Looking for religion at the debate

nixon kennedy debateFew things excite me more than a good presidential debate. Tonight I’ll be live blogging certain aspects of the first debate between the Democratic Candidate Barack Obama and the Republican Candidate John McCain. While it is supposed to focus on foreign policy (and no doubt the economy will be something of a topic), my focus will be on any religious aspects that may come up. Other items are fair game for comment of course.

Hopefully viewers will get a sense about how the candidates view issues of religion abroad. Specifically, I’d be curious to see if any candidate expresses a nuanced view of Islam — something beyond broad labels such as “Islamic terrorism” or “Islamic extremism.”

Feel free to leave me your thoughts as we go.

9:11 PM: Does anyone else get the sense that if any aspect of religion comes up in this debate, it will be in a minimal off-hand remark? The economy is simply dominating so far. I’m sure many people out there think that is entirely appropriate.

9:15 PM: McCain is hitting on the pork barrel spending issue and earlier talked about personal accountability. A major theme of these topics is a person’s character. It has less to do with fundamental policy positions, than with a person’s moral compass: pork barrel spending offends McCain’s sense of right and wrong.

9:16 PM: Obama makes the excellent point that pork barrel spending makes up $16 billion of the national budget. While this is true, does that make it OK? Or just less relevant in Obama’s list of priorities? Obama’s clearly against pork barreling, but wants to go further.

9:18 PM: McCain continues to pound on the issue of pork barreling and how it “corrupts people.” It’s a fundamental issue for McCain just as corporate executive salaries is a fundamental issue for Obama. Both are relatively insignificant from a policy perspective but huge in terms of how a person’s moral compass informs their public policies.

9:23: PM: I love debates over taxes. Underneath every debate is a sense of what is just and right in society in terms of who has to pay for what.

9:25 PM: “That’s not true John,” says Obama. Debates in debates over truth and falsehood bring up the Commandment regarding not telling falsehoods. Isn’t politics all about shading the truth about your record and your candidate’s record? Not the best place to attempt to find strong moral character in a politician.

9:29 PM: Aren’t general election debates supposed to be more interesting than primary election debates?

9:32 PM: Both candidates have mentioned Oklahoma Senator Tom Colburn, a Republican, in a positive way. I don’t have a sense how well known he is outside of Washington, D.C., and his own home state, but Wikipedia tells us that he is a physician who happens to be a Baptist. He is also pretty conservative. He opposed the airing of Schindler’s List during prime time television. Coburn has also been quoted as saying that the gay community’s “agenda is the greatest threat to our freedom that we face today.” He also sponsored a bill attempting to block the FDA from approving the RU-486 pill. He has been quoted saying that he favors the death penalty for “abortionists” and does not want abortions to be a legal option in the case of rape.

9:45 PM: Obama calls out McCain for saying there would not be violence between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites when the United States was preparing to invade Iraq.

9:52 PM: Obama manages to talk about the terrorists using specific terms like “Taliban” and “Al-Qaeda.”

9:53 PM: McCain does the same in discussing the terrorists. He also makes the excellent point about how Americans cut off aid to Afghanistan after the Soviets left. The book Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile demonstrates this in vivid detail.

9:56 PM: So far the words “Islam” or “Muslim” have not been used in this discussion of terrorism.

9:59 PM: McCain gets personal about the war in Iraq, speaking using clear language about the rightness of the war.

10:00 PM: Obama also gets personal (with his own bracelet) about the war in Iraq.

10:03 PM: Threat from Iran: McCain says that Iran acquiring nukes is an “existential” threat to Israel. What in the world does he mean by the threat being “existential?” Obviously McCain thinks it’s a serious issue. Is it a man-made threat as opposed to a God made threat?

10:06 PM: Obama rightly notes that our war in Iraq has helped Iran out a lot in various ways. Too bad he didn’t connect the dots for those of us who don’t know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites and Arabs and Persians.

10:09: PM: Obama gets all smart on us and tells McCain that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not the most powerful person in Iraq and maybe we want to talk to someone else. Unfortunately, the guy with the ultimate power in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, doesn’t talk to too many people who aren’t Islamic. Khamenei gets to decide who negotiates with whom. Not Ahmadinejad.

10:13: PM: McCain gets intense about Ahmadinejad’s statements about Israel being a stinking corpse. First of all, that’s just normal politics in Iran and in the Middle East, not that that makes it OK or anything. But didn’t McCain say something about bombing (bomb bomb bomb) Iran as Obama noted earlier? I’m sure that didn’t go over very well in some parts of the world. (Also, Terry Gross’s Fresh Air program had a great interview Thursday with the person who interprets Ahmadinejad’s UN speeches. He believes the comments about burying Israel have been slightly misinterpreted.)

10:27 PM: McCain mentions to critically important issue of torture 3 minutes from the end of the debate. “We must make sure we never torture….”

10:30 PM: Obama says he agrees with McCain on the torture issue. “I give Senator McCain great credit on the torture issue for having identified that as something that undermines our long-term security. . .” No mention from either candidate about the moral issues behind torture. Is it only related to our country’s long-term security? Or are there moral reasons not to torture people?

10:37 PM: That’s a wrap folks. What did you all think?

Photo of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon debating in 1960 used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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  • http://notes-from-offcenter.com Drew

    Fantastic rundown! Coburn sounds like a really pleasant fellow.

  • http://catholicland.blogspot.com SWP

    They sound so much alike. The only difference is that one says it like a Republican and the other says it like a Democrat. I didn’t expect much religion from a debate about foreign policy. That will come later.

    Speaking of which, why was there so much time spent on the domestic economy when the topic was foreign policy?

    I also noted the misuse of the word existential. I think he meant it was a very explicit or tangible threat. I don’t think he was comparing the Iranians to Sartre.

