The Magazine

Faith-Based Campaign

What brought John McCain and Barack Obama to Rick Warren's megachurch.

Sep 1, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 47 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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Lake Forest, California

Finishing up his interviews of Barack Obama and John McCain at Saddleback Church on August 16, Rick Warren asked each candidate what he would say "to people who oppose me asking you these questions in a church." Warren emphasized the word "church," and of course it was the church he founded and still pastors that was the venue for the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency. Both candidates gave bland answers to Warren's question, with Obama observing that "these are the kind of forums we need, where we can have a conversation" and McCain that he'd "like to be in every venue in America," adding that he was "happy"--though sadness probably wasn't really an option--"to be here in a church."

Warren seemed already to have that church question in mind when, in opening the forum, he said, "We do not believe in the separation of faith and politics." It was a needlessly defensive remark. For notwithstanding those who opposed Warren for "asking you these questions in a church," there is, as the scholar of American religion D.G. Hart has observed, "a present-day consensus about religion and American politics--that politics needs the ideals, inspiration, and morality of faith." Hart wrote that in 2006. Two years later during a sharply contested presidential race, that consensus seems even stronger--thanks mainly to Barack Obama, who has discussed matters of faith and politics more frequently than any Democratic candidate since Jimmy Carter.

The Saddleback forum stands out as the most faith-involved political event so far in an extraordinarily faith-involved election. John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life told me he could not recall an event quite like it, one in which a pastor interviewed on national television the majority party presidential nominees in his church.

Yet those who think politically conservative evangelicals were the prime movers in creating the forum at a church whose members, Warren himself has speculated, voted 85 percent for George Bush in 2004 will have to think again. Indicative of today's consensus about religion and politics is the fact that an interfaith organization, Faith in Public Life, established out of concern that in the 2004 election year the Religious Right had dominated the faith-and-politics discussion, made the move that led to Saddleback.

During the primary season, Faith in Public Life organized a "Compassion Forum" at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. There were three presidential candidates still running when it was held--McCain on the Republican side, and Obama and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic--but McCain was unable to attend. So members of the "Compassion Forum Board," described on the Faith in Public Life website as "a diverse coalition of faith leaders from across the ideological spectrum," asked the two Democrats questions designed "to elevate" such "compassion issues" as "poverty, HIV/AIDS, climate change, abortion reduction, genocide in Darfur, and torture."

Pleased with that event, Faith in Public Life wanted to have another. Looking this time to partner with an evangelical but not one associated with the religious right, the organization asked Warren whether he might host a compassion forum, this time with the two presumptive nominees, Obama and McCain. Warren was prepared to do it, but the two campaigns were unable to agree on a time even as they had ideas about how the event should be structured: They wanted it to go beyond the issues discussed in the first compassion forum; they wanted only Warren to ask the questions; and they wanted the event open for all media to cover, in contrast to the Messiah College forum, which CNN exclusively televised.

Warren, who knows both candidates and counts them as friends, sought to jump-start the stalled discussions. As reported by Time, he sent a personal "Let's do it" email to the two. An agreement was reached: with the date set, with Warren as the host, with no media exclusivity, and with a broadened subject matter as indicated by the change in name from "compassion forum" to "civil forum on the presidency."