It was Des Moines, Iowa, December 13, 1999. The occasion was a Republican presidential debate. The governor of Texas was asked to name his favorite philosopher or thinker. "Jesus Christ," was the quick answer of George W. Bush.
Bush's response was no surprise to those who knew him, or to anyone with a modicum of knowledge of his life. But that wasn't the way the media saw it. You would have thought the Republican presidential hopeful had cited Torquemada.
At America's forum for sophisticated religious thought, a fuming Maureen Dowd fired off a New York Times op-ed titled, "Playing the Jesus Card." Dowd chalked up Bush's reference to sheer political opportunism. He had "finally scored some debate points" by citing Jesus. "This is the era of niche marketing," explained Dowd, "and Jesus is a niche. Why not use the son of God to help the son of Bush appeal to voters? W. is checking Jesus' numbers, and Jesus is polling well in Iowa. Christ, the new wedge issue."
The press was apoplectic. On NBC, a concerned Tim Russert followed up by confronting the governor:
"Governor Bush, in the last debate when you talked about Jesus being the philosopher-thinker that you most respected, many people applauded you. Others said, ‘What role would religion have in the Oval Office with George W. Bush?' Fifteen million atheists in this country, five million Jews, five million Muslims, millions more Buddhists and Hindus. Should they feel excluded [by] George W. Bush because of his allegiance to Jesus?"
The oddest thing about these reactions is that Governor Bush had said nothing odd. He was a Christian, after all. Few to no presidents would disagree with his sentiments. "The philosophy of Jesus," wrote Thomas Jefferson, our most secular founder, "is the most sublime and benevolent ... ever offered."
And yet, the media onslaught was ferocious, especially compared to the silence four years later, in December 2003, when Democratic presidential candidate Dick Gephardt, likewise in Iowa, opined, "He [Jesus] was a Democrat, I think"-or when Bill Clinton in 2004 stood behind a New York City pulpit and accused the Republicans of bearing "false witness" and being "the people of the Nine Commandments."
The examples of the media's double standard in its treatment of Republicans and Democrats who talk faith is truly remarkable. And now, once again, we have another glaring example, courtesy of CNN:
Last Sunday evening, CNN hosted a forum in which the two Democratic candidates for president, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, waxed philosophical about their relationships with Jesus Christ and how their faith applied to their politics and their policies. In other words, while George W. Bush should not dare cite Jesus as his philosopher in response to a question during a debate in Campaign 2000, the two Democratic Party candidates in 2008 can be given an entire primetime forum to do just that. They can even hold forth at a Christian college -- by the name Messiah College, no less -- in a crucial swing state, on the Lord's day, and call it the "Compassion Forum."
The Democrats and their liberal supporters in the media have figured it out: Religious voters have been crucial to electing Republicans to the White House. Hillary Clinton, in a speech at Tufts University only three days after the November 2004 election, made clear that she would battle for evangelical votes in 2008, as has Barack Obama -- and the secular liberal press is going to help in anyway it can. This has been unmistakably evident in the sudden shift at the New York Times, which since last summer has been running positive articles on the faith of the Democratic candidates. The Democrats are being encouraged to talk faith by a sympathetic press that has suddenly gotten religion.
It was fitting that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama began their remarks at Messiah College by acknowledging the political importance of Democrats' sharing their faith. "We had two very good men and men of faith run for president in 2000 and 2004," said Senator Clinton, referring to Al Gore and John Kerry. "But large segments of the electorate concluded that they did not really understand or relate to or frankly respect their ways of life." Likewise, Obama stressed the need for Democrats to "reach out to evangelicals, link faith with the work that we do."
And that's precisely why these two Democrats were at this forum. The left, from its politicians to its press, has set aside its contempt for evangelicals for the temporary purpose of trying to win over just enough "values voters" to take back the White House, where, among other things, a liberal president can put in place the Supreme Court justices necessary to ensure another 35 years of Roe v. Wade.
