About that “pay grade” answer . . .

lifebeginsat40Last week I noted that Beliefnet‘s Steve Waldman listed Sen. Barack Obama’s “pay grade” answer at the Saddleback Forum as one of the reasons he’s struggling with the evangelical vote. He also cited the Obama campaign media buy of a staunch abortion rights ad that didn’t mention anything about abortion reduction. The Politico is running a list of the eight top gaffes from this campaign season. Guess what’s not on it?

But even though Politico doesn’t view Obama’s abortion answer as a gaffe, he does. He said so on This Week with George Stephanopoulos in an interview that needs to be highlighted. I don’t have the transcript yet (this will take you right to the relevant questions) but Mike Allen has an early report up, also at Politico:

Barack Obama says his answer about abortion at the Saddleback Church forum was “probably” too flip.

During separate televised interviews last month, Pastor Rick Warren asked the two presidential candidates when a baby gets human rights. Obama replied that the question is “above my pay grade,” while John McCain won love from the right by saying quickly, “At the moment of conception.”

Now, Obama tells ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in an interview taped for “This Week”: “What I intended to say is that, as a Christian, I have a lot of humility about understanding when does the soul enter into . . . It’s a pretty tough question. And so, all I meant to communicate was that I don’t presume to be able to answer these kinds of theological questions.”

In the ABC interview, Obama goes on to give the answer he wishes he’d given: “What I do know is that abortion is a moral issue, that it’s one that families struggle with all the time. And that in wrestling with those issues, I don’t think that the government criminalizing the choices that families make is the best answer for reducing abortions.

“I think the better answer — and this was reflected in the Democratic platform — is to figure out, how do we make sure the young mothers, or women who have a pregnancy that’s unexpected or difficult, have the kind of support they need to make a whole range of choices, including adoption and keeping the child.”

A few things. Kudos to Allen for correctly reporting that the question was not about when human life begins but, rather, when human rights begin. We’ve noticed more than a few reporters flubbing this.

And I’m glad that This Week provides a forum for Obama to express more of his views. Incidentally, pro-life Democrats at the convention in Denver said they had tried to include in the platform a statement that abortion is a moral issue. While they thought their chances were good since both Obama and Hillary had made statements about this, they were shot down. Anyway, Stephanopoulos doesn’t follow-up on any aspect of Obama’s answer. For instance, it would be great to ask what ensoulment has to do with human rights. Or it would be great to find out why Obama believes the question of when human rights begin is a theological question.

Who knew that ensoulment would be such a major news story this year? It’s a major angle not only for Obama’s approach to answering the human rights question but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s claim about when Saint Augustine thought life began. Catholic bishops were quick to respond that Augustine was talking about ensoulment, not when human life begins.

On that note, Roman Catholic Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco invited Pelosi on Friday to learn what the church actually teaches and she accepted the invitation. It’s gotten surprisingly little coverage, although the Associated Press ran a brief and anemic report on the matter. The only article with teeth that I read was Julia Duin’s with the Washington Times.

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  • http://www.originalfaith.com/ Paul Maurice Martin

    I know what you mean. And who’d have thought, even a few decades ago, that theological debates would have any place in running for the presidency of the United States of America.

  • Jerry


    I told myself that I’d try to post less here for a bit, but I can’t resist this topic, partly because this is a question that I think is at the heart of the abortion debate, at least for me.

    First, I really agree with your analysis. It’s time for the media (and the rest of us) to stop playing “gotcha” every time someone does not say what they mean no matter what our political affiliation is. Only those who never accidentally misspeak have that right. So if someone says something off the cuff, they should be given space to clarify their statement.

    As to “probably made a mistake” – most people can’t say “I made a mistake”. Many won’t admit it at all. Many, like Obama, will use words such as “probably”. Thirty-nine years of marriage have taught me to just say “I made a mistake” (often multiple times:-). I personally am ready to accept a mea culpa no matter how worded nor by whom.

    it would be great to ask what ensoulment has to do with human rights. Or it would be great to find out why Obama believes the question of when human rights begin is a theological question.

    That is a key question and I agree should be asked but one with no obvious answer even from a Catholic perspective (from the earlier topic):

    “The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature [as to the time of ensoulment], but it constantly affirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion.”

