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Episode 1206

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor:  Coming up, the candidates’ religious beliefs and how they affect their politics.  And, religion and the media — what’s fair to report about a candidate and
What’s not?

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BOB ABERNETHY:  Welcome.  I’m Bob Abernethy.  It’s good to have you with us.

As the financial crisis spread around the world, religious leaders warned of its looming impact on charitable giving and on the growing number of the poor.  Pope Benedict saw in the crisis a reminder that what’s most real and trustworthy is not the material, but the spiritual.

The plight of the world’s economies, and what to do about it, dominated the second debate between Senators Obama and McCain.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  Religion’s role in the campaign is at the center of our program today, beginning with a special report from Kim Lawton on the religious beliefs of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, back-to-back.

KIM LAWTON:  All four candidates describe themselves as Christians, but they talk about their faith — and apply it to their politics — in very different ways.

Barack Obama has been the most outspoken about matters of faith, even though a survey last month found that 46 percent of Americans were still unable to correctly identify him as a Christian.

Obama says he was not raised in a religious household.  But when he arrived in Chicago as a young community organizer, he says he realized something was missing from his life.  He visited Trinity United Church of Christ and went forward during an altar call given by its controversial pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (D-IL):  The skeptical bent of my mind didn’t suddenly vanish. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me.  I submitted myself to His will  and dedicated myself to discovering His truths and carrying out His works.

LAWTON:  Obama easily offers testimony about what that means to him.

Sen. OBAMA (at Saddleback Church):  I believe in, that Jesus Christ died for my sins and that I am redeemed through him.  That is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis. I know that I don’t walk alone.

LAWTON:  Obama believes that his personal spiritual journey has public consequences and he often talks about the importance of putting faith into action.

Sen. OBAMA:  That I could sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn’t be fulfilling God’s will unless I went out and did the Lord’s work.

LAWTON:  Reverend Adam Hamilton is author of a book about religion and politics called “Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White.”  He says Obama embodies several streams of Protestantism.

Reverend ADAM HAMILTON (Author, “Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White”):  He’s a picture of what mainline Protestantism, I think, should strive to be.  And that is somebody who does have an evangelical experience of Christ, a personal walk with Christ, and a compelling desire to work for justice.

LAWTON:  Obama often cites Scripture in outlining his agenda.

Sen. OBAMA:  We need to heed the biblical call to care for “the least of these” and lift the poor out of despair.

LAWTON:  He says that’s something he learned from Jeremiah Wright during his more than 20 years of membership at Trinity UCC.  But earlier this year, after months of controversy surrounding Wright, Obama formally cut ties with the church.  An aide says Obama and his family have been visiting a variety of congregations on the campaign trail and will select a new home church after the election.

Faith may cause divisions, but Obama says it can also play a key role in bringing Americans together.

Sen. OBAMA:  What is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand:  that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us.  Let us be our sister’s keeper.  Let us find that common stake we all have in one another.

LAWTON:  John McCain has said faith was important to his family when he was growing up, but they didn’t talk much about it.  He still doesn’t.  Nancy Pfotenhauer is one of McCain’s senior advisors.

NANCY PFOTENHAUER (Senior Advisor, McCain Campaign):   I think it is sometimes a challenge to get Senator McCain to open up about his journey and in part because he, I think he considers those acts to be, if you will, quiet acts of courage and faith.

LAWTON:  McCain was raised in the Episcopal Church and attended an Episcopal school in Virginia.  He learned the Anglican liturgy and memorized the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, two of the oldest statements of traditional Christian doctrine.  McCain says he drew heavily on those for spiritual strength during his captivity in North Vietnam.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ):  I had to have faith in something greater than myself, not only to survive, but to survive with my self-respect intact.

LAWTON:  For nearly 20 years, the McCain family has attended the North Phoenix Baptist Church in Arizona, although McCain spends much of his time in Washington.  McCain has never officially joined the North Phoenix congregation because he has not been baptized as an adult, something Baptists require.

