COLUMBIA — On a balmy Thursday night on MU's campus, a group of young college men took a break from their sand volleyball game to discuss religion and politics.
Often these topics of conversation are considered taboo, but these young men, who are members of Mizzou Students for Christ, were more than willing to share their opinions on the upcoming presidential election and the role religion plays in their votes.
What: Saddleback Civil Forum
When: 5-7 p.m., Saturday
Where: Saddleback Community Church, Lake Forest, Calif.
Online at www.saddlebackcivilforum.com
In recent days, the nation has been talking politics - John Edwards' admission of an affair and Hillary Clinton's headlining speech before the Democratic National Convention have made big headlines - while the presumptive presidential nominees talk about issues such as how to end the war in Iraq, how to reduce foreign oil dependence and what to do about the economy.
On Saturday, the conversation will include matters of faith. Both Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama will join a civil forum moderated by the Rev. Rick Warren, best-selling author and pastor at Saddleback Community Church in California. The event is co-sponsored by Faith in Public Life, the organization that hosted a Compassion Forum with the Democratic candidates earlier this year.
"A lot of the candidates will say that they are Christian. But a lot of times what they stand for or approve is something that I think goes against what the Bible stands for," said Laurence Willis, a 26-year-old campus minister for Mizzou Students for Christ.
"People don't follow what they promise," said 19-year-old Brandon Aikens. "It's hard for me to trust anybody in higher power."
"I just try to follow the Bible," he said.
The Saddleback Civil Forum isn't a candidate debate like those held during primary season, but will have a somewhat similar format with questions posed to both candidates. Warren, who is the author of "The Purpose-Driven Life," will act as moderator.
Obama will begin the two-hour event, as determined by a coin toss.
The forum is the second of its kind hosted by the megachurch founded by Warren. The forum was "established to promote civil discourse and the common good of all," according to a news release from the church.
Sometimes "religion is pulled out of the equation a little bit," Willis said. The candidates' sense of morality and values are more important factors in Willis' choice for president.
‘Americans care deeply'
Many Christian voters will be watching the forum and the party nominations to learn more about the candidates.
"The primaries proved that Americans care deeply about the faith, values, character and leadership convictions of candidates as much as they do about the issues," Warren said in a news release.
As the presidential election nears, politicians and news analysts are debating the importance of young voters and the role religion plays on their vote.
Young voters came out in record numbers during the recent presidential primaries, perhaps showing that their notorious voter apathy may be a thing of the past.
For example, "the Obama campaign has placed a lot of emphasis on the youth vote," said James Endersby, a political science professor at MU. "In the caucus phase, there were many more younger voters than you would otherwise expect."
But mobilizing the youth vote is not easy. Even if young people seem enthusiastic about.
But mobilizing the youth vote is not easy. Even if young people seem enthusiastic about.
a presidential nominee, that does not mean they will actually make it to the voting booth on Nov. 4.
Rick Puig, president of the Mid-Missouri Young Democrats, said the assumption that young voters are absent from the polls is categorically false and he has the numbers on his side as evidence. The number of young people voting increased during the last two years, he said. "But the increase was explosive this cycle. The primary brought young voters margins up 2 to 1 in Missouri alone."
Young voters may have been the reason for the high turnout that helped solidify Obama's victory in Missouri's presidential primary. Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren said she noticed an increase of young voter participation.
Voter turnout in Boone County for the primary was more than double the 2004 turnout. This year, 41,877 voters cast ballots in the county, according to the secretary of state's Web site. About 15,700 ballots were cast in the 2004 primary.
But as the national election gets closer, are young voters still interested in the political process?
Lack of substance
Many of the young people, ages 18 to 22, interviewed by Missourian reporters this summer were reluctant to talk about politics, let alone how their faith impacts their vote. Some said they just weren't interested in politics, while others felt that neither Obama nor McCain was a viable choice.
"From what I have seen so far, neither candidate has given me much substance," said 21-year-old Ross Sawyer.
Even those who had an opinion on the candidates weren't interested in discussing it because they didn't feel they were informed on the issues or the candidate's viewpoints.
Brittany Ashcraft, 22, said her political views are mostly influenced by her parents, who are "hardcore liberals who discuss Obama's beliefs at the dinner table." Ashcraft turned 18 just after the 2004 presidential election.
Puig said the increased interest in young voters is due to the issues at hand this cycle. Puig says it's a scary idea for young people to carry on politics from the past eight years. He said the war in Iraq is of immense interest to young Americans. "Young people have their peers and friends laying down their lives, because of this, the war becomes a more saline issue than any other."
Overwhelmingly, young Missourians seem to agree.
Andrew Magana, 21, an Obama supporter, views the war in Iraq and the economy as the most important issues this cycle. Matthew Gerald, 23, who supports McCain, also sees the war as a vital issue. Aaron Warren, 29, who is an Obama supporter, and Chris Boyd, 25, who is a McCain supporter, both agree that the war is the most important issue, although they have opposing views on the war.
"The smaller issues aren't the issues that are going to make it for our country," said 20-year-old Lauren Cox.
Cox, a member of Mizzou Students for Christ, considers her religious beliefs before casting her vote.
Faith undoubtedly plays a crucial role in the presidential elections. According to a recent survey by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 56 percent of Americans say religious beliefs and practices are a very important part of their lives.
That's why recent presidential candidates have made concerted efforts to gain the votes of people affiliated with a faith.
John Green, author of "The Faith Factor: How Religion Influences American Elections," discussed in his book how George Bush's victory in 2004 may have hinged on his ability to win votes from mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics.
"If you look at the 2004 presidential elections, religiosity and church attendance were an extremely good predictor of who you voted for," said Adrian Ang, professor of political science at MU.
"People with high levels of religiosity were typically Republican. The exception is African-Americans. They vote overwhelmingly Democratic."
This year's election is promising a change to past performances, however.
Focus on social justice
"In the past, there was a clear partisan divide among the evangelical community, but this cycle we're seeing an extraordinary trend," Puig said.
"Evangelicals are seeing that the Democratic Party is doing a better job with social justice and humanitarian issues, so they are voting not according to their religious beliefs."
The Obama campaign seems to realize the importance of not only the evangelical vote, but also the young evangelical vote. According to Obama's campaign Web site, his supporters are starting a young evangelical group this month.
CBN News senior national correspondent David Brody, writing on the Christian Broadcasting Network's Web site, cbn.com, said, "There's no doubt Obama has engaged an eager and energetic younger crowd during this presidential campaign. These twenty-somethings want to discuss issues beyond abortion and marriage."
"Politics became an issue when I became a true Christian," said Cox.
Back on the sand volleyball court, the cheers from the sidelines are growing louder, and the young men are eager to return to their game. As a matter of conclusion, Willis attempted to resolve the occasionally sharp divide between religion and politics.
Referring to the president, Willis said, "We believe that God put whoever he wants in that position so if anything, we need to pray for that person and not complain."
Missourian reporters Katie Bascuas, Heather Harrison, Annie Meredith and Rebecca Romano contributed to this report