    If someone says that destroying a fetus is murder no matter when it happens, they don’t have to confront that question. Otherwise, I think they do and that’s why I think it’s a question Obama should answer. A fair answer is “I don’t know the answer to that, but I would use viability as the answer”. But there needs to be some answer if you consider abortion at least a moral question.

    It is a question that is already partially answered de facto since there’s a distinction between abortion in the first and third trimester. But I think it’s valuable to make people’s answers explicit.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jerry wrote:

    It’s time for the media (and the rest of us) to stop playing “gotcha” every time someone does not say what they mean no matter what our political affiliation is. Only those who never accidentally misspeak have that right. So if someone says something off the cuff, they should be given space to clarify their statement.

    I always give my sources a chance to clarify their statements and I think this is why I’m never going to be a major reporter. What good does it do to play gotcha? Yes, you get a dramatic story . . . but one that’s wrong. What’s the good in that?

  • FW Ken

    the church’s top sacrament.

    I’ve never heard it put that way. It’s technically accurate, I guess, but… a unique turn of phrase. :-)

    I thought the AP article was a good complement to Ms. Duin’s piece, focusing, as it did, on Speaker Pelosi’s response.

    say that the church from its earliest days has considered abortion evil.

    This is particularly good phrasing. Yesterday, my own priest put it that from the first century, abortion has been “against the Church’s teaching”, a phrase that fairly invites an Invictus response: the noble individual standing up to the mean, tyranical institution. In fact, the church’s understanding – consistent since the first century, despite technical debates about ensoulment, is that abortion is intrinsically evil.

  • http://www.InklingBooks.com/ Mike Perry

    Read medical journals from the latter half of the nineteenth century, and you will discover that our original state laws against abortion were put into place by physicians who could care less about these issues of ‘ensoulment’ that had confounded religious debates about the topic for centuries. How odd to find liberal politicians, for whom religion is often a posture, retreating into that unknowable muddle while religious conservatives merely talk about the baby’s undeniable and scientific humanity.

    And in the end their arguments won’t carry water. If we don’t execute serial killers unless their guilt is established ‘beyond a shadow of a doubt,’ then why do we execute babies in the millions when there’s far more room for debate? Doubt means abortion should not be legal.

    English common also made a distinction at quickening since at that time it was the first moment when a woman could be sure she was pregnant and hence that an abortion procedure would abort an actual baby. The principle had nothing to do with the risk abortion at that time posed to the mother. If a woman was scheduled for execution in those rougher times, a pregnancy would delay that execution until after the baby had been born. It is my own suspicion that the invention of the stethoscope in the early 19th century meant that doctors could tell that the baby was active long before quickening, demolishing still further any ensoulment at quickening argument. The baby didn’t lie inert in mother’s abdomen until some magical moment when God waved a wand and, zap, the baby begins to kick. Two centuries ago, there was reason for confusion about this issue. Today, particularly with ultrasound imaging, there’s no excuse for this ignorance.

    Finally, I find it rather bizarre to hear Obama or almost any liberal talking to the press about respecting the wishes and desires of families. Such arguments are shallow to the point of being bogus and ought to be challenged by any thinking journalist.

    1. If the matter is a family matter, why don’t fathers have any say? And, flipping the argument around, why isn’t there an equivalent of abortion, based on privacy from state interference, for men? Why can’t a man simply see a lawyer sometime in the nine months after he’s informed of the pregnancy and create legal documents that allow him to opt out of forced parenthood? (Welfare costs are why. Abortion is cheap, supporting mothers deprived of child support would cost a fortune.) The absence of that all too obvious provision in law utterly destroys the personal life choice arguments the Supreme Court has been using to justify abortion since the early 1980s. It also demonstrates that those arguments have nothing to do with why the Court majority supports legalized abortion. Again, those are questions journalists should be asking.

    2. If liberal Democrats are so sensitive to family privacy issues, why aren’t they campaigning for:

    a. Non-intervention in family life when a early-teen daughter is pregnant. Instead we have a government that funds people to sneak around a parent’s back to dispense contraceptives and arrange abortions. In many states, such as my own Washington, we have ‘lie laws’ which require physicians and others to lie to parents to conceal their child’s sexual history. That demonstrates a contempt for family life.

    b. If family choice is so important, why do liberal Democrats line up to oppose laws that would let parents choose how their children are educated? A poor black mother who wants to “choose” to abort her child gets their suspiciously zealous support. If that same mother wants to choose where her unaborted children go to school, they are her strongest foes.