During a candidates’ forum at Saddleback Church in California in August, Pastor Rick Warren asked McCain what his relationship with Jesus means to him.

Sen. MCCAIN (during Candidates Forum at Saddleback Church):  It means I’m saved and forgiven, and we’re talking about the world, our faith encompasses not just the United States of America, but the world.

LAWTON:  McCain has spoken with several high-profile religious leaders, but it’s not clear whether he gets personal spiritual counsel from them.  At a pro-Israel event in 2007, the senator suggested he did receive such advice from evangelical megachurch leader John Hagee.

Sen. MCCAIN:  And I thank you for your spiritual guidance to politicians like me who need it fairly often.  It’s hard trying to do the Lord’s work in the city of Satan.

LAWTON:  Nonetheless, earlier this year, McCain rejected Hagee’s endorsement because of controversy surrounding past statements the pastor made about Catholics and about the Holocaust.

McCain hasn’t spoken much about how his faith affects his policy positions, except when it comes to abortion.

Sen. MCCAIN: The consistent message of the Gospels calls us to recognize that all life is sacred because all human beings are created in the image of God.

LAWTON:  He does frequently link his faith with his patriotism.

Sen. MCCAIN:  Faith in my comrades, faith in my country and faith in my God.   That faith helped me not only to endure, but to understand and respect the values it encompassed.

LAWTON:  McCain frequently tells a story from his days in the North Vietnamese prison camp.

Sen. MCCAIN:  I was standing outside of my cell, and who comes walking up and stood next to me but the gun guard. And then with his sandal, in the dirt, he reached down and he drew a cross.  And he stood there for about a minute and then he reached down and rubbed it out of the dirt and walked away. For a minute there, there was just two Christians worshipping together.  I’ll never forget that moment.

Senator JOE BIDEN (D-DE):  John held a press conference saying we’re in an economic crisis.  We Catholics call that an epiphany.

LAWTON:  On the campaign trail, Joe Biden frequently identifies himself as a Roman Catholic, but he rarely speaks in-depth about religious issues.

TOM BROKAW (Moderator, “Meet the Press”):  You’ve talked often about your faith and the strength of your feelings about your faith.

Sen. BIDEN:  Actually, I haven’t talked often about my faith.  I seldom talk about my faith.

Sister SIMONE CAMPBELL (National Coordinator, NETWORK Lobby):  We Catholics don’t talk a lot about it.  It’s been hard for us to learn how to talk about our faith in a public forum because we believe that it’s the living of our faith is the key issue.  But what I’ve seen in Senator Biden has been quite touching.

LAWTON:  Sister Simone Campbell is national coordinator for NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby group.  She works on Capitol Hill and has known Biden for several years.

Sr. CAMPBELL:  His faith, I think, has done a couple of things.  One is it has sustained him in hard times; but it’s also given him a sense of caring for those who live at the margins of our society, and trying to make our nation a nation of peace-making.

LAWTON:  Biden spent his early childhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where St. Paul’s Catholic Church was a central part of his family’s life.  He went to Catholic schools and even briefly considered becoming a priest.

In his book “Promises to Keep,” he wrote: “My idea of self, of family, of community, of the wider world comes straight from my religion.”  He attends mass nearly every Sunday and says he carries a rosary.

But Biden has been in conflict with the Catholic Church over the issue of abortion.  Earlier this year, the U.S. Catholic bishops took him to task for what they called his “flawed moral reasoning” in saying he’s personally opposed to abortion but supports a woman’s right to choose.

Sen. BIDEN:  I’m prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception.  But that is my judgment.  For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I am, seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society.

LAWTON:  Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput and several other bishops said because of those views, Biden should not seek Communion.

Archbishop CHARLES CHAPUT (Archdiocese of Denver):  He really should change his mind if he says he’s a Catholic. He should believe what the Catholic Church believes.

LAWTON:  Sister Simone Campbell says Biden has been a leader is promoting the Catholic concept of seeking the common good.  And she says he has applied other elements of Catholic social teaching, such as pursing peace and helping the poor.

