President Obama Goes on the Offensive

President Obama Goes on the Offensive

ON THE ATTACK; President Barack Obama charged GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney with being mostly “wrong” in his past opinions about foreign policy. The president and Romney tangled during the election season’s final debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, on Monday. (Photo: Robert Duyos/Newscom)

BOCA RATON, Fla. — An assertive President Barack Obama accused Mitt Romney Monday night of taking an unclear and vacillating approach to foreign policy, saying such confusing signals would embolden the nation’s enemies in a time of continued threats.

Romney responded by brushing aside the attacks, saying they failed to address the serious challenges — and opportunities — the country faces as the Middle East convulses in widespread upheaval.

The two men wasted no time tangling in the opening moments of their third and final presidential debate, a session devoted to national security and foreign policy.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, consistent with the earlier debates, took a more moderate stance than he has in much of the campaign.

He praised Obama for the death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, but said the country “can’t kill our way” to a solution in the Middle East. He said the answer is greater economic opportunities and the spread of freedom.

Obama immediately went on the attack, citing Romney’s earlier Cold War-style rhetoric and suggesting Romney wanted to institute a 1980s foreign policy to go along with a social policy from the 1950s and economic policies from the 1920s.

“Every time you’ve offered an opinion,” the president said bluntly, “you’ve been wrong.”

Seated side-by-side at a wooden tabletop and facing the moderator, CBS’ Bob Schieffer, each candidate hoped for a breakthrough while avoiding any misstep that could assume outsized import in the campaign’s final, crucial stretch.

The 90-minute session on the campus of Lynn University in South Florida was seen as favoring Obama, at least starting out. He is the nation’s commander in chief, with the gravitas that confers. Moreover, he can boast, as he has throughout the campaign, of several major accomplishments, including the killing of bin Laden, keeping his pledge to end the war in Iraq and laying out plans to end America’s increasingly unpopular engagement in Afghanistan.

Just ahead of the debate, the Obama campaign broadcast a new TV spot highlighting the withdrawal from Iraq and plans to bring troops home from Afghanistan. “It’s time to stop fighting over there and start rebuilding over here,” the ad stated, tying an economic argument to the president’s foreign policy message.

In the past few weeks, however, Obama has been thrown on the defensive on foreign policy, once considered his strongest suit, as the administration offered an evolving series of explanations for the attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. Four Americans died in the assault, details of which are still hazy.

Despite that opening, Romney has not been terribly sure-footed when he strays from his campaign’s central focus on the economy. He staged a poorly reviewed summer trip to Europe and Israel, puzzled even some Republicans by calling Russia the nation’s top strategic foe, and has been burned by attempts to capitalize on the controversy over Benghazi, including a factual misstatement in last week’s debate.

The debate followed a pair of outings that saw vastly different performances by Obama, who faltered in his first face-to-face meeting with Romney, then came back aggressively in the second.

Romney’s commanding Oct. 3 performance in Denver rallied Republicans and forestalled a possible Obama runaway; the president’s comeback on Long Island last week reassured Democrats and averted panic in his party, though it failed to recoup the momentum Obama lost after his poor initial showing.

HUMAN MOMENT: After the debate, President Obama greeted two of Mitt Romney’s grandsons as their grandmother, Ann Romney, watched with a smile. (Photo: Jewel Samad/Newscom)

With just 14 full days of campaigning left, the two men are running neck-and-neck in national polls, even as the president continues to hold a small edge in the state-by-state electoral vote contest.

The topic of Monday night’s debate was a break from the campaign’s recent focus on abortion, birth control and other issues aimed primarily at women voters, who are seen as potentially the decisive bloc on Election Day.

The differences between the two candidates on foreign policy, however, have been marginal, with both sides magnifying them to suggest a greater separation than exists. Throughout the campaign, for instance, Romney has criticized Obama’s timeline to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan but, at the same time, indicated he would adhere to the plan to bring them home by 2014.

He has repeatedly criticized Obama for not doing more to secure stability in Syria and Libya, but has not said whether he would consider committing U.S. troops as part of a peacekeeping force in either nation.

