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About the Author

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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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The Compassion Forum: Highlights and Lowlights

Just finished watching “The Compassion Forum” — an intimate evening with the two Democratic presidential candidates, hosted by Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and Faith in Public Life, a progressive Washington D.C.-based organization. Overall, it was a little dull — after all, how much new ground can be covered after the endless months of campaigning? Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek and co-host of the On Faith blog, tried to liven things up with off-the-wall theological questions reminiscent of SNL’s Deep Thoughts. So Meacham asks, “Senator Clinton, why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” “Does God want you to be president?” The natural next question was, of course, “If you were elected president, how many angels would you allow to dance on the head of a pin?”

Okay, yes, we’re all comfortable talking about religion now, and you can ask anything you want — but how about sticking to the questions that are somewhat relevant to being president? Why spend time asking unanswerable theological questions when there are so many pressing real-world religion questions to answer — Clinton didn’t have to answer anything about creationism or Ten-Commandments-on-display or even the federal response to polygamy. And given that relations with the Muslim world are often called a defining issue for our generation, why wasn’t she asked about that? This observation leads me to the biggest disappointment of the night: Eboo Patel’s question. Patel has blazed a high-profile trail in the past year (powered in part by Bill Clinton’s endorsement of his book and his work more generally,) and Patel’s thing is promoting pluralism and a peaceful vision of Islam.

When I heard he was going to ask a question, I thought: surely he’s going to ask about pluralism, or religious tolerance, or American Muslims, or how to defeat fundamentalism. But what does he ask Sen. Clinton about? Global warming. An important issue, yes, but was it his issue? No. It would be like Richard Cizik, VP of the National Association of Evangelicals, standing up and asking a question about Catholic-Jewish relations.

Now, maybe Patel wanted to show, “American Muslims are so integrated we don’t even need to ask questions about Islam; we’re beyond that; we don’t need to be defined by that.” But at a moment in American life when so much anti-Muslim bigotry goes unchallenged, he actually had an important role to play. I mean, do your thing, Eboo! Cizik talked about creation care — that’s his thing. Jim Wallis challenged Obama to a commitment on poverty — that’s his thing. So if you get to stand up as an American Muslim and ask a question, for heaven’s sake, don’t throw an off-topic softball. (Patel asked if we can conserve the environment without losing our standard of living. Clinton responded that she and Bill have not seen their standard of living decline, even while switching over to compact-flourescent bulbs.)

Here’s a question Patel could have asked: “Sen. Clinton, do you commit to working with American Muslim organizations to defeat radical jihadism?” This question is a tough one, given that Clinton was pressured during her Senate race to return money donated by American Muslims and did not distance herself from the anti-Muslim rhetoric surrounding that event. So is she willing to identify some American Muslim leaders and organizations in the U.S. that she can work with? Can she recognize that, as Jim Wallis said on Capitol Hill last week, the solution to bad religion is good religion, and that therefore an important way to defeat radical jihadism is to strengthen mainstream, moderate voices? Because right now in the US, even mainstream moderate Muslims are having a pretty hard time of it.

But anyways: I promised some highlights. My husband and I were worried the entire hour-and-a-half debate would pass without a single question on Islam. Finally, in the waning moments, Campbell Brown asked (I’m paraphrasing here): “Sen Obama, you’re a Christian. But you grew up with more exposure to Islam than most people have as children. How did that shape you?”

Obama’s answer laid to rest Reza Aslan’s fear that Obama’s childhood contact with other cultures didn’t actually translate into a meaningful worldview. In his answer, Obama talked about the four years he spent living in Indonesia, first attending a Catholic school and then a public school. He said at the time he lived there, Indonesia had a secular constitution, so there was no imposition of religion, and the Islam of the people around him was tolerant and open. The take-away for him? That Islam can be compatible with modernity. It was an important moment in a generally lack-luster evening.

There Are 5 Responses So Far. »

  1. i wanted to see this but my stolen cable was somehow stolen away from me. it sounds like i didnt miss much. what a disappointment, especially from eboo. he was the main reason it was on my “to watch” list.

  2. “[H]ow about sticking to the questions that are somewhat relevant to being president? ”

    But isn’t it often the case that a candidate can’t predict how his/her faith will shape their thinking in many situations, so that there is some use in knowing generally about a candidate’s faith and how it influences them?

  3. Yes, a fair point, and I think Cizik’s question about how Clinton’s faith would affect her decision-making was important. But theodicy — I don’t know, I just cant’ imagine a moment when that would ever be particularly relevant to a president’s actions.

  4. “Senator Clinton, why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?”
    Good lord (pun intended). All these many years I’ve been searching for the answer to this question in books of theology and in sacred texts. I’ve been looking in all the wrong places. Shoulda majored in political science.

  5. From someone that was close to the process of this event being set up, i know that the questioners were given the questions that they asked, and did not have much room to change them. So give Eboo Patel a break!

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