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."

The two campaigns saw political opportunities in an event hosted by Warren. Their agreement to participate can be best understood in the context of the intense competition between Obama and McCain for white evangelical voters. In the past two elections, Bush won these voters by overwhelming margins (he got 78 percent in 2004). A shift to Obama of a mere 10 or 15 percentage points in certain states could help win him the White House. The fact that Warren, who has an enormous profile in evangelical circles, would host the event and actually do the interviewing meant that evangelicals across the country would pay attention.

Warren is one of America's most compelling figures, a leader with few peers. Born in San Jose in 1954, he grew up in the tiny northern California town of Ukiah. He graduated from California Baptist University and then, having been called to full-time ministry, received a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. He later earned a doctorate in ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Los Angeles, which had been founded in 1947 as the flagship seminary of the nascent neo-evangelical movement.

When he finished at Southwestern in 1979, Warren and his wife Kay returned to California having decided to start a church--one he could pastor for the rest of his life. He especially wanted to attract those not going to church--the "unchurched." Warren did some research and discovered that Orange County was both the most populous and least churched county in the state. He moved there. Knowing no one, having no money and no job, he somehow managed to rent a place. The guy he rented from became the first member of his church.

Warren spent 12 weeks going door to door conducting a survey in which he asked those who didn't go to church why people didn't go and what they'd look for in a church if they decided to go. The four big reasons people didn't attend church, Warren found, were that sermons are boring and irrelevant; that members are unfriendly to visitors; that churches seem more interested in your money than in you as a person; and that quality children's programs are lacking. Warren called these "sociological reasons," as opposed to theological ones. So he undertook to build "a whole new kind of church"--one without those deterrents. Warren put together a Bible study group and then, 10 days before Easter Sunday in 1980, mailed 15,000 letters describing a new church that was to have its first service on that Sunday. Some 205 people showed up, with only a handful of them people who had ever spent much time in church.

Saddleback Church, which is part of the Southern Baptist Convention, met in 79 different locations before buildings were erected in 1995, the largest being the worship center, which seats 3,500 and has space outside for another 2,000 (this is southern California). Today the average church attendance on Sunday (there are six services) is 22,000.

Saddleback is one of the three largest churches in the United States, a megachurch indeed. Warren is an advocate of big churches, but even as a church grows larger and adds more members, he says, it should grow smaller, as his does, with members joining "small groups" that meet during the week for Bible study, fellowship, and prayer. Saddleback has small groups meeting as far south as Tijuana to as far north as Santa Barbara. The church also has more than 300 community ministries aimed at, among other groups, prisoners, children with Down syndrome, single parents, and people with HIV/AIDS.

Warren is best-known outside his church for the book he wrote in 2002, The Purpose Driven Life. It offers a 40-day spiritual journey (one chapter is to be read each day) during which a reader is to answer the question, "What on earth am I here for?" It has become one of the bestselling books in American history, with sales now exceeding 30 million copies.

But Warren's reach is even more extensive than the church he founded and his bestseller might indicate. Seven years before The Purpose Driven Life he wrote The Purpose Driven Church, in which he said that churches should be driven by the purposes found in the New Testament (worship, ministry, evangelism, fellowship, and discipleship). The book found a huge audience among pastors not only in Southern Baptist churches but in denominations around the world. Warren says he has taught more than 400,000 pastors in 162 countries. Every week he sends out a newsletter to 230,000 pastors, who are free to use the message he preaches on Sunday.

Warren's agenda continues to expand. He is superintending a big alliance--called the P.E.A.C.E. Coalition--of churches, businesses, ministries, and universities that he assembled earlier this year. Through it he aims to get one billion Christians in local churches worldwide to take on five "global giants"--spiritual emptiness, self-centered leadership, poverty, pandemic disease, and illiteracy. (P.E.A.C.E. stands for Promote reconciliation; Equip servant leaders; Assist the poor; Care for the sick; and Educate the next generation.)

Warren is a man of evident conviction and demonstrated executive ability. He is also extremely likeable. It is easy to see why he's received so many tributes. In 2003, Christianity Today named him "America's Most Influential Pastor." And in 2005 Time stroked him twice, first as "The Most Influential Evangelical in America" and then as one of "The 100 Most Influential People in the World." The thought that Warren might make a good president, if he were not a committed pastor, isn't that ridiculous.

Warren is a social conservative, but he's not been involved, at least not in public ways, in politics, and he's never sought any association with the religious right. Still, four years ago Warren considered whether he should try to use his influence among Republicans. He decided against that. "I'm a pastor, not a politician," he told ABC News, and, to Time, "I don't believe politics is the most effective way to change the world."

