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Roundtable discussion moderated by Camerin Courtney for TodaysChristianWoman.com

2008 is a year of firsts: the first African-American presidential nominee and the first viable female presidential candidate. And for the first time since Jimmy Carter was in the White House, evangelicals are not likely to vote as a bloc. Polls show large numbers of Christians are considering crossing party lines, while some high-profile Christian leaders have said they don’t like either party’s candidate and won’t vote. Believers usually staking their choice on one or two issues are weighing a range of topics including war, environment, immigration, and poverty.

With so much to think and talk about, we invited four Christian women of various political leanings to meet at a home near Washington DC to discuss these complex issues and their effect on faith and relationships.

Meet our roundtable participants

Ellie Lofaro

Age: 51

Family: Married with three children (21, 19, and 16)

Occupation: Christian speaker and author of several books, most recently Spaghetti for the Soul (WaterBrook)

Key issues: Education, Terrorism, Environment

“Growing up on Long Island, I thought if you loved Jesus and took the Bible at its word, then you had to be Republican.”

Cindy Bittan Meeks

Age: 34

Family: Married with three  from my political beliefs.”

Katelyn Steaffens

Age: 21

Family: Single

Occupation: Mega-church staff member

Key issues: Iraq, Immigration, Faith-based Initiatives

“I never want to be a two-issue voter, as many Christians are.”

Amy Sullivan children (6, 3, and 8 months)

Occupation: Stay-at-home mom and part-time attorney

Key issues: Abortion, Terrorism, Taxes

“I can’t divorce my spiritual beliefs

Age: 35

Family: Married

Occupation: Senior editor of Time magazine and author of The Party Faithful: How and Why the Democrats Are Closing the God Gap (Scribner)

Key issues: Iraq, Economy, Environment

“I grew up in a home where we had portraits of Jesus and Bobby Kennedy hanging on the wall.”

Are you at all disappointed we don’t have a female running for president?

Katelyn: I’m excited Hillary got so far. It was amazing to have a minority, a woman, and a typical white guy in the running for so long. I don’t think I would have voted for Hillary, but I’m proud of her for defying a lot of odds and sticking it out that long.

Amy: I was a militant feminist even in elementary school. I had a Geraldine Ferraro button I wore on the playground in a conservative town. So I expected to feel something when the first woman ran who had a legitimate chance of becoming president. And I was surprised not to. I kept running into women who felt the same way, so I wrote a story about it for Time.

Was Hillary’s campaign a letdown?

Amy: No, I just think an idea is sometimes more exciting than the reality. A real person has flaws. I was fascinated talking to many women who said the Democratic primary made them ask themselves what it means to be a woman involved in politics today. Does it mean you have to vote for a woman if she runs, or does that simply mean you have a different political perspective from men?

A number of women told me Obama was really the “girl” in that race. Clinton was more aggressive and hawkish; maybe she had to be to get that far as a woman. Obama practiced a more “feminine” kind of politics-unifying, listening, compromising.

Ellie: If Barack was the girl, I didn’t want to see Hillary’s “wife,” Bill, back in the White House. I’m always thrilled to see women soar and achieve. I had three brothers, so yay to girl power! But the thought of Bill returning to the White House was a major deterrent for me.

Would the first woman president or the first African-American president be more significant?

Cindy: My husband and I both are African-American, so we talk about this a lot.

Katelyn: Definitely an African-American president.

Ellie: I agree.

Katelyn: Maybe, at 21, my age affects my thoughts on this question. I’m living the effects of all the work my grandma’s and mom’s generations did for women’s rights. I don’t see the workforce as me against the men; I’m simply an equal. But I still see racial discrimination in many corners of society.

Amy: Younger women actually voted overwhelmingly for Obama, while older women voted overwhelmingly for Hillary. Women 30 to 55 split evenly between the two candidates.

What do you think influenced these female voting patterns?

Amy: I think there’s a difference in perception of the challenges that still exist for women. Older women who’ve been out of the workplace for a while or who had formative workforce experiences of running up against sexism put symbolic value in having a woman in the White House. Younger women for whom the idea of a glass ceiling seemed so “yesterday” didn’t put as much significance on the idea of electing a woman and felt freer to vote for either candidate.

Ellie: My family and I attended a predominantly African-American church for 12 years, and we gained much sensibility and understanding about the black experience. We would make a great statement to the nation and the world by electing a man of color. Hopefully it would address the bigotry still rampant in our country. If Obama wins, it would be a fantastic footnote in history that America did something amazing in 2008. That said, he’s charismatic, but not the most qualified to run our country. And I’m ticked off at Obama; because of him my husband and I will have our votes cancelled out this November by two of our kids. It’s ridiculous. I mean, you try to raise them as best you can. [Laughs.]

Cindy, as a woman of color, what do you think?

Cindy: Some of my friends are excited about the possibility of an African-American president. As for my husband and me, our faith dictates our politics. Because of my feelings about sanctity of life, I can’t in good conscience support someone who doesn’t support the right to life-regardless of that candidate’s race or gender. I’d have difficulty supporting someone who said one of his first acts in office would be to overturn all restrictions on abortion.

Ellie: Obama said that?

Cindy: Yes, in one of his speeches. And in the Illinois state legislature, he worked with Planned Parenthood to lead the opposition against the Born-Alive Infant Protection Act. That would have made it illegal for babies who survive abortion to be put to death. That really bothers me.

