The politics of compassion
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The Christian Right gained a powerful influence over evangelical voters in Ronald Reagan’s America. Its leaders have been commended by many for their work in fighting abortion and promoting what they referred to as “family values.” But their approach did not go far enough. Today’s generation of evangelicals wants to expand the reach of their social action by bringing faith to bear on a host of these compassion-based issues.
This expansion has created some confusion — and even some fear — among many who worry that evangelicals, by embracing a program of compassion, will get sidetracked from what is most important, namely saving the lost and defending human life. This, however, is not the case. By engaging the pressing social issues of the day, evangelicals are not abandoning their primary work of spreading the gospel or ceasing their opposition to abortion, a reform which many understand as a means of showing compassion to the unborn. Yet in the political sphere, it does seem that the days of choosing a candidate based solely on one or two moral concerns may be fading away.
This leads to a second observation. An event like The Compassion Forum is one more indicator that the Democratic Party is changing. After John Kerry lost miserably among Christian voters in 2004, Democrats found religion. When they stopped thinking about evangelicals as part of a “right wing conspiracy” Democrats learned just how much common ground they shared with them.
While the 2008 presidential election season will be remembered for Barack Obama’s race and Hillary Clinton’s gender, the place of religion in the campaign will also attract future historians. When asked at The Compassion Forum about the specific ways that religious conviction might shape their presidential administrations, both candidates were at times vague and less than satisfying. Moreover, the impact of evangelicals on the Democratic Party has been minor. One would be hard pressed to say, for example, that evangelicals have had as much influence in shaping the Democratic Party in recent years as evangelicals have had in shaping the Republican Party platform during the last quarter century. But the fact that candidates such as Clinton and Obama were willing to participate in The Compassion Forum is a major step in the right direction for the Democratic Party and for those Christians who find a political home within its ranks.
Third, The Compassion Forum tells us a lot about Messiah College. I cannot think of a better place on the eve of the Pennsylvania primary to have a national conversation like this one. With its roots in the Anabaptist tradition, Messiah has a long-standing commitment to promoting social justice and Christian compassion. The ideas discussed on the night of April 13 meshed perfectly with the mission of the College.