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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