Speaking of which, equally frustrating at the "Compassion Forum" was what the two candidates had to say about abortion, a subject on which no two major party candidates have ever been so extreme. On this, kudos goes to Newsweek's Jon Meacham, who co-hosted the forum with CNN's Campbell Brown. Meacham wasted little time in asking both candidates whether they believe life begins at conception.
Meacham must know that Mrs. Clinton has always carefully avoided his question. She smartly understands that if she made such an acknowledgment, her pro-choice position drifts from its moral moorings. As noted by Greg Koukl of the Los Angeles-based ministry Stand to Reason, if the object in the womb is not a life begun at conception, then whatever one chooses to do with it is no concern. But once one acknowledges that the object is human life, moral considerations completely change.
Hillary Clinton understands the stakes of conceding that life begins at conception. In my research on her, the only insights I got on this question were from these two sources:
In January 2005, Hillary intimate Harold Ickes told a group of feminists:
"I'm sorry, but when push comes to f---ing shove... my belief is that life begins at conception. And I think Hillary understands how hot-button this issue is for Democrats."
Presumably, Ickes was explaining that many Democrats, when pushed, concede the conception point -- possibly even Hillary herself.
Of course, that is an inference. Less of an inference on her thinking was this assessment by Hillary's husband in his 2004 memoirs: "Everyone knows life begins biologically at conception," says Bill Clinton, the man to whom Hillary has had more discussions on more subjects than anyone else, including abortion. One would think that "everyone" must include Hillary. But then, two sentences later, Bill added a classic Clinton qualification: "Most people who are pro-choice understand that abortions terminate potential life."
Hmmm. Potential life. Alas, this was precisely the response we got from Hillary Clinton at Messiah College on Sunday evening. "I believe that the potential for life begins at conception," explained Senator Clinton, who then plunged directly into a defense of abortion.
"But for me, it is also not only about a potential life.... And, therefore, I have concluded, after great, you know, concern and searching my own mind and heart over many years, that our task should be, in this pluralistic, diverse life of ours in this nation, that individuals must be entrusted to make this profound decision.... I think abortion should remain legal."
In short, then, Mrs. Clinton's view of the pluralism and diversity of life is not truly pluralistic and diverse: life has its limits, limits that do not extend to the unborn.
Obama was even more ambiguous:
"This is something that I have not, I think, come to a firm resolution on. I think it's very hard to know what that means, when life begins. Is it when a cell separates? Is it when the soul stirs? So, I don't presume to know the answer to that question. What I know, as I've said before, is that there is something extraordinarily powerful about potential life and that has a moral weight to it that we take into consideration when we're having these debates."
Basically, Obama concluded that in considering this question during this debate, we should consider this question during these debates. This from a man hailed as articulate. He, too, invoked "potential life," which appears to be (perhaps) a new Democratic talking point -- likely coached by some party political strategist-much like the mantra about how abortion needs to be "safe, legal, and rare."
Here again, the master of the parsed word, Bill Clinton, may have created the template. In his memoirs, President Clinton took his "potential life" thought to a theological level:
"No one knows when biology turns into humanity or, for the religious, when the soul enters the body."
Sounds like Obama.
The Clintons and Obama seem to be on the same page, which means, in the end, that they all favor unrestricted abortion at all stages, including partial-birth abortion. That's a crucial distinction, one not drawn out by the Religious Left figures who posed questions in the Messiah audience last Sunday.
Instead, we got no good answers, only more moral confusion from both Democratic candidates, neither of which was pressed for clarification by Campbell Brown, who in both instances quickly changed the subject to end-of-life issues.
What we learned from the Compassion Forum was nothing theologically or morally enriching or enlightening. Neither of the two Democrats shared any profound religious insights at all; quite the contrary. What we did learn is that the push by the Democratic Party for the "values voter" in 2008 is more intense than ever, and that the secular media is enthusiastic to help.
Paul Kengor is the author of God and Hillary Clinton (HarperCollins, 2007), and, most recently, The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007). He is professor of political science at Grove City College.