Politics and the Faith Forum

Last night Barack Obama and John McCain appeared for separate conversations with RickWarren, pastor of the Southern Baptist congregation Saddleback Community Church. Saddleback is a conservative evangelical church sitting in a fairly conservative part of Southern California. Warren has become an important evangelical voice in many ways because he has not engaged in strident political efforts. He's conservative on the conservative issues, but he's broadened the agenda to things like AIDS and poverty.

So, last night the two presidential candidates appeared. I was out of town with my wife for a weekend away so I didn't watch the whole thing -- caught the last half hour of Obama and watched the first 1/2 hour of McCain. Therefore, I can't compare their answers, but here's my observation.

Obama was talking about things like the economy and taxes. He got positive response from the crowd, especially when he said that if we want things like good schools and roads without leaving a legacy of debt to our children then we have to pay for them. That good a good round of applause, as did his responses on things like merit pay and orphans. I didn't see his response on abortion, but from what I heard his answer was probably the right one, but he could have phrased it better. To say that determining when life begins is "above my pay grade" sounds flippant. A better answer would have been that "this is an issue that has long troubled people of faith and that people of faith have not come to one answer. Because that is a theological question I will leave it to those better equipped to answer." But what is done is done. At the end he received a warm response and standing ovation.

You could tell from the response to John McCain that this was an overwhelmingly GOP crowd. And he gave them what they wanted to hear. He said he'd drill, drill, drill and he said that life begins at conception. He made constant references to his time as a POW. This appears to be his foundational narrative. That he's a war hero no one should deny -- but whether that makes him ready to be president is another thing. The same is true of Obama's narrative. It is compelling, but by itself doesn't qualify him to be president.

So, from my brief observations of the evening's proceedings, it seemed to me that Obama was comfortable and engaging -- but in a crowd that wasn't necessarily supportive. McCain knew this was a GOP crowd and seemed, at least early on willing to pander to them. He threw out the anti-abortion rhetoric, but the fact that earlier in the week he made it clear he would consider a pro-choice running mate raises some questions.

But all in all, I think this was a good format. Warren asked the same questions of both, didn't seem to have any gotcha questions. Both were asked about moral failings and faith foundations. Warren couched the faith questions in world view terms, which is appropriate. Could he have pushed further on some answers, yes I think so, but all in all this was much better than the earlier debates.

And as Obama said in his closing comments, his hope is that the nation will get to know both candidates and then make an informed decision. That is my hope as well.


Warren worded his questions in such a way as to restart the culture wars and tip things in McCain's favor. Obama had been polling too good among evangelicals. Expect McCain to get a bump from this. This could be the beginning of the end of our hopes for Obama.
roy said…
Interesting Michael... I watched the exchange and definitely saw that the questions were slanted towards McCain but didn't see any subterfuge going on.
I participate in a Christian musicians group online where most of the participants are very conservative. The broadcast did tend to get them riled up and certainly polarized things more. To the degree that Warren was trying to restore civility to the discussion, he failed.
Remember that Warren mobilized conservative evangelicals for Bush's reelection in '04, sending out a newsletter saying that 5 items were non-negotiable for biblical Christians: ending abortion, stopping stem-cell research on embryos, preventing legalization of gay marriage, human cloning, and euthanasia. (He cited no biblical verses, but just spoke from on high.) He allowed that Christians could have multiple opinions on war and peace, the economy, social programs, Social Security, and global warming, but not these issues. Since helping Bush get reelected, many people have seen Warren broaden his small Bible--but not last night.

3 of his 5 non-negotiables were asked--and phrased in such a way as to make McCain's answers look good and Obama's less good: abortion, stem-cells, gay marriage. He also asked about the courts.

He asked no questions about torture (Obama had to bring it up), none about the Christian imperative to be peacemakers, none about broader issues of human rights (except religious persecution), none about global warming, the government's role in combatting poverty (as opposed to faith-based organizations getting taxpayer money), etc. He let slide McCain's comment about his failed first marriage and didn't ask if picking Tom Ridge or Mitt Romney as VP running mates would mean backsliding on his commitment to being prolife.

It was slanted to promote McCain.

On the other hand, Obama had some opportunities that he missed. When asked the question about who is rich, Obama should have pointed out that the median income in America for a family of 4 is $38,000--a long way from the $250,000 and up group that he thinks (rightly) should pay more taxes. For most of America, $100,000-$250,000 is NOT "middle class" but richer than their wildest dreams. Pointing that out in Orange County would have been very useful--and reinforced his point about not expecting something for nothing in tackling the nation's problems and the sense of "we're in this together."

In foreign policy, he should have reinforced the Just War tenet of last resort--that foreign policy needs to be conducted with an equivalent to the rule in medical ethics of "first, do no harm." Don't make the situation worse. This, rather than grandiose ideas of remaking the world in our image (either from a neocon or liberal perspective) would go a long way to making a safer world--and used to be a core CONSERVATIVE value.

On the whole, Obama did well with a stacked deck. But I think the forum was designed to help McCain and that McCain will get more out of it. He also apparently heard Obama's answers from the way he anticipated Warren's questions and threw away red meat lines.

If Obama goes on to win, it will not be because of this event, but in spite of it.

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