    I could go on, but my point seems obvious. Obama scrambled his original reply because he can’t go public with his real reasons for supporting abortion and his later reply to ABC’s Stephanpolous in no way reflects his POV. It’s merely what his handlers are now telling him to say. They are the Democratic party’s latest talking points about abortion.

    By the way, race relations used to be just as touchy as abortion now is. As President, Teddy Roosevelt ignited a firestorm of criticism in the press for daring to dine with Booker T. Washington at the White House. If he’d merely shook the black inventor’s hand at some public event that would have been OK. But dining with him demonstrated too much intimacy and equality for the mindset of that era. In a similar fashion, today’s press and many politicians (including Obama) seem to lack the moral imagination to consider unborn babies as one of us. For them, willingly having a child with Down’s makes no sense. It’s not only having Booker T. Washington over for dinner, it’s inviting him to move into the Lincoln bedroom and stay.

    Moral imagination is a term used by G. K. Chesterton to describe how some people seem incapable of seeing a wrong as a wrong. He applied it during WWI to Prussians who could not believe that the wars they started were wrong. J. R. R. Tolkien picked it up, noting that in the Lord or the Rings Sauron is incapable of imagining that anyone possessing the ring would not use it ruthlessly and would instead seek to destroy it. Moral imagination lies at the heart of our debate about abortion.

    That is why the life of Sarah Palin, mother of five, including a baby with Downs, makes no sense to many in the press. She can’t be good. She must have some great evil lurking in her past, hence all the rumor mongering. She also must be destroyed because her presence in public life is too unsettling. Or, failing that, her ‘sin’ (in their secular religion) of having such a baby, when 92% of babies with Downs are aborted, means she should be properly ‘punished,’ for her heresy by being forced out of public life.

    Sarah Palin is radically violating the bargain feminism has made with liberalism–that women would be allowed to advance in a man’s world if they abort whenever a child would be a hinderance. With a greater moral imagination, she’s insisting on playing by a different set of rules, keeping her new baby in a crib in the governor’s office and carrying him with her to meetings and on trips.

    And need I point out that Obama seems singularly lacking in moral imagination? That distinction lies at the heart of why Palin has so suddenly transformed the race for President. No one else could have done that.

    –Michael W. Perry, Chesterton on War and Peace

  • Ben

    Hi Mike,

    Regarding point #1, if the man had the choice to abort, you’d frequently have conflicting desires, one parent wanting to keep child, one parent wanting to abort. There’s no compromise that could resolve that dispute. Since the mother bears the physical burden of carrying the baby, there’s logic — if you are going to grant the choice to abort — to give it to the woman alone.

    You’ve got an interesting theory about the bargain feminism has made with liberalism, but I think that falls apart when you look at the role feminist groups play championing family leave legislation.

    Sorry this is off topic, but gosh-darn it, someone is wrong on the Internet! :-)

  • liberty

    What frustrates me about reporting on this is most people seem to have ignored the biggest problem of Obama’s answer at the Saddleback forum which is this… he was NOT asked a theological question or a medical question. He was asked a POLITICAL question which he then tried to answer in a medical/theological way.

    What he was asked was not when does life begin (a medical question) or when does ensoulment occur (a theological question)… he was asked “At what point is a baby entitled to human rights?” an explicitly political question.

    In my opinion he didn’t answer the question effectively as a political question because it was not what he was prepared for. He expected a theological or scientific question and when faced with a political question he bobbed and weaved and never really answered it at all.

