At Compassion Forum, Guest Questioners Outshine Media Pros

04/22/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One couldn't be blamed for taking a pass on watching CNN's latest candidate face-off event, its so-called "Compassion Forum," which was broadcast last night. After all, it's not as if either of the democratic candidates had staked out a strong, anti-compassion position. But as goofy as the idea sounded on paper - and, let's face it, it is indeed "goofy" to characterize a debate on religion and morality with the safe-word "compassion" - in practice, it was an altogether different animal. The candidates received probing questions with depth and breadth, that spoke to key issues of the here and now as well as larger philosophical matters. In fact, the only problem with the forum is that none of the good questions were posed by members of the professional media.

CNN's own Campbell Brown - who nearly caused me permanent eye-roll damage after asking Senator Hillary Clinton to explain what the "boys club" was - was joined by Newsweek editor John Meacham, as well as a diverse panel of "faith leaders from around the country." Over the course of the forum, the latter group of interlocutors thoroughly outclassed Meacham and Brown. Frankly, the differences between the guests and the professionals was often so vast, that one couldn't help but feel embarrassed.

Here's a sampling of the questions posed by the various guests:

RABBI STEVE GUTOW, JEWISH COUNCIL FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS: Back to China. China has continued to persecute and subject to oppression, the people of Tibet. It continues to be the largest supplier of weapons to Sudan and the largest purchaser of its oil. Let's just say China is not doing all it can to stop the genocide in Darfur. You have said that America needs to return to being a moral voice of the world. Is our participation in the Beijing Olympics harmful to that moral voice?

REV. WILLIAM J. SHAW, NATIONAL BAPTIST CONVENTION: Senator. Current U.S. policies toward developing countries -- trade policies, make it sometimes extremely difficult for poor people to access inexpensive, generic drugs for the treatment of AIDS and other sicknesses. How would you shape the policies of your administration to ensure that the poor would have access to and could secure the drugs that they need to improve the quality of their lives, of their families and even the future of their country?

EBOO PATEL: My name is Eboo Patel. I'm an American Muslim, and I lead an organization called the Interfaith Youth Core. And it's my privilege to watch a range of faith communities come together around the common value of compassion. Americans of all faiths and no faith at all genuinely believe in compassion and want to apply that in addressing global poverty and climate change. Can we do that without changing our standard of living?

LISA SHARON HARPER, N.Y. FAITH AND JUSTICE: Thank you. Senator...underdeveloped nations and regions that lack widespread access to education and basic resources like water, and they tend to be some of the most unstable and dangerous regions of the world. Places like Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan. Our national security is at stake, but our military is stretched. As president, would you consider committing U.S. troops to a purely humanitarian mission under the leadership of a foreign flag?

REV. SAMUEL RODRIGUEZ, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL HISPANIC LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE: Senator...the vast majority of Americans believe that abortion is a decision to be made by a woman, her family and her doctors. However, the vast majority of Americans similarly believe that abortion is the taking of a human life. The terms pro-choice and pro-life, do they encapsulate that reality in our 21st Century setting and can we find common ground?

REV. RICHARD CIZIK, VICE PRESIDENT, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF EVANGELICALS: Frankly, there has been perceived, by many, millions, a war between science and faith. I don't believe there's a war at all. In fact, the worlds of religion and science are coming together in amazing ways, including here on this campus...How do you relate your faith our personal convictions to science generally and science policy, and let's take an issue like climate and flesh that out, or take stem cells, something like that. Just give us a little more indication of how you think.

DAVID P. GUSHEE, MERCER UNIVERSITY: Senator...recently yet another disturbing memo emerged from the Justice Department. This one said that not even interrogation methods that, quote, "shock the conscience" would be considered torture nor would they be considered illegal if they had been authorized by the president...this kind of reasoning shocks the conscience of many millions of Americans and many millions of people of faith here and around the world. Is there justification for policies on the part of our nation that permit physical and mental cruelty toward those who are in our custody?

The reconciliation of tradition with advancement, the moral ripples that extend beyond small-scope issues, the economic impacts - good and ill - of compassion, a too-too-rare question about torture...these are the queries a great nation deserves to hear asked. Broad, yet grounded. Provocative without being divisive. High degree of difficulty. And, perhaps best of all, a real ecumenicalism that doesn't break into tribalist cliches or doctrinal grandstanding.

Brown and Meacham got nowhere near this level of discourse. Their questions rarely moved beyond the sorts of hackneyed and predictable queries. Their small minded obsession with process stories and the horse race revealed itself early, as both candidates were questioned on Obama's "bitter" comment right out of the gate. But one can forgive this: it is at least, a current, and pressing obsession. From there, however, Brown and Meacham weren't able to progress beyond mawkish, silly questions about the candidates religious experiences or divisive, "wedge" issue questions that used faith as a battering ram.

Here's a sampling of Brown and Meacham's relentlessly silly queries:

BROWN: You have actually felt the presence of the Holy Spirit on many occasions. Share some of those occasions with us.

MEACHAM: Senator, do you believe personally that life begins at conception?

BROWN: Do you have a favorite Bible story?

MEACHAM: Do you believe God wants you to be president?

MEACHAM: Senator, do you believe that God intervenes in history and rewards or punishes people or nations in real time for their behavior?

BROWN: Senator, there are a lot of Americans who are uncomfortable with the conversation that we're having here tonight. That they believe religion already has way too much influence in political life and public life. How do you reassure them?

But the priceless and impeccable stupidity of the professional media caste can best be seen in this exchange.

MEACHAM: Senator, we've heard about HIV/AIDS. Many people here are concerned about Darfur and a number of other humanitarian issues. Why do you think it is that a loving God allows innocent people to suffer?

CLINTON: Well...


MEACHAM: And we just have 30 seconds.

Oy, gevalt!

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