Romney has mainly painted his foreign policy vision in broad strokes, saying he would pursue a policy of “peace through strength” — a Republican standby since the days of Ronald Reagan — and seek to preside over “an American century.”

More than 67 million people tuned in to the first debate, and the viewership was nearly as large for last week’s follow-up. The audience for the final session in Florida was expected to be smaller, due in part to the topic — foreign policy is not a top-of-the-mind issue for most Americans — and competition with “Monday Night Football” and the deciding game of baseball’s National League Championship Series.

Regardless, the debate was significant as the last chance for voters to see the two presidential hopefuls side-by-side and engaging in a relatively free-flowing, unscripted exchange. It also represented the last major chance the candidates had to appeal to voters who have yet to make up their minds and, perhaps more importantly, to excite their supporters and motivate them to turn out for the Nov. 6 election.

© 2012 Tribune Company. Used by arrangement with Newscom.

The Riddle of Romney’s Religion

The Riddle of Romney’s Religion

CULT OR CULTURE?: Is the growing tolerance of Mitt Romney’s faith among evangelical Christians a sign of theological maturity or political desperation? (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

“We’re electing him to be our Commander-in-Chief, not Pastor-in-Chief.” That’s how one Christian woman recently defended her support of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in a Facebook comment.

It has been curious to observe the about-face that many formerly doctrinaire evangelicals have taken when it comes to the subject of Governor Romney’s religion. For most evangelical Christians, the Mormon faith has commonly been viewed as an unorthodox, non-Christian religion. Even the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which once characterized the Mormon religion as cultic, recently deleted that wording from its website. This has got me to thinking more about the relationship between politics and faith.

In The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Carl F.H. Henry, one of the principal architects of the modern evangelical movement, called conservative Protestant Christians to abandon their otherworldly stance encouraged by the liberal-fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s and to actively engage society from an orthodox Christian worldview in order to redeem our culture from the chaos of the times. Though his message initially was met with stiff resistance from older evangelicals, Henry’s message was warmly received by the younger ones who went on to positively impact society from a distinctively Christian worldview.

Since 1947, when Henry’s influential book was first published, until now, evangelicals have increased their sophistication in articulating the gospel message of salvation in Jesus Christ and in their analysis of social problems and corresponding solutions. Evangelicals subscribe to a high view of Scripture and have always maintained that all true knowledge is divine in origin and is complementary to the Word of God. As a result of this conviction, they have boldly and confidently entered into all the realms of social engagement that previous generations affected by the impact of fundamentalism were reticent to enter. One of these areas has been the political arena.

The engagement of the political arena by orthodox Protestant believers is not new; from colonial times until the present, Christians have been at the center of much of the contested issues in American life. What evangelicals brought to the table was a clear commitment to the Bible, personal conversion, and social engagement. Evangelicalism sought to bridge the chasm opened by the focus of fundamentalists on evangelism to the exclusion of social witness and the focus on social justice by liberals to the exclusion of personal conversion. While evangelicals have always leaned towards the right politically, they have always done so with a theological articulation for that leaning. Plainly put, most evangelicals are convinced that the Republican Party is more compatible with the Christian faith than the Democratic Party.

While I am not surprised that most evangelicals heartily endorse the Republican Party given its explicit commitment to religious liberty and its stated support for certain moral positions congenial to conservative social ethics, I must admit that I am a bit disturbed by the implications of the current evangelical support for Mitt Romney. While aspects of my own sociology tempt me to critique this support for his candidacy, my main contention is theological.

I am concerned about the theological implications of Christians committed to a certain view of Scripture and of orthodoxy wholeheartedly endorsing a candidate who is a member of a religious tradition whose doctrine compromises both. I am not saying that it is inherently wrong for a Christian to vote for a secular candidate or a member of another religious tradition; after all, we do live in a post-Christian, secular, pluralistic democracy. What I am saying is that Christians have an inherent responsibility to wrestle with the implications of the teachings of Scripture, the witness of the Christian tradition, and sober theological reflection when doing so.