    I thought it was a very good question because it avoided the theological/scientific aspects and just asked the political question of a politician. I wish more members of the media would ask questions that were that well targeted.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Your comment is the point that has driven GetReligion’s commentary on Saddleback. Check it out.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Much of the MSM is speaking and writing that Gov. Palin is dead as a candidate if she even makes one gaffe or factual mistake as they “vet” her. Is this media sexism?? For Obama, like Biden, is becoming notorious for having foot in mouth disease. First Obama talks of people in small-town America hugging their guns and Bibles to an elitist audience in San Fran. Then he makes his pay grade gaffe, and now the latest verbal slip: “My Muslim faith” to George Steph. And there have been others. Yet he really doesn’t take much grief for these (usually defended instead) since I have not yet heard him described as gaffe-prone.
    And the list of Biden’s gaffes are enough to fill a small joke book. Among the best being his wisecrack about all those Indians working in the quick-marts in Delaware.
    So, actually, Gov. Palin should have a very low bar
    to jump over. But, somehow, I think that the media will create a gaffe out of nothing, if necessary.
    For example, I notice CNN, after sending at least 3 investigative reporters to Alaska, called words and prayers Gov. Palin spoke in a church “controversial.” Yet they were words I and many other Catholic clergy have spoken regularly in church–especially praying that we and our country are doing God’s will.
    No wonder the MSM gets its well-earned reputation for elitism.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Now, Obama tells ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in an interview taped for “This Week”: “What I intended to say is that, as a Christian, I have a lot of humility about understanding when does the soul enter into . . . It’s a pretty tough question.

    Not sure if the Obama quote was redacted or not. Did he actually pause, then go onto another thought? Did he hesitate giving the entity within a mother’s womb a name?

    Kudos to Allen for correctly reporting that the question was not about when human life begins but, rather, when human rights begin.

    The way the question was phrased was masterful on Warren’s part. It put a new facet on an old debate. It could very well trip up someone running on nuance or popular position rather than on conviction. Obviously Barak Obama blew it not just once but twice. The first time he stated it was his pay grade even though he is running for an office that is supposed to protect rights. That IS the pay grade of the CEO job he’s applying for (I suspect he’s submitting a McDonald’s application for the job). Then, even though he’s obviously thought about the answer, he still “boots” the ball with George S.

    I guess, though, that any number of answers would open up more issues for Barack. If indeed he sought to kill a bill that would have required saving the life of a baby born despite an attempt at abortion, then if he answers a baby has righs at birth his actions in the Illinois Senate belie his statement.

  • Martha

    Human rights is not a theological question. It’s a moral, ethical, legal and even philosophical one, but you don’t need to be religious to discuss it.

    That’s a very bad slip to make, and when you add in the “above my paygrade” remark, he’s digging his own grave.

    After all, he’s running for President – he’s putting himself forward as eager to take the responsibility, capable of handling it – and then he goes “Ah, no, that kind of decision is too tough for me; lemme kick it upstairs to the boss”? Barack, *you’re* going to be the boss; if you don’t want to make those kind of decisions, then it raises the question of who is going to make them for you?

    I agree: whoever would have thought ensoulment would have been trotted out as the figleaf to cover the moral dilemma?

  • Martha

    You may be interested to know that Senator Joe Biden has followed the Nancy Pelosi trail on “Meet The Press”, and has trotted out the same kind of answer as she did (except that where she co-opted St. Augustine, Joe is using St. Thomas Aquinas, and already the Catholic bloggers are catching him out – it wasn’t in the “Summa Theologica” but in the “Commentary on the Sentences” that St. Thomas discussed ensoulment):


    And yes, the bishops are lining up to take a crack at him as well :-)
    - Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, WI delivered a sermon on Sunday homily on this topic and Archbishop Chaput of Denver has released a statement entitled “Public Servants and Moral Reasoning: A notice to the Catholic community in northern Colorado”:


    The really interesting thing, as pointed out on the “American Papist” blog, is that the new Bishop of Maryland is to be installed today and Senator Biden may attend the Mass. If he does, and if he goes up to receive Communion, what’s going to happen?

  • Dave

    Martha (#11), the President is not the absolute boss. Congress can override a veto by a 2/3 vote in each house, and can start the Constitutional amendment process by a like vote with the President having no role. The Supreme Court can overrule and even compel a President, as Nixon found out to his sorrow. The Constitution lists things that are off limits for the federal government, thus for the President.

  • Dave2

    I’m delighted to see so many people acknowledging that ethical and legal questions are not theological questions (or at least that we cannot start out assuming that they are). I will keep this thread in mind for future controversies touching on the point.