Normally when these types of things happen there is no drama. You know what answer the questioner wants to get. You know what answer the questioner is going to get. It's so predictable (and often awkward) that its tough to sit through.
Most of the questions were "softballs" lobbed out there for the candidates to swing at. Usually there are a corresponding number of "high and inside fast balls" designed to make the candidates look dumb. They must have controlled things pretty well because I didn't see too much of these.
But then Jim Wallis said:
"The year that Dr. King was assassinated he was about to launch a poor peoples campaign. The reality is that since then the poverty rate in our country is virtually unchanged. Something like 30 million Americans live below the poverty level in the richest country in the history of the world. Would you be willing to make a commitment tonight, that if you are elected president, you will initiate programs and legislation to to reduce the poverty level in half, over the next 10 years?"
I was shocked. Talk about putting the guy on the spot. I was not only astonished by the question and its directness but by Obama's willingness to respond. He said: "Yes, I will." He then qualified it slightly by acknowledging the enormity of such a task and the fact that the economics of the country on the whole exacerbate the dilemma (e.g. the mortgage crisis is currently sending hundreds of thousands of Americans' back into poverty). At any rate, as a guy who believes this is not only possible but must be part of the process of addressing systemic issues of injustice I (my independent, non-partisan self) cheered.
Here is a caveat: I am not a huge fan of Jim Wallis to be honest because too often his commitment to social justice is indistinguishable from being anti-republican party. As with guys like Hannity or Moyers, I find it difficult to listen to them because they can never admit to any virtue across the aisle nor any vice on their side of the aisle. Clearly there are some aspects to what Wallis has championed (like Campolo) that are centrally aligned with my ministry at Sunshine and our commitment to Mercy, Justice and Discipleship. So all that to say I am proud of him for how he used that moment. Let's hope it goes beyond being a moment.
So what would it actually take? Is it possible? What role does the church play? These are a few of the questions that ensue.