Simply put, Mitt Romney’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints matters. Maybe not enough to automatically invalidate him as a viable candidate, but it does matter. The reasons are obvious, almost all evangelicals have asserted that the the Mormon religion is not in fact a legitimate Christian denomination and is in fact a heretical sect. By contrast, as far as I know, no credible evangelical has ever stated that the United Church of Christ, the denomination in which President Barack Obama received his religious formation, is an illegitimate Christian tradition. (A bent for liberation theology and a progressive stance on certain social issues is not a disqualification for Christian orthodoxy.)

The groundswell of evangelical support for a Romney candidacy seems peculiar — not so much because of what evangelicals are saying, but because of what they have said about Barack Obama’s beliefs in the past, and what they are not saying about Mitt Romney’s now. Despite President Obama’s public confession of his Christianity on numerous occasions, many still question the veracity of his faith, calling him a “closet Muslim” or pointing to his support of same-sex marriage. But do they practice the same degree of scrutiny when it comes to Governor Romney’s beliefs? As a friend of mine recently said, “What’s worse, altering the definition of marriage, or redefining the nature of God?”

It’s something to think about.

Welcome Back, Barack

Welcome Back, Barack

COMEBACK KID: President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney sparred early and often during the second presidential debate on October 16, 2012, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. After an uninspired first debate for President Obama, he came with renewed energy. (Photo: Stan Honda/Newscom)

President Barack Obama leaped back into the presidential campaign Tuesday, aggressively challenging rival Mitt Romney in a tense debate likely to reset the contest as it heads into the final weeks.

Obama was all the things he was not in his first faceoff with Romney — energetic, engaged, quick to defend his record and even quicker to tear into Romney. At points, he even jumped off his seat to challenge Romney.

Eager to score points from the opening minutes to the last, he cast Romney as an elitist who would help the rich, a chameleon who is all but lying to conceal his real agenda, a man whose scorn for the poor and working classes was revealed only in the secretly taped remarks in which Romney derided 47 percent of the country as freeloaders.

Romney gave as good as he got through most of the debate, reminding voters at every opportunity of the weak economy under four years of Obama’s leadership. He stumbled, however, at a turn over the attacks on U.S. diplomats in Libya, an unforced error that allowed Obama to score at what otherwise might have been a moment of vulnerability.

The 90-minute debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., likely helped Obama re-energize Democrats who were discouraged at his lackluster performance in the first debate, and sends the two rivals into their final clash Monday in Florida grappling for a breakout.

Most eyes were on Obama from the onset as he looked for ways stylistic and substantive to show voters he eagerly wants the job, and that Romney should not have it. In that first debate, he was passive at times, looking down at notes rather than making eye contact, and failing to raise such topics as Romney’s remarks about the 47 percent.

Obama worked throughout to tar Romney as a friend to the rich and powerful.

“His plan is to let the oil companies write the energy policies,” he said of Romney’s push for more energy production.

He lambasted Romney’s plan to cut taxes, saying they would necessarily force tax increases on the middle class.

“You’re going to be paying for it,” Obama said. “You can’t buy the sales pitch.”

Obama all but called Romney a liar.

“What Gov. Romney said just isn’t true,” he said of Romney’s comments on the auto industry.

“Very little of what Gov. Romney just said is true,” he said of Romney’s comments on energy.

Obama at times sat at the edge of his stool, rising quickly to physically challenge Romney face to face rather than waiting for Romney to finish and be seated.

Challenged by Romney the first time, Obama then walked away and faced the audience to answer a question. The second time Obama stood to confront him, Romney waved him back, “You’ll get your chance in a moment.”

When he wasn’t jumping out of his seat, Obama watched Romney intently.

He wasn’t Joe Biden, laughing or making hand gestures when the other guy was talking, as the vice president did in his debate last week with Republican Paul Ryan.

But Obama kept his eyes on his adversary, a noteworthy change from the first debate when he was often caught on camera looking down at his notes or away, giving voters the impression he was disinterested.

