at work in our affairs, McCain evidences living in a world of unreality as well.

Nevertheless, as a political matter, McCain’s approach plays much better with Americans. We like a good story, and we like to understand complex matters of morality and policy in terms of story. When Obama made the perfectly reasonable and necessary point that we have inadvertently done evil in the name of good, he should have brought up Abu Ghraib and torture as examples. He should also have spoken of the unplanned and inadvertent evil of getting our soldiers bound up in wars that seemingly have no end, for no compelling national interest. He might have spoken about how our good intentions about expanding home ownership to more Americans led us to foolishly overextend our financial system.

There are many stories Obama could have told about the cost of imprudence, and he could have — and should have — planted doubts among voters about where the high-minded, crusading verities regarding the nature of Evil and the proper response to it has gotten the country. But he missed that opportunity.

Well those are my thoughts about the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency. Whoops. I forgot to mention gay marriage and the war. Tough issues about which I’ll take a pass for now. Last point: I was glad to hear both men prioritize the energy crisis. As to whether or not journalists should be worried that Warren is going to put them out of a job, I do believe the whole “Cone of Silence” non-debacle speaks for itself, in both substance and silliness.

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7 Comments on “Some Thoughts on Substance at Saddleback

  1. Hah! I noticed yesterday that I called Maureen Dowd, O’Dowd again. I can never remember which one it is. One time I got the spelling right and thought I hadn’t. I made up this little ditty:

    Oh, dear, O’Dowd, I done you wrong
    and did drop your O in couplet.

    Then I realized there was no O. One would think I would get it right after that.

    As to clarity. I don’t know. Not so sure, but thanks.

  2. Chris- really enjoyed your coverage of this event and your commentary on the important issues. It is refreshing to hear alternative points of view from someone with the same basic beliefs as myself. Too often- in the Christian community- we are presented with “right” or “wrong”, with no nuance.

    Interested in your take on Obama’s “taxamania” – being as I live in the most taxed state in America!

  3. Hi Mark,

    Good to hear from you. You give me the opportunity to direct readers to a Bill Moyers interview with Andrew Bacevich, who describes himself as a conservative on every front, but thinks neither candidate is going to address our real problems, which include living above our means, both individually and corporately. I agree with his contention that there really isn’t a functional difference between the parties in terms of spending. The difference is in where the parties want to direct resources. Here’s the link to both the video and the transcript:

    http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/08152008/watch.html

    Blessings and hugs to Connie~

  4. I forgot to mention that Bacevich’s son was killed in Iraq recently, and although he was a strong opponent of the war, he had reportedly supported his son’s desire to serve.

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