Sr. CAMPBELL:  He wants things solved and done. And I think his faith helps create an urgency in him for responding to the needs of those — especially those who live at the economic margins of our society.

Sen. BIDEN:  The 92nd Psalm we use as a Communion hymn in our church:  “And may he lift you up on eagles’ wings and bear you on the breadth of dawn and make the light the shine upon you.”  Folks, as corny as it sounds, it’s within our capacity to lift us up, to let the light shine on corners of the country where people have been left behind.

LAWTON:  Church has played an important role in Sarah Palin’s life, although she too has been very private about her personal faith.  As an infant, Palin was baptized a Roman Catholic, but then her parents began attending the Wasilla Assembly of God Church.  That local congregation is part of the Assemblies of God, an international Pentecostal denomination, which has a conservative evangelical theology and emphasizes manifestations of the Holy Spirit.

KAYLENE JOHNSON (Biographer):  It was really the fabric of their social life and their faith life really informed who they were and how they lived their lives.

LAWTON:  Fellow Wasilla resident Kaylene Johnson wrote a biography of Palin.  She says
Palin’s beliefs were reinforced from a young age through Christian clubs and Bible camp where Palin asked to be re-baptized.

Ms. JOHNSON:  Sarah Palin was baptized when she was 12 years old in the little Beaver Lake outside of Wasilla here.  And she took that commitment of her baptism very seriously from the time she was a girl.

LAWTON:  Palin and her family continued attending Wasilla Assembly of God until 2002.  Since then, they’ve attended several other evangelical churches, most frequently, Wasilla Bible Church, a nondenominational congregation.

McCain campaign officials say Palin does not consider herself a Pentecostal.  And they are angered by questions about whether she has ever had the Pentecostal experience of speaking in tongues.

Palin’s specific beliefs are unclear.  During a June 2008 visit to the Wasilla Assembly of God, Palin asked the audience to pray for her son and other men and women in the military.

Governor SARAH PALIN:  (from YouTube video):  We’re sending them on a task that is from God.  That’s what we have to make sure that we’re praying for — that there is a plan and that plan is God’s plan.

LAWTON:  ABC’s Charlie Gibson asked her what she meant by that.

Gov. PALIN (during ABC News interview:  The reference there is a repeat of Abraham Lincoln’s words when he said, first he suggested, never presume to know what God’s will is.  And I would never presume to know God’s will or to speak God’s words.  But what Abraham Lincoln had said, and that’s a repeat in my comments, was “Let us not pray that God is on our side in a war or any other time, but let us pray that we are on God’s side.”

LAWTON:  Johnson says Palin incorporates that kind of prayer in her own life.

Ms. JOHNSON:  She really commits her decisions, and the decisions she makes, to God.

Gov.  PALIN:  We are expected to govern with integrity and good will and clear convictions and a servant’s heart.

LAWTON:  During her political career in Alaska, and on the campaign trail now, she has made few overt statements about religion.  Like her running mate, she does express the belief that America was created for a special purpose.

Gov.  PALIN:  That world view that says that America is a nation of exceptionalism, and we are to be that shining city on a hill.

LAWTON:  Does it matter what a candidate believes?  According to an August survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, nearly half of all Americans say they get uncomfortable when politicians talk about how religious they are.  But at the same time, more than 70 percent of Americans say they do want a president with strong religious beliefs.

I’m Kim Lawton in Washington.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  We examine now how the media should cover candidates. Should religious beliefs — or anything else — be off limits:  a candidate’s family, personal life, pastor?

Michael Getler is a longtime correspondent and editor at The Washington Post.  He’s now the ombudsman for PBS.  Tom Rosenstiel directs the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington.  He’s co-author of the widely used textbook, “The Elements of Journalism.”  And Kelly McBride heads the ethics department at the Poynter Institute in Florida, which trains journalists.  She joins us from Tampa.

Welcome to you all.  Kelly, some candidates say, or used to say, that their religious beliefs are their private business.  You say it’s important to report what those beliefs are.  Why?

