Face-Off at the Faith Forum

Rick Warren’s Southern California mega-church, Saddleback Church, has been a repository of surprises over the years. At his AIDS summit in 2006, Barack Obama was a featured speaker. In 2007, Hillary Clinton was. In 2008, Warren specifically invited gay fathers to attend Father’s Day church services and share a meal with the super-pastor. The stage was set to surprise once again on August 16 when, for the first time ever, the two presumptive presidential nominees met at Saddleback to answer questions about faith and morality.


The goal of the nominees was no secret to anyone: capture the Christian vote that has traditionally gone Republican without reservation but in this election has remained undecided. With poll numbers running so tight, the religious vote could decide the election. If there were no votes to be gained by talking about faith, the candidates wouldn’t be doing it.

Questions centered on moral issues such as poverty and climate change, issues that didn’t seem to create much distance between the candidates. But things changed when Warren pressed them on the “big two”: abortion and same-sex marriage.

When asked to define marriage, Obama appeared centrist. “It’s a union between a man and a woman,” he said. “For me as a Christian, it is a sacred union. God is in the mix.” Obama added that he does support civil unions for gay couples because civil rights should be afforded to others even if he doesn’t share their view. McCain played it safe and said that he would leave the decision up to individual states.

When asked when the candidates believed life began, McCain blurted out “conception” without hesitation. Obama seemed to spin things a little bit. While he said he supports Roe vs. Wade and has always been pro-choice, the goal should be to reduce the number of abortions in America.

“What I can do is say, ‘Are there ways we can work together to reduce unwanted pregnancies?’” he said. Obama never answered the question.

In a broad sense, this forum benefited both candidates. Obama was able to do something few Democrats have done in recent years by talking about faith in a way that is meaningful to faith voters. “We still don’t abide by that basic precept of Matthew—that whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me,” remarked Obama. “That basic principle applies to poverty. It applies to racism and sexism; it applies to not thinking about providing ladders of opportunity for people to get into the middle class.”

McCain was able to crack open the dusty, rigid “grumpy granddad” persona for which he has become known to show off the sensitive, humorous side that his wife promised us was underneath. He responded that his greatest failure was his failed first marriage, and he got choked up while talking about his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

In a more narrow political sense, however, the Saddleback Civil Forum did Obama no favors. Several pundits commented that Obama looked uncomfortable, and more than a few noted that he had trouble offering straight answers to straight questions. The reaction from many people of faith was mixed, if not uninspired.

McCain occasionally rushed Warren’s questions to offer tightrope responses. His comments regarding abortion, same-sex unions and court appointees made him look like a traditional, Reaganesque Republican, something of which he is not often accused. Perhaps his true colors surfaced that night, or maybe it was the typical posturing rhetoric employed by politicians running for the country’s highest office.

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Either way, there is no doubt that McCain made serious headway in reaching out to an evangelical voter base that has stood at arm’s length in previous months. This past Monday, just two days after the Civil Forum, Christianity Today ran a story cataloguing praise for McCain’s performance that was emanating from evangelical circles. Even Bishop Harry Jackson, an African American and registered Democrat, commented that McCain “closed the deal” that night.

Look for the polls to tighten up in what has become an already tight race.

The Saddleback Civil Forum highlights the staying power of faith in American politics. The fact that the first meeting between these two candidates as nominees occurred in an evangelical church says something about the role faith still plays in the political process. This is good news for people of faith and society as a whole.

“As a nation we are all better off for having had a forum like this,” Jordan Ballor of the Acton Institute said. “It’s a great service to the public square, I think, to see the candidates’ reaction to questions that many people want to have asked and are interested in hearing, but so many of the media and political gatekeepers aren’t interested in communicating.”

When the dust settled, the candidates and moderator embraced each other for a strategic photo op and left the decision up to you and me. As for Warren, he won’t endorse either candidate. If you know much about American evangelicalism over the last 20 years, that may be the biggest surprise of all.

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