  • Jerry

    9:25 PM: “That’s not true John,” says Obama. Debates in debates over truth and falsehood bring up the Commandment regarding not telling falsehoods. Isn’t politics all about shading the truth about your record and your candidate’s record? Not the best place to attempt to find strong moral character in a politician.

    I had to sigh when I read that comment. Our entire culture is built on shading the truth (watch almost any TV commercial, for example) and politicians reflect that.

  • Grupetti

    “Existential” has been often used after 9/11 to mean threats to our very existence – including Al-Qaeda and bin Laden, Sadaam’s regime, etc.

  • Carl

    The words “existential threat” are tossed around a lot in relation to Israel. You hear it a lot in foreign policy wonk circles. The meaning seems to be “a threat to the continued existence of the nation.” Although it would be more interesting if it meant everyone in Tel Aviv sitting around at cafes and talking about Sartre.

  • Pamela

    FYI Senator Tom Coburn has been on the Senate Judicial Committee since he became a Senator in 2004. He is probably more recognized in Congress for fighting against government spending on both sides of the aisle. He is not well liked in some circles in Congress. They are not talking about his views on abortion. It never comes up in Congress. He is one of my Senators from OK. He and Obama co-sponsored a bill that requires that a searchable database be created I think by next year to report all earmarks that pass Congress and who received them.

    I was absolutely bored through this debate. I have watched most of the general debates for the past 30 years. This is probably the worse I have seen. I fought to stay awake.

    To me the only thing that I remember that religion could have had a possible mention was when Israel was mentioned.

  • Pingback: Debate Rundown: Who is Tom Coburn? · Notes From Off-Center

  • Julia

    :16 PM: Obama makes the excellent point that pork barrel spending makes up $16 billion of the national budget. While this is true, does that make it OK? Or just less relevant in Obama’s list of priorities? Obama’s clearly against pork barreling, but wants to go further.

    Re: the selfishness and greed associated with “ear marked” and “pork barrel” projects.

    Somebody needs to clue in the public to “ear marked” funds as opposed to other kinds of Federal funds returned to the states. Some funding for state projects are out in the open and are the result of votes after reps have had time to read the proposals and might be argued on the floor. “Ear marks” are funds snuck in and buried in legislation in the supposedly last draft that might not have anything to do with the major subject(s) of the bill. Senators/reps are tired of arguing by this point and let the thing go – sometimes in deference to colleagues (you scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours).

    “Pork barrel” spending may be openly argued on the floor or could be an “earmark”; its denigration is in the eye of the beholder. I live in the St Louis area and we need another bridge over the Mississippi very badly. The state of Illinois is putting up a lot of money, the US is contributing some funds and Missouri is being very stingey. Many inter-state travellers (from neither Illinois nor Missouri) and long-distance commercial truckers will use this bridge. This project is above-board and argued openly in the US congress. It would be nearly impossible to build this bridge without some assistance from the Federal government. In my opinion it’s not “pork barrel”, but folks in California might think it is.

    Legitimately, states should get back some of the money paid by those states in the form of fuel taxes, income taxes, etc. Infrastructure for inter-state commerce is particularly suited to Federal funding. Some projects of a different nature appear to be more worthy than others. Fact: most of the strange-sounding projects are for research at a state’s universities. Research on the mating habits of sock-eye salmon may be crucial to the local fishing industry of a state. The sleeping habits of sloths might just be a pet project of some obscure professor with no direct benefit, but the money coming in helps support the university. Some projects provide jobs to local working people, and other projects only benefit the politicians’ wealthy contributors (e.g.tons of stuff in the US tax code for horse breeders in the Blue Grass country around Louisville.)

    Without an open discussion of what the labels “ear mark” and “pork barrel” mean, the talk is mostly BS and aimed at the gut-level ire of uninformed voters.

    Why make fun of a “bridge to nowhere” without a good explanation of its relative merits. As I understand it, there were 2 bridge projects in Alaska seeking funds. One was to connect the mainland to a major airport now only accessed by ferry. On a relative scale, how important is that bridge? Why villify the proposal – just vote it down if it makes no sense to contribute Federal funds.

  • Bern

    9:25 PM: “That’s not true John,” says Obama. Debates in debates over truth and falsehood bring up the Commandment regarding not telling falsehoods. Isn’t politics all about shading the truth about your record and your candidate’s record? Not the best place to attempt to find strong moral character in a politician”

    This is the lovely blurry line that we often hasve to deal with trying to teach kids the difference between “lying” and “shading the truth” for example to spare someone’s feelings. But is what McCain said here “shading” or is it more like “twisting”? And what’s the moral behind that?

    I pulled the folloiwng up from from the NYTs post-debate article on yes verisimiltude of the candidates claims and counterclaims.

    http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/09/26/check-point-the-first-debate/?ref=politics

    Is McCain “shading” the truth here? Maybe not as blatently as a certain ABC reporter misquoted a certain vice-presidential candidate . . . but how far does the shading have to go to cross the line into simple misrepresentation, i.e., lying?

    “Senator John McCain charged that Senator Obama voted ‘to increase taxes on people who make as low as $42,000 a year.’

    Mr. Obama interjected, “That’s not true, John. That’ s not true.” Mr. McCain’s claim has been called “simply false” by the nonpartisan FactCheck.org.

    It is based on Mr. Obama’s vote for Senate Democrats’ nonbinding budget resolution for fiscal 2009 that assumed all of President Bush’s 2001 tax cuts would expire as scheduled in 2010. But Mr. Obama has promised that he would retain all Bush tax cuts for families making less than $250,000 a year. Mr. Obama has proposed other tax breaks for the middle class as well. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has concluded that 95 percent of families with children would get a tax break under Mr. Obama’s plan, significantly more than under Mr. McCain.


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