Romney refused to cede the stage, however, standing forward rather than returning to his seat while Obama spoke to the live audience in the town hall-style meeting.

Romney stayed on message most of the evening, hammering away at economic anxiety about lost jobs, rising poverty and shrinking paychecks.

“The president’s policies . . . haven’t put people to work,” he said.

“Middle-income families have been crushed,” he added.

Romney made a misstep, however, on the Obama administration’s response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya.

Obama stated that he called the attack a terrorist act the next day, brushing aside suggestions that his administration spent weeks giving misleading accounts that instead blamed the attacks on a riotous response to anti-Muslim video.

Romney challenged Obama’s assertion.

“Check the transcript,” Obama interrupted, and moderator Candy Crowley noted that Obama did use the word in his day-after comment. “Say that a little louder, Candy,” a confident Obama said.

Later, during the closing statements, Obama was given the final word and used it to further distinguish the differences between himself and Romney. After touting his record, he went on to finally broach the topic of Romney’s infamous “47 percent” remarks from the secret video footage that had snarled Romney’s campaign weeks earlier. Many chided Obama for not bringing up the topic in the first debate. This time he not only brought it up but saved it as his concluding shot in a match that one suspects will restore his campaign’s mojo.

What did you think of the second debate? Did President Obama redeem himself enough to get back into a close presidential race? Share your comments below.

Story adapted from McClatchy Newspapers, © 2012 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Used by permission of Newscom. Additional reporting by UrbanFaith staff.

This Just In: Nicki Minaj Supports Obama

This Just In: Nicki Minaj Supports Obama

ATTENTION GRABBER: On Twitter, rapper Nicki Minaj was ecstatic to have drawn the attention of President Obama with her supposed endorsement of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. (Photo: Christopher Macsurak/Wikipedia)

Well, good news: Nicki Minaj supports President Obama after all. Whew! That’s a relief.

Last week, you may recall, the twitterverse was all abuzz after the colorful rapper set off speculation that she was supporting Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Her featured track on Lil Wayne’s latest mixtape caught the rapper sharing some puzzling lyrics that indicated she was casting her lots with the GOP. On Lil Wayne and Kanye West’s song “Mercy,” Minaj raps: “I’m a Republican voting for Mitt Romney/You lazy b***es is f***ing up the economy.”

Almost immediately, the world broke into an uproar attempting to decipher the eccentric rapper’s true intentions behind the cryptic verses. Rolling Stone magazine chimed in on the discussion when it raised the question of whether or not her words were a deliberate endorsement or just a provocative lyric.

But, this week, after President Obama was asked about the song and Minaj’s apparent endorsement of Romney, he told radio station WPYO-FM in Orlando, Florida, that he wasn’t so sure it was a Romney plug. “She likes to play different characters,” he said.

Minaj immediately jumped on the moment. In a tweet, she thanked Obama for understanding: “my creative humor and sarcasm,” then noted: “the smart ones always do …”

In the past the hip-hop star has been known to produce songs filled with controversial lyrics that many felt were for publicity and self-promotion. Rapper Talib Kweli agrees. In a tweet posted last week, he said, “I doubt Nicki seriously supports Romney. Her lyrics ain’t political. She just wants y’all to talk about her & she winning cuz it’s working!”

I particularly enjoyed another tweet from Kweli that helped tease out the irony in the apparent existential crises so many were experiencing after the Minaj mystery hit:

Taking Minaj seriously, Huffington Post contributor Kia Makarechi observed that, “Minaj is hardly the first hip-hop figure to take a stance on the election.” In fact, Makarechi added that a week earlier Jay-Z had presented a video to concertgoers at his Made in America Festival that highlighted President Obama encouraging everyone to vote in the upcoming election.

One pop star that is definitely not a Romney supporter is Black Eyed Peas leader will.i.am. A couple weeks ago at the Republican National Convention, Gov. John Kasich quoted the band in his speech. Kasich said:

You know, I don’t know about you … but I’ve got a feeling. I’ve got a feeling –- and it’s not just because I like the Black Eyed Peas –- I’ve got a feeling we’re about to elect a new president of the United States of America!

