Election 2008

rick warren, obama, mccain
Mary Altaffer/AP
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, and Democratic
presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., reach out to shake hands at the
Saddleback Church, Saturday, Aug. 16, 2008. Host Rick Warren is seen at center.

Candidates Talk About Morality at Megachurch

August 18, 2008 11:22 AM
by Josh Katz
Religion and morality took the stage Saturday night, as the candidates aired their views at the Saddleback megachurch in California.

Candidates Welcome Unusual Forum at Saddleback Church

Ill. Sen. Barack Obama and Ariz. Sen. John McCain made back-to-back appearances at the Saddleback megachurch in southern California August 16 in front of an audience of 2,000-plus evangelical Christians. Saddleback is the fourth-largest church in the United States, boasting a membership of 22,000. Pastor Rick Warren, who presides over the church, moderated the event. The fact that Warren, 54, “was able to put together the first joint appearance of the presumptive 2008 presidential nominees cements his status as one of the rising stars of the evangelical movement,” the San Diego Union Tribune reports. Warren has generated popularity with his recent best-selling book, “The Purpose-Driven Life.”

Unlike conservative preachers Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, Warren is not considered a highly partisan figure. He does not openly endorse either candidate and favors political discourse in what he refers to as a “civil forum.” Warren focuses less on divisive issues like abortion and gay rights, “to focus on poverty, AIDS and the environment,” according to the Tribune.

Obama and McCain on Moral Issues

Warren spoke to each candidate for about an hour, with Obama appearing first. Obama and McCain shook hands in their brief moment on stage together between interviews.

Warren asked each candidate what his chief moral failure was in the interviews. Obama recalled his use of drugs and alcohol as a teenager, while McCain pointed to his disappointing first marriage and divorce.

Asked about the nation’s moral shortcomings, Obama indicated that America has demonstrated some selfish tendencies in regard to racism, poverty and sexism: “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,” CNN reports.
For the same question, McCain said that Americans sometimes choose not to devote themselves to higher causes. He went on to say, “I think after 9/11, my friends, we should have told Americans to join the Peace Corps, expand the military, serve a cause greater than your self-interest.”

Warren asked McCain and Obama whether they believe evil exists and, if so, how they would combat it. McCain stated unquestionably that it does, as evidenced by radical Islam, and that it is the role of the United States to fight it around the world.

Obama took a different approach, admitting that evil exists but warning that “we must be careful not to fall in the trap of failing to recognize that we can, if we are not vigilant, do evil in the name of doing good,” Paul Raushenbush of Beliefnet.com writes.

Warren asked the candidates which sitting members of the Supreme Court they would never have nominated. Obama said Justice Clarence Thomas; McCain named “Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, David Souter and John Paul Stevens,” according to CNN. Obama criticized Thomas’s interpretation of the Constitution and said he wasn’t a “strong enough jurist or a legal thinker” to sit on the bench. McCain argued that the justices he mentioned have a tendency to legislate “from the bench.”
On abortion, Obama reiterated his pro-choice stance and defense of Roe v. Wade, though he also said that there are too many abortions in the United States. McCain stated his pro-life views and asserted that conception marks the beginning of a life.

Obama and McCain agreed that marriage should be “between a man and a woman.” Obama also expressed his support for same-sex civil unions, and McCain said states should decide the marriage question, not the federal government.

CNN also reports that, “A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll taken July 27-29 showed that among white, born-again or evangelical voters, 67 percent are for McCain, with 24 percent for Obama.”

Opinion & Analysis: How did the candidates fare?

Analysts differ on the intensity of the forum. James Fallows of Atlantic Monthly writes, “Although Obama and McCain appeared back to back, this was in no sense a debate. This was the Larry King show, minus the usual incisive follow-up. In 45 minutes or so I saw, Pastor Rick Warren did not once ask ‘what do you mean by?’ or ‘but what about?’”

But Maria Gavrilovic of CBS News contends that Warren “asked tough questions and didn’t let Obama veer off into his stump.” She added that the audience was not soft on Obama, either: “They respectfully applauded for Obama when he came out on stage, but during the first half of the program, they only clapped a few times.”

The winner of the “debate” is not clear, as both candidates took a different approach to the evening. Many agree that McCain fares better in forum and town hall atmospheres than he would in a head-to-head debate with Obama.
Kevin Drum of CBS News writes: “The CNN talking heads all thought the big difference between the two was that McCain came across as direct and forceful while Obama came across as thoughtful and nuanced, but that’s not quite how it struck me.” According to Drum, “Obama seems to have chosen to treat this event as sort of an intimate evening with Rick Warren—that just happened to be nationally televised. McCain, by contrast, treated it as a straight campaign event: he had his stump speech talking points ready, and he was eager to cram as many of them into his 50 minutes as possible.”

On Salon.com, Mike Madden said that Obama was “so on his game that after a segment on domestic policy ended, Warren told him—his mic still live as the TV feed cut to commercial—‘Home run.’” Madden also claimed that Obama was a “Democratic candidate who was plainly comfortable talking about the role his Christian faith plays in his life, and who used his religious views to explain and defend his political ones.”

Kathryn Jean Lopez of the National Review was especially critical of Obama’s response to the question on the Supreme Court justices. Saying that Obama mentioned Justice Thomas, she stated, “I don’t think he was an exp…,” and then continued with, “a strong enough jurist or legal thinker at the time for that elevation.” Lopez suspects Obama was about to say, “experienced,” which she jumped on to point out: “it was a curious answer, if you consider the record—even beyond the fact that Obama didn’t believe Thomas was qualified to be one of nine in the Supreme Court when Obama’s not quite uber-experienced to be one of one in the White House.”

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