The photograph “Migrant Mother, 1936” was taken at a camp for seasonal agricultural laborers in California by Dorothea Lange, who sent the photo to the editor of a San Francisco newspaper. This unnamed editor contacted federal authorities about the dire circumstances at the camp, spurring a response from the government. An emergency shipment of 20 tons of food was rushed to the camp.
The politics of compassion
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It was no ordinary day at Messiah College. The sheer magnitude of what was happening hit me when I flipped on my television set on the eve of The Compassion Forum and saw CNN’s Dana Bash tell her audience that she was “reporting live from Grantham, Pennsylvania.” (Has this phrase ever been uttered before on national television?) For 24 hours in April 2008, during one of the most hotly contested presidential primary seasons in recent memory, the eyes of the nation were on Messiah College.
As far as conversations with presidential candidates go, The Compassion Forum was not your run of the mill event. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (John McCain was invited but declined to come) were in Grantham to discuss how their Christian convictions would inform their policy decisions should either of them become President of the United States. Though the moderators often got off track with questions about Clinton’s favorite Bible story or Obama’s beliefs about the Bible’s creation narrative, there was plenty of time to hear the candidates offer their views on a variety of compassion-related issues, including the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, abortion, torture, climate change, and poverty.
There were three things that struck me about this event. First, The Compassion Forum offered further evidence that the social agenda of American evangelicals, especially as it translates into politics, is changing. Let’s briefly rehearse this history. In the 1970s, evangelicals emerged on the public scene after a long political slumber. Newsweek declared 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical” and President Jimmy Carter told the nation that he was a “born-again Christian,” an announcement that sent the press scrambling to figure out just what this phrase meant. The Christian Right was also formed at this time and began to wage a culture war over the tax-exempt status of Christian schools and the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.