Is abortion a significant political issue for others of you as well?

Amy: Studies have shown that piecemeal legislation, such as parental notification laws, don’t actually lead to a real reduction in the abortion rate. So, over the last few years, many Democrats, Obama among them, have worked to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Such efforts have decreased teen pregnancies and teen abortions by about a third.

I’ve concluded there are ways to protect life that get outside the political frames of the last few decades. They aren’t proposals to outlaw abortion, so they haven’t gotten much support from conservatives. But these alternative approaches may actually have more impact in reaching the goal that everyone, whether pro-choice or pro-life, wants: fewer abortions.

Such unity in politics is often difficult to achieve. Have any of you experienced tension with friends whose political beliefs differ drastically from yours?

Amy: My liberal friends are surprised I’m evangelical; my evangelical friends are surprised I’m liberal. And I’ve noticed an assumption among liberals that conservatives aren’t very tolerant or bright.

Ellie: Since we’re in my home, I’m going to have to ask Amy to leave now. [Laughs.]

Amy: On a more serious note, I attended my childhood church during a visit home in 2004. In the middle of the sermon, the pastor (not the one I grew up with) said it wasn’t possible to be a good Christian and a Democrat. Sitting in a pew 12 feet from where I became a Christian in the church that spiritually formed me, I was disturbed to hear the pastor call my faith into question because of my political identity.

Ellie: I haven’t had an experience anything close to Amy’s, but I have had my perspective challenged. Growing up on Long Island, I thought if you loved Jesus and took the Bible at its word, then you had to be Republican. Because of my exposure to various Christians here in DC, I’ve changed that belief. Yet I know many fellow Republicans would say they can’t believe in God and support another party.

Cindy: Like me. I believe the church should carry out God’s dominion mandate in Genesis 1:28 to subdue the earth and replenish it. We are to spread the lordship of Christ to every segment of society. Jesus underscored that command in the Great Commission. So I can’t divorce my spiritual beliefs from my political beliefs.

How exactly should faith and politics connect?

Cindy: I understand the perspective that faith doesn’t belong in the public square, but I disagree. Christians have allowed a humanistic worldview to dominate politics. Instead, we should bring a Christian worldview to the forefront. Seeing God as Lord of our lives should translate into voting for candidates who support policies that reflect biblical truths. When a candidate decontextualizes Matthew 25 to justify gay marriage and considers Romans 2 “obscure,” I can’t support that candidate.

Amy: What’s driven progressive evangelicals like me nuts for years has been the idea that our politics are secular because they’re not focused on a few particular social issues.

Abortion and gay marriage?

Amy: Right. Many conservatives assume we’re not bringing our faith into the political sphere if we’re not focused on those issues. But my politics absolutely are motivated by my faith, whether trying to provide healthcare for everyone or trying to use state resources to prevent poverty.

Cindy: I don’t think the government should try to do everything. According to Romans 13:3-4, the government’s job is to punish evil and reward good. It’s the church’s responsibility to help the poor.

When I lived in New York City, my church had a big outreach to the poor. Over half our congregants had been on welfare at one point. With the government’s help, they were caught in a cycle of poverty for years-until our church preached the gospel and expressed Christ’s love.

Amy: I think Christians should care about the politics of poverty and sex trafficking and torture and the environment. I’ve been excited over the last few years to see people like Rick Warren, who as recently as 2004 said there’s just a small group of nonnegotiable issues, now say limiting the political concerns of Christians is wrong. Thankfully, the spectrum of issues is broadening among Christians.

Katelyn: I agree; I never want to be a two-issue voter, as many Christians are. Yes, I’m against abortion and gay marriage. But I don’t understand why Christians have picked two issues to vilify. The church’s divorce stats are the same as the secular world’s, yet that’s considered acceptable. But if someone’s gay, that’s a huge deal? Neither divorce nor homosexuality is God’s intention. We Christians haven’t treated the homosexual community with love.

Ellie: It’s a shame we’ve taken a few sins and made them the Big, Bad Sins. We all fall short in so many ways. Getting the government to pass a law isn’t going to force people to believe in Jesus. Our kindness wins people to the kingdom, and kindness has largely been missing from politics in the last 10 to 15 years. It’s been hateful, and I’m not always proud to align myself with some who call themselves Christian.

So how should Christians approach politics?

Cindy: It’s the Christian’s duty to speak out against sin. Revivalist Charles Finney, who spoke out against slavery, said Christians have a duty to vote for candidates who uphold God’s moral law.

Ellie: We have to look at how Jesus made an impact on people-one life at a time. That’s how we get things done. Whether we’re a Christian on this side or that side of political lines, our continued preaching of the gospel with love and mercy will change lives.

Katelyn: I feel like Christians think their duty is on November 4, when it’s actually from November 5 to November 3. Our duty is to love people and to mentor that 13-year-old boy who’s confused about his sexual orientation. I feel like we let ourselves off the hook by thinking our vote is enough. We need to serve as change agents in people’s lives. Transformation happens from the bottom up, not from the top down.

Ellie: Though we Christians have failed in some of our political approach, I’m excited to continue on.  In our political system, there are enough checks and balances that we’re going to survive the next four years whatever happens. And ultimately, God will still be in control.