The Piety Test

Are any of you watching tonight’s “Compassion Forum” live from Messiah College in Pennsylvania? One after the other, Senators Clinton and Obama are answering questions about religion, faith, and compassion.


I’ll share something that I rarely talk about: My religious beliefs are central to who I am, especially what Jews call Tikkun Olam, or “repairing the world” through selflessness, good works and charity.  No big surprise that I don’t always act in according to those principles, but I do try.


So why does a “Compassion Forum” give me the willies? Why do I find myself interested in the questions being asked of each candidate and the answers being given, yet still profoundly uneasy about the whole thing?


I had the privilege of growing up with a close friend whose father was the sage and compassionate leader of a major Protestant denomination. Not the typical friend of a Jewish kid from Southern California, but – hey — how often do you get a best friend with whom you can simultaneously act out adolescent nuttiness and contemplate profound matters of faith.


What I am leading to was a view of church-state relations I learned from my friend  that has been basic to who I am: The temptation to mix and confuse the unique roles of government and religion, especially in fearful and uncertain times, is understandably great. This impulse makes perfect sense given that religion offers beliefs and ideas that can enrich so many areas of human endeavor, especially the political realm where, shall we say, truth seems to be a pretty slippery concept.


But I also learned that the separation of the two realms protects both: Government in a democracy needs to protect the free expression of diverse and even unpopular takes on religious faith. Religion needs the freedom to proclaim ideas and beliefs without having to answer to government institutions that seem pretty inept when it comes to the realm of the spiritual.


So again: The sight I am watching of two presidential candidates being grilled about their beliefs, however fascinating, is not something with which I will ever be comfortable. It simply has too much of the feel of a public test, in which each candidate’s views will be judged for adequate piety and purity; in which the candidates can easily slip into a “faith-competition.”

I’m watching. And listening raptly. And wishing they never felt this necessary.  

Winning Presents Problems

The most skilled and smart politicians I have observed and known generally follow an election result by asking one of two questions: If they won, they want to figure out any tactics or words they used in the campaign that might that cause them problems down the line. “What wounds did I inflict to win that I now have to heal?”If they lost, they want to figure out every opportunity that the loss might have created any new doors that might have been opened when the others closed. “Is there something new I can try?”

So if Hillary wins any combination of primaries and ultimately the nomination, she’ll have to assess the damage done by the negative campaigning that exit polls show many people resented. Hillary will ask: “Who did I alienate and how do I fix that? How do I get Obama supporters?

If Obama wins, he’ll need to come to terms with how and why his strategy did well with white males and African Americans, yet was largely unable to attract older white women, a fairly large demographic group. Barack will ask: “Did sexism drive the votes of some of my supporters and what do I have to do about that? How do I get Clinton supporters?

McCain, now the nominee, has to come to terms with the extent to which his courting of the extreme right might have alienated centrists and how much his courting of the centrists might have alienated conservatives. McCain will ask: How do I move back toward the center without alienating people.

Winning a nomination creates as many problems as it solves.

High Drama and a Strange Nine Year-Old Kid

There is nothing more boring than an old guy who starts babbling about the old days.

Gimme just a second for babbling.

I grew up just long enough ago to be able to watch, in between episodes of Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, absolutely vicious and contested televised fights for presidential nominations. Many candidates were not nominated until messy fights on the floors of conventions. You really had to see it to believe it. I’m talking about politics that sometimes resembled the World Wrestling Federation.

I might have only been nine years-old, but I was a truly strange nine year-old, and to this day I remember skipping my Popeye cartoons and being mesmerized as I watched the 1960 Democratic convention on television and seeing Bobby Kennedy running around the floor rounding up votes to seal the deal for his brother John. And I recall the 1964 Democratic convention when a group of heroic African American delegates from Mississippi, the Freedom Democrats led by 20th century civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer, fought to be recognized. So what’s my point?

You may be understandably sick of the whole business. No matter who you support, you might be looking at the other candidate and feeling that enough is enough. Fair enough.But let’s not let our fatigue divert our attention from the fact that, with a woman and an African American candidate, we are watching the kind of high political drama that all of us will remember for years. I envy those seeing it for the first time. Watch and learn.The old guy has babbled.

After This Post, I Am Going to See if My Sleeping Daughter is Safe

Well, I’ve learned my lesson. If I try to show some restraint, I inevitably allow a festering resentment to continue to – well – fester. So let be more direct and say it for the last time.

The first Clinton “sleeping children” ad crossed a line.  

I detest the use of children in any advertisement or media content to foster or encourage fear. Children face so many less-visible and legitimate threats — everything from reckless drivers to substandard schools to hunger to racism and sexism — that to even give the impression that your opponent is a threat to the safety of sleeping children is ridiculous. Check out Joel Best’s brilliant “Threatened Children for the history of how fear and children have been a volatile and incendiary mix in American culture. 

And that’s what I think was in that ad. If you show children sleeping in a dark, creepy room, you imply – on some level — that someone is coming who will scare them or wake then up or hurt them. Just look at that ad and see the worried face of the mother who checks to see if they are alright. 

I know how flacks defend ads like this: “The ad was not intended to scare anyone but to call attention to the differences in experience between the candidates. Crises do occur and the voters blah blah blah blah blah and another blah. 

Please stop.

If you want to bring kids up, show us how you are going to treasure them and nurture them with sound public policy, not how your presidency will keep creepy people out of their bedrooms.

The Mother of All Fear-Based Political Advertisements

Alright, I am ready to get off my ”kids and fear in political advertising” kick, but thought I should end by sharing the famous daisy commercial.

Take a look at the classic  “vote for me or your kids might be in danger” ad.   The almost unbearable irony of watching this now is the realization that the candidate in this ad who in 1964 was promising to keep kids like me safe, President Lyndon Johnson, proceeded to escalate a war in Viet Nam that killed thousands upon thousands of those same kids.  

Truth in advertising: Barack Obama is my candidate. But I know that some of you who see this blog are my students and it is important to me that you feel free to make your own political choices.

But neither did it seem to make much sense to hide my choice.

Kids As “The Nuclear Option” in Political Advertising

 I just saw a television commercial being used by the Clinton campaign, and wanted to share it. This is not about my own political preferences, but about a moment in the current campaign that should be noted by those interested in politics and media.  

Children have long been a “nuclear weapon” in political campaign advertising.  You can go on and on about how your opponent will muck up the world, accuse them of everything from unpaid debts to adulterating the food supply, but suggest that they might put your kids in jeopardy and you just may start a firestorm. Raising this specter has always been controversial. In fact, in the larger culture – advertisements, news coverage, popular culture – the endangered child has long been familiar and highly charged icon.  

One of the most notorious examples was the so-called daisy commercial created by President Lyndon Johnson’s re-election campaign in 1964. Broadcast only once, the commercial depicted a little girl pulling the buds off a daisy who was about to be annihilated by a nuclear explosion. The implication was that Johnson’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, might recklessly start a nuclear war. The use of the little girl was immensely controversial and the ad was pulled. So check out this ad now being run by the Clinton campaign.

It will be interesting to see what, if any, controversy ensues. I would love to know if children have been “cast” in the recent commercials of any other candidates. And I’d love to know what you think.