Joe Biden wasn't asked about whether he should take Communion. Sarah Palin wasn't asked whether she speaks in tongues. In fact, tonight's vice-presidential debate featured only minimal talk of faith at all -- by my count, Biden mentioned God five times, and Palin twice, but all the mentions were essentially idiomatic expressions -- Biden used the phrases "pray God,'' "God love him,'' "God forbid,'' "God bless,'' and "God protect," while Palin said, "God bless her" and "thank God.''
But there were a few moments that struck me as of potential significance to those interested in the nexus between faith and politics:
- Biden and Palin both expressed opposition to same-sex marriage, but in Biden's answer, he said, "That is basically the decision to be able to be left to faiths and people who practice their faiths the determination what you call it." His syntax was tortured, but he appeared to be saying that the civil laws should protect the rights of people in same-sex relationships, but that faith groups should decide how to describe those relationships. Gay-rights advocates have argued the reverse -- that religious groups should not be allowed to determine the definition of marriage, but that marriage is a civil institution that should be defined by government. In her answer to the gay marriage question, Palin, apparently responding to intimations by liberal critics that her evangelical faith makes her intolerant, asserted "I am tolerant.''
- Both candidates professed strong support for Israel, but Palin went even further, declaring, as she talked about the potential threat from Iran, "We have got to assure them (Israel) that we will never allow a second Holocaust.'' Her comment was reminiscent of a remark made by the GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, at last week's debate, in which he said, "Now we cannot (have) a second Holocaust."
- After the repeated associations of Islam with terrorism during the GOP convention, Palin tonight avoided that language, instead using the phrase "Shia extremists.''
The word choices and thematic points at debates are often carefully rehearsed, so it will be interesting to see whether this language is repeated on the campaign trail going forward, and how it is heard by the affected religious constituencies.
(Photo above, by AFP, shows the vice-presidential debate playing on television at a bar in Beijing.)