Unhappy with the musical reference and his band’s indirect connection with the RNC, will.i.am tweeted, “Hey Gov Kasich #Igotafeeling that Ohio needed the auto bail out…#unitedamericanotdivided let’s educate our youth #reachforthestars.”

The following day, will.i.am continued to fight back in an emotionally charged television interview with Marlow Stern in North Carolina, to discuss his support for the President at the Democratic National Convention.

In different ways, both will.i.am and Nicki Minaj proved their influence in the culture, not to mention the way that pop music, hip-hop, and the opinions of its artists have become an important part of today’s politics.

Googling for Meaning, Part 2

Googling for Meaning, Part 2

In Part 1, we saw how the problem with GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum started with his characterization of homosexual relationships, and Dan Savage’s … savage response to that characterization. We can see that the meaning embedded in Santorum’s words is what created such a firestorm of controversy, and it’s easy to see how such embedded meaning can be an obstacle in connecting to an audience, especially when the embedded meaning connects to racism.

Meanings make definitions

We’ve got to understand that meanings make definitions, and cultural definitions are the context in which our audiences live. So what this means for Rick Santorum, and for Christians in general, is that we are already at a rhetorical disadvantage for a certain section of the populace when we identify ourselves as Christians, because for them, the word “Christian” has already been defined by overwhelming negativity.

So we must use our words and actions to be strategic about counteracting this cultural definition of Christianity with a new definition. If we prize our faith as highly as we say, then we need to be ready not only to take a stand for our faith, but to do so with sensitivity toward those who don’t believe.

Consider what the apostle Peter told believers:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander (1 Peter 3:15b-16, NIV, italics mine).

Santorum’s biggest problem as it relates to the Dan Savages of the world is not just his policies, but meaning created with his words. He needs to be able to maintain his convictions in a way that isn’t quite as alienating to people in blue states (or failing that, he should avoid offending Black people in general). After all, Santorum is not simply running to get the Republican nomination. He is running to be President of the United States, and there are plenty of Americans who don’t share his faith.

What’s ironic is that, of all the significant faith groups in America, the one that seems to do this best is Mitt Romney’s Mormons. The LDS church has been known for decades as being media savvy, from the ’80s into the present day. And it makes sense that they are, because Mormon doctrine, although it uses a lot of the same language, is so fundamentally different from most aspects of mainstream Christianity that it’s widely considered to be a cult. They have to persuade people with emotional imagery in order to draw attention away from the fundamental beliefs that undergird their religious authority structure.

Wanted: Real Christians

This difference, along with the myriad of differences in terminology, doctrine and ideology between other legitimate sects of Christianity (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, evangelicals, Pentecostals, Baptists, etc.), means there are so many competing definitions of what a Christian really is, that no wonder the unchurched are so confused. It makes you want to ask, “Will the real Christian church please stand up?

None of this is Rick Santorum’s fault directly. But it means that he’s sure got his work cut out for him. And even if he pulls a Rocky and somehow wins the Republican nomination — no sure thing considering he still has front-running Mitt Romney to deal with — he’s still going to have to find a way to relate to the rest of America.

I believe Rick Santorum has an authentic Christian faith. And even though there are aspects of his political record I find distasteful, I respect him for taking a public stand. His opponents might paint him as a phony, but then again people said the same thing about Dr. King. And as tone deaf as Santorum has been culturally, his immigrant lineage still connects him to the plight of the poor and the working class.

Plus, being a Christian will always put you in someone’s crosshairs. When the apostle Peter talked about others being ashamed of their slander, it reminded me of Dan Savage also attacking another prominent Christan named Rick — Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, someone who is much more image-conscious and well-known for his social justice efforts, which is why he was invited to give the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration.

Which just goes to show that as a Christian, following your convictions means you can’t please everybody.

I just wish more Americans understood what being a Christian really means. That it’s not the same as just “being a good person,” and that it’s more than just moralistic therapeutic deism.

Unfortunately, you’re not gonna get that from Google.