KELLY MCBRIDE (Ethics Department, The Poynter Institute):  Well, I think religion is important in American life.  We’re a very religious country.  Everybody has some form of belief system.  And I think to examine that belief system and how it informs a political candidate and how he or she might make decisions is information that voters deserve to know.

ABERNETHY:  How a person in office might be guided by religious beliefs in decision making?

Ms. MCBRIDE:  Yes, or not guided.  I don’t think we should presume that a certain theology dictates that a candidate who belongs to that church would act in a certain way.  But I think it’s entirely appropriate to ask the question.

ABERNETHY:  Tom Rosenstiel, how are we doing this year?

TOM ROSENSTIEL (Director, Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism and Co-Author, “The Elements of Journalism”):  Well there is no systematic coverage or examination of the belief systems of these candidates . . .

ABERNETHY:  Why not?

Mr. ROSENSTIEL:  . . . when it comes to their religion.  What we’re seeing is episodic coverage that — Mitt Romney will give a speech about his religion, or tapes will come out of Obama’s pastor or from Palin’s church.  And often the coverage of that relates to the political impact of how they deal with these tempests.  The reason for that is, I think, twofold: one is that we have political writers covering these candidates, not people who understand the nuance of religion; it’s not, however, because the candidates don’t want to talk about this stuff.  Barack Obama’s made a special effort I think this year to talk about faith in his life because he thought that this was a failing of Democrats that was limiting their appeal.


MICHAEL GETLER (PBS Ombudsman):  I’m sorry, I was going to say I think it’s also —while it’s very important to focus on this as Kelly pointed out originally — it’s also good to keep in mind that there are millions of people who are not terribly religious in this country and other religions that are not mainstream.   And, too much of a focus on it, it seems to me, works against people who may be very good at what they do.  They may be very good politicians.  They may be very good at governance.  And yet, for somehow the religious issue becomes almost too prominent.  So that bothers me a little bit.

ABERNETHY:  And is anything off limits in terms of religion and everything else but a personal life?  Is anything off limits anymore?  What about . . .

Mr. GETLER:  Yes, there are things that are off limits.  But it’s less than it use to be.  I mean, I think part of the understanding that is that the press is no longer the way it used to be.  It used to be just a couple of major newspapers and magazines and wire services and whatnot.  Now it’s an enormous world including the internet, which is just vast, and cable television and everything else.  So where they used to be gatekeepers, which was The New York Times and The Washington Post and AP and others, those newspapers try to stick to their same standards but it’s very hard to do that now because information comes out all over the place and it’s very, very —so there are things that should be off limits — but it’s very hard to keep them off limits.

Mr. ROSENSTEIL:   I would say in presidential politics there really is no zone of privacy anymore.  The one exception to this that is sort of holding is children.  Politicians will use their kids and their families as visual images.  We see that all the time.  But the press proactively examining the backgrounds and experiences of children is still the one area.  But in terms of anything else about a public figure and his or her life, I think there is no zone of privacy.  There is less of an appetite among these mainstream outlets that Mike’s talking about to get into it.  But they will now be pushed into it.

ABERNETHY:  Kelly, what have you seen in this campaign about the way in which things relating to religion or privacy were reported?   I’m thinking about the way everybody was fascinated by Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Obama’s relationship to him — about . . .

Ms. MCBRIDE:  Yeah, I think . . .

ABERNETHY:  Go ahead.

Ms. MCBRIDE:  I think most of the reporting on religious issues has had a distorting effect.  Most of the time in a political campaign when the media does focus on a religious issue, it’s as a distortion, or something that’s exotic or weird.  So, Reverend Wright was outside of the mainstream belief system.  And there was a lot of focus on him and what the implication might be for Barack Obama when, in fact, Obama had spent weeks and months describing how his personal belief system and his faith guided him and influenced him.  And Wright’s behavior and his theology, his belief system, was really not much of a part of that.  But because of the focus on that, it ended up distorting in the public’s mind Obama’s belief system.  And I think you can say that almost every time.

