In the New Testament, Martha does all the hard work while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, learning. (Luke 10:38-42) Both jobs are clearly needed, but ABC foreign affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz, moderator of the debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) clearly did the hard work of keeping the conversation on track despite vigorous debate between the two contenders.
Raddatz had to struggle on two fronts; both controlling the battling debaters in front of her, and criticism both before and during the debate.
This criticism had a disturbing tone of gender bias. Gender bias against women moderating debates has raised its ugly head before, as was the case with Gwen Ifill in 2008. Even before the 2012 vice-presidential debate ended, Raddatz was criticized for her moderating skills. The direction of the criticism during the debate was that she was too easy on Biden.
But actually Raddatz ruled with an even hand, giving extra time to Ryan at times, and letting Biden comment at others.
Raddatz was specific in questioning the candidates on how faith does or does not inform policy on this issue.
“We have two Catholic candidates, first time, on a stage such as this. And I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion.”
“I believe that life begins at conception,” said Ryan, and that “the policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortions with the exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.” This is a shift for Ryan, as he has previously opposed all reasons for abortion. Ryan also repeated the “religious freedom” issue in regard to the Obama administration’s position on support for contraception.
Biden, also a Catholic, was quick to agree with Ryan on what Catholic teaching says about life beginning at conception. He immediately broadened it to the whole of “Catholic social doctrine,” however, and how that has informed him as a Catholic about taking care of the most vulnerable.
Biden was also clear that the “religious freedom” issue regarding reproductive choice coverage for women, including contraception, did not affect the religious freedom of either Catholic churches or institutions; “none has to either refer contraception, none has to pay for contraception, none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact.”
In fact, as Biden pointed out, the key issue of religious freedom is on the other foot. Biden argued that his Catholic beliefs should not dictate policy positions that he would take as an elected official. The vice president stuck to his faith perspective, but added that “I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews.”
This is it. The bottom line for American faith and public life. We respect each other’s religious beliefs, but it is unacceptable to impose those on others as law.
And finally, it seemed like I heard the word “women” uttered for the first time during the 2012 presidential and vice-presidential debates. “I do not believe,” said Biden, “that we have a right to tell other people that -- women they can’t control their body.”
Mr. Vice President, if you had mentioned the Violence Against Women Act I would have been happier, but thank you for respecting both the true American practice on religious freedom, the freedom from religious dominance, and also the right of women to have the final say about their own bodies.
But Raddatz was not done with her values question. She wanted each candidate to talk about the tone of the race, and whether they were, indeed, “embarrassed by that.” Both candidates ducked her question in different ways.
By the earliest CNN poll, Biden won by a wide margin, though it is early yet in the responses.
It’s true the vice president did well. But in terms of the Mary and Martha story in the New Testament, in this case it was Martha who “had the better part.”
Former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress .