The Family Leader held a “Thanksgiving Family Forum” today in Des Moines, Iowa. It was billed as a “family discussion with the Republican Presidential Candidates”. Six presidential hopefuls participated in the event: Ron Paul, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich.

The format of the event was rather informal, with the candidates and the moderator seated around a table. I spoke briefly with Don Gonyea of National Public Radio and Kevin Hall of the Iowa Republican prior to the event and both had indicated that the unique format of the event had captured their interest.

The moderator for the event was Dr. Frank Luntz of Luntz Global, a research, polling, and consulting group. The candidates were also asked questions by Tom Minnery of Citizen Link and Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage.

In his introductory remarks Bob Vander Plaats, CEO of The Family Leader, asserted the importance of the event because the next President of the United States would be heard from at the event.

The candidates entered the auditorium and sat down at the table with Luntz. In a rather odd moment, given her candidacy for the highest office in the land, Michelle Bachmann served glasses of water to everyone at the table.

The candidates were asked questions that each was given opportunity to answer, and occasionally they were able to speak to the question more than once. The questions ranged from the meaning of “so help me God” in the oath of office to each candidate’s views on  justification for going to war. Not surprisingly, given the sponsors of the event as well as the venue (First Federated Church), the subject of religion and faith came up frequently and some of the candidates were very personal in their statements about faith in Christ. Bachmann, for example, mentioned being a sinner in need of a savior on two different occasions.

Their differences were quite apparent during some of the discussion, particularly with regard to the role of the Federal Government in such matters as marriage and abortion. Even when discussing the recovery of lost values in the culture these differences were evident, with Santorum and Cain suggesting that people of faith needed to engage the culture rather than hide or be passive, and Ron Paul flatly denying that the government has any role in such a matter as culture. The role of government is to “preserve liberty” and the culture is shaped by individuals, families, and churches, Paul remarked. Gingrich responded that liberty “doesn’t mean libertine” and that it doesn’t mean absence of values. Perry commented that if values were promoted by individuals the politics will take care of themselves. Bachmann stated that pastors should be free to make political comments from their pulpits and that the restriction of such is a violation of free speech. She said the laws prohibiting this should be repealed. When asked about political speech she might disagree with coming from pulpits, she retorted that “the Left is doing it already”. Cain chimed in on what he saw as IRS intimidation on this point. Pastors should be allowed to make political comments in church. If you don’t like it, “go to another church. Pick another church”, he said.

In a discussion of personal responsibility, Gingrich cited Captain John Smith, the New England explorer, who told certain colonists that if they didn’t work they wouldn’t eat. Gingrich went on to blast the Occupy Wall Street movement and had one of the best lines of the night when he advised them to “go get a job right after you take a bath.”

When the subject of the States in relation to the Federal Government was discussed, Santorum’s position was that the States “do not have the right to undermine” what he called the “moral enterprise” of the nation. Perry said there were “limits to what the States could say no to”. Ron Paul maintained that the States had the right to be wrong, adding later that nationalizing issues like abortion legislatively was trouble and that he supports personhood legislation at the state level.

The last issue dealt with at the forum was the subject of war, with the candidates being asked their views on what morally justifies a war. Ron Paul mentioned the early church’s struggle with this question, noting Augustine’s Just War Theory. He went on to passionately denounce war on the ground that it destroys economies and families, and asserted that many wars of late have been unconstitutional and illegal. Perry observed that rules of engagement should never be decided by politicians. Cain said one of the things he would ask himself as President was whether he would send “his own son or daughter” into a war under consideration. Santorum said that we are a young country in a long war, a thousand year conflict between radical Islam and the West. He said that we have a “moral obligation to partner with Israel” to stop Iran’s nuclear capability. Gingrich agreed, making a comment that got the most applause of the night: He would tell the Iranians they have a “very short time to solve this (problem) on your own or we’ll solve it for you and we frankly couldn’t care less what the rest of the world thinks, we’re gonna get it done.”

I thought the forum was informative and I certainly liked it better than the debate format, but I thought Luntz didn’t press the candidates as hard has he should have from time to time. There were no big surprises that came out of the forum, and I don’t think any of the candidates really hurt or really helped themselves either. I will have more detail about the forum discussions and how I think the candidates fared in a later post.

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