ABERNETHY:  And Mormons — Mitt Romney and Mormons, Tom, wasn’t that . . .?

Ms. MCBRIDE:  Mormons, yeah, Mormons and Mitt Romney; in Sarah Palin’s case, her previous life as a Pentecostal — all of that, extremely distorting.

Mr. ROSENSTEIL:  And a lot of this is because politics is about comfort: am I comfortable with this person; are they like me; will they understand me — particularly as we get to the general election phase when people who are not political junkies begin to check in and make decisions.

Mr. GETLER:  Also Bob, in the past again, you would hear about this on your evening news broadcast, or you would read about it in your morning paper.  Now you can see it a hundred times a day and it adds to that sense of tension over it.

ABERNETHY:  And what about the coverage of John Edwards’ affair?  What did you make of that?  Was it fair?

Mr. GETLER:  Well, it was certainly fair once he acknowledged it on television.  As you know, The National Enquirer pursued and broke the story, and eventually.  But the main newspapers and magazines really did not cover it.  And they didn’t actually even pursue it much, which I think was wrong.  I think Edwards is a major national figure and there was some reporting, as the Charlotte Observer showed, that you could do on public records that would at least move this story forward.

Mr. ROSENSTEIL:  What the press needs to do is in this environment, the mainstream reportorial press, is to be actually more aggressive about these things.  Otherwise the agenda will be set by outlets and forces that don’t have the kind of professional standards that I think we would hope for.

ABERNETHY:  More aggressive about what — about personal behavior?

Mr. ROSENSTEIL:  About reporting allegations about personal behavior and then coming to a judgment — a professional journalistic judgment — about whether this is relevant or not.  If they don’t report these things then others will and they’ll be reacting and writing about stuff that they might otherwise have said, “No.  We’ve looked into it and this isn’t relevant.”  The traditional press still has the power to take things off the table.  This has happened numerous times.  The Washington Post and Bob Dole said, “We’ve looked into it.  It’s not relevant.”  And that was the end of that.  The rest of the press followed that lead.

Mr. GETLER:  Yeah, that’s the difference between reporting and publishing.  And right now the resources are diminished in a lot of papers, so that, I think, is a factor as well.

ABERNETHY:  Michael Getler, Tom Rosenstiel, Kelly McBride, thanks to you all.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  In other news this week, Connecticut’s Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry.  The court said the state’s marriage law discriminated against gays.  Until now, same-sex marriage has been legal only in Massachusetts and California.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  The Dalai Lama is recovering from gallstone surgery.  The spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and the winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize underwent the surgery Friday at a hospital in New Delhi.  It’s the second time in recent weeks that the 73-year-old has been hospitalized.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  There has been a dramatic apology from the Episcopal Church for its role in slavery.  During a solemn service of repentance, Episcopal leaders asked forgiveness for the denomination’s participation in slavery, segregation, and discrimination.  Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told the crowd of hundreds at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia that church members had, quote, “ignored the image of Christ in our neighbors.
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BOB ABERNETHY:  In London, the Catholic Church has had to abandon plans to move the remains of a revered 19th century cardinal from a humble graveyard to a marble sarcophagus.  When officials tried to exhume the body of Cardinal John Henry Newman, all they found in his grave were red tassels from the cardinal’s hat and a brass plaque.  Experts said that because Newman was buried in a wooden coffin in 1890, his remains likely disintegrated.  Meanwhile, church officials said the discovery will not affect efforts to name Newman a saint.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  On our calendar Sukkot.  The seven-day Jewish observance begins at sundown Monday.  Jews honor their ancestors’ 40 years of wandering in the desert by
building a fragile structure called a sukkah, which they use for prayers and meals.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  That’s our program for now.  I’m Bob Abernethy.

There’s much more on our Web site.  On our “One Nation” page there’s additional political coverage and analysis of the economic crisis.  Audio and video podcasts are also available.  Join us at

As we leave you, music from the Episcopal service of repentance last weekend in Philadelphia.


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