Wesley Seminary students attend second presidential debate

October 10, 2016

Prof. Mike McCurry, right, greets students from Wesley Theological Seminary after the Danforth Dialogues Oct. 8 on the Campus of Washington University in St. Louis. A group of students from the seminary attended the second Presidential Debate as part of a class taught by McCurry, who is also a co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates. Photo by Erik Alsgaard.

By Erik Alsgaard
UMConnection Staff

ST. LOUIS – A group of students from Wesley Theological Seminary had the opportunity of a lifetime Oct. 9 when they attended the second presidential debate of 2016, held here. The debate, between Republican nominee for president Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, took place on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis.

The students attended as part of the class, “Religion and the American Presidency,” taught by Mike McCurry, Distinguished Professor of Public Theology at Wesley, and one of the co-chairs of the Commission on Presidential Debates.

This new blended course from the Center for Public Theology, part of the Institute for Community Engagement at Wesley, is one of the many ways the Center is creating programming and events that examine ways that faith traditions impact policy and politics, said Sheila George, director of communications and marketing at the seminary.

Students, who attended at their own expense, said that this was the first presidential debate they had attended.

Bantie Brownell-Forschner said she appreciated having the experience.

“I thank Professor McCurry for giving us the opportunity to attend,” she said after the debate. For her, watching the debate in person was difficult.

“It was painful to actually listen to Donald Trump in person,” she said, “because when I’ve watched previous debates on television, I can turn it off or go into another room.”

Others echoed Brownell-Forschner’s comment about watching live an event that was made for television.

Lauren Bennett, who had never been to St. Louis before nor attended a debate, said that she didn’t necessarily see herself as a political person. “I’ve never really considered religion and politics before coming to Wesley,” she said. “It’s been an interesting journey to consider how those two intersect.”

Like Brownell-Forschner, Bennett also enjoyed the Danforth Dialogues, held on Saturday, Oct. 8, at Graham Chapel. Those conversations, moderated by NPR’s Krista Tippett, featured time with noted columnists E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, and David Brooks of the New York Times, talking about the intersection of faith and politics.

“It was interesting to come into this space (the arena where the debates were held) with that framework in mind,” Bennett said after the debate. “Yesterday, we were talking about our democracy being unique because it was founded on these different beliefs coming together. And then to come here and watch each candidate bash each other repeatedly… it was difficult.”

Bennett said that the trip to the debate has taught her that progress takes intentional listening and the imagination to place yourself in an other’s situation to “consider their position from their point of view before making your own decision.”

Brad Kenn said that the experience had been educational for him.

“We definitely have the separation of church and state,” he said, “but I think what’s interesting is that it’s not ‘church from state,’ or ‘state from church.’ I think politics has always played a role in religion and vice versa.”

Kenn said that if people fail to examine the roles these two institutions play in and with each other, it is detrimental to the country. He also said that the weekend re-confirmed, for him, the need to vote with a moral conscience.

“I wish we had better rhetoric from both sides,” he said. “I know that a lot of my friends are disappointed in this election; they don’t feel like they’re represented by either party. That concerns me that a larger percentage of people feel like they’re left out.”

Laurel Fraser said she could feel the tension in the arena when she got to her seat, and how much stress and anxiety she was experiencing before the debate started.

“Hearing words of hate and mud-slinging during the debate, and hearing words of anger, was really unsettling for a person of faith,” she said, “to feel like we were in this hopeless mess, and that was a dynamic I wasn’t expecting.”

She said that sitting at home, watching the previous debate, was a different experience.

“You can kind of relax, tune in and out,” Fraser said. “But here, I was in the middle of hearing all of these really distressing words. The only thing that kind of helped me come back to the present and realize that I am here, in this historic moment and that I should enjoy it, is the idea that whatever comes from this election, there will be people who continue to talk about these issues. As a person of faith, I can only hope and pray that people will start to care for each other and for making that anger go away.”

Sarah Montgomery said the weekend, for her, was exciting but also nerve-wracking. She, too, confessed to a feeling of anxiety.

“But also some moments of calm in between,” she said after the debate, “because there’s this feeling like you’re not alone in those feelings.”

Montgomery said the anxiety stemmed from the many different issues facing the country and the lack of communication, “or willingness to listen and really wrestle with somebody else’s views.”

Learning to listen and not dismissing people because you disagree with them are two important lessons Montgomery said she experienced on the trip, and that they will have an impact on her ministry in the future.

“I think it (the experience of the weekend) makes one empathetic,” she said, “because you’re sitting there, tonight, thinking ‘There’s no way someone can vote for the candidate I don’t like,’ and then you get people clapping and cheering for them and you’re like, ‘Wow, there are people out there who really believe this.’”


Dave Oct 12, 2016 10:50am

Nice dig at Trump. Go to hell.

Marie Oct 12, 2016 8:24pm

It is absurd that at such a critical time in our nation's history, a grown person watching the debates would say they have to "turn it off or go into another room," thus only hearing what they want to hear. Small wonder that our nation has reached the state it's in when people of faith are behaving like wimps who can't bear to hear the truth plainly stated, without all the political correctness constantly being shoved down our throats from both sides. Regardless of how you want people to speak, truth does not just go away because it makes you feel uncomfortable. If someone running for the office of President has behaved in a traitorous manner like Hillary Clinton, this fact must be brought forth, though it's not going to give you a warm, fuzzy feeling. Poor baby.

Chris Oct 12, 2016 9:19pm

Sleep well. These are the future leaders of the UMC

Anonymous Oct 13, 2016 5:27pm

I did not read jabs at Clinton although her comments, disregard of laws while in office, and multiple lies, confirmed by the FBI, is disgusting. I'm really beginning to see how liberal the UMC has become by advocating support for Clinton.

Diane Oct 14, 2016 9:35am

For all those commenting please remember that everyone is entitled to their own view and feelings on any topic, including the two presidential candidates we have. Each one should be considered prayerfully, asking for guidance in making your choice as to casting your vote. Don't judge others just because they don't share your point of view. Either way the election goes, God help us all. That is the prayer we should all be saying...

Blair Oct 14, 2016 5:43pm

If "everyone is entitled to their own view and feelings on any topic," that would include all the people commenting above on this article. There is not a comment section so that people have to only agree with what they read. Also, by trying to shut others up by telling them "Don't judge others," you yourself have also just judged the rest of the commenters. Let's be free to agree or disagree with the statements in the article without using the "Don't judge" line when their comments aren't to our liking. Oops--looks like I'm judging you. ;)

Peter Oct 15, 2016 6:05pm

Remember when we vote, it is our right and obligation to choose who we believe will be the better choice to lead this nation. We must also consider the platform they represent and will put into action the moment they take office in January, 2017. We cannot elect someone who will advocate killing babies or censoring biblical teaching because it offends someone. God be with you all as you consider this important time in our lives.

Addie Oct 16, 2016 5:19am

I do know Hillary is a Methodist.

Addie Oct 16, 2016 5:23am

I gather Mrs. Clinton's lifetime in service was inspired by her Methodist roots. I don't believe Mr. Trump has specified any particular religious upbringing or inspiration, but perhaps I just have not read of it. May I also add how dismaying it is to see such hate filled comments on a Methodist Church site. I will go elsewhere for decent discussion based on at least attempting to be civil.

Rebecca Kitchens Oct 17, 2016 10:43am

May God have mercy upon us if indeed Mrs. Clinton's life time in service was inspired by her Methodist roots.

Shirley Oct 18, 2016 11:13pm

"Hate filled comments" is Hillary-talk for "I don't want to hear the truth."