Even so, Warren, whose issue interests in recent years have expanded to include global warming and HIV/AIDS, had no qualms about interviewing the two candidates. He interviewed Obama first (McCain didn't watch or listen) and then McCain, each for an hour. Warren posed the same 22 questions to each candidate. Among other things, he wanted to know how the candidates evaluate people: "Who are the three wisest people you know in your life, and who are you going to rely on heavily in your administration?" And he wanted to find out about their character: "What would be the greatest moral failure in your life?" and "What's the most gut-wrenching decision you ever had to make?" And he got into certain issues: "At what point does a baby get human rights?" and "Define marriage" and "What about stem cells?" and "Define rich" and "What would be the criteria that you would commit troops to end the genocide .  .  . in Darfur .  .  . or anywhere else?" He also went philosophical: "Does evil exist?" And, of course, religious: "What does it mean to you to trust in Christ?"

Warren won well-deserved plaudits for holding a conversation with the candidates that, as an approving Faith in Public Life statement put it afterwards, "moved beyond the gotcha-questions and partisan sniping of traditional debates." That was one of Warren's conscious goals--to sponsor a civil discussion.

But the forum also was one that most social conservatives probably liked. Differences between the two candidates on a range of issues, especially abortion, were apparent. And McCain came across as more presidential. For example, he emphasized, as Obama did not, that we must defeat evil. And Obama, in answer to the question about when "a baby gets human rights" said that answering the question was "above my pay grade." What else might be above the pay grade of a man aspiring to be our chief executive?

As for that question about what his faith means, Obama said it means

I believe .  .  . that Jesus Christ died for my sins, and that I am redeemed through him. That is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis. Yes, I know that I don't walk alone. And I know that if I can get myself out of the way, that I can maybe carry out in some small way what he intends. And it means that those sins that I have on a fairly regular basis, hopefully will be washed away.

Obama added that his faith also means he has an obligation to think about and act in behalf of, quoting from a statement of Christ's in Matthew 25, "the least of these."

For his part, McCain, gave an answer to the faith question that was short--"It means I'm saved and forgiven"--but continued with: "We're talking about the world. Our faith encompasses not just the United States of America but the world." Then McCain suddenly asked, "Can I tell you another story real quick?" and proceeded to tell his oft-told Christmas Day story while he was a POW in Vietnam, the story about when he was outside his cell in a courtyard, a guard, using his sandal, drew a cross in the dirt and stood there by it for a minute before rubbing it out and walking away. "For a minute there, there was [sic] just two Christians worshipping together. I'll never forget that moment," at which point, as did not happen during Obama's answer to the same question, the audience applauded.

Whether Obama made much progress with evangelical voters as a result of his Saddleback performance is doubtful. But the event demonstrated afresh the current consensus about faith and politics. It is quite okay to ask a presidential candidate what his faith means to him, even though, from the standpoint of the Constitution, our officeholders may be of any faith or none at all, and even though Christianity (the usual faith of those seeking the presidency) does not require a government (or those holding office) to be Christian in order to have legitimacy. It is also the case that the truths found in the Bible don't produce clear policy prescriptions. Consider Obama's mention of his obligation to the "least of these." People who take that obligation seriously nonetheless may fairly disagree about what government might do to help the poor or the handicapped or the widows and orphans--the least of these.

It would be interesting if a presidential candidate, asked a question about his faith, replied by actually making those points. But that's not likely to happen so long as the present consensus about faith and politics holds strong. If anything, there's likely to be demand for more details about one's faith "narrative," more demands for what faith can provide politics. There are two dangers here. One is that faith, specifically the Christian faith, may be asked to do more for politics than it is given to do. The other is that faith, in terms of what it is truly about, will be trivialized. After all, what does it mean to say, as McCain did, that "our faith encompasses not just the United States of America but the world"? Meanwhile the desire to make faith publicly relevant can even affect the most important hour of the church week, the worship service.

On the Sunday morning after the forum, in the same worship center in which it was held, Warren preached on "The Kind of Leadership America Needs." Noting that the two men he had interviewed were "very different in personality, in philosophy, in direction, in goals and in vision, and there's nothing wrong with that," Warren asked the congregation to look not just at where the candidates stood on issues but at their character. He had three points: God blesses leaders who "live with integrity," "serve with humility," and "share with generosity." As is customary for Warren, the message came laden with citations from Scripture, 21 in all--13 from Proverbs and two from the Psalms; three from the Gospels, two from James, and one from Philippians. He used the verses to lend support to his points.

Notably absent from the message, however, was the distinctive content of the Christian faith, even though this was a worship service. Warren didn't discuss the verses he used in the context of the Bible's overall redemptive message. Had he done that, he would have made it to the Good News of Jesus Christ. Even when citing a text explicitly mentioning Jesus, Warren didn't go into what it was actually about. "When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9:36) is fundamentally not about how leaders need to be compassionate, though they do, but about how Jesus the shepherd has come for his lost sheep.

You don't have to be a Christian to accept the essence of Warren's message. We all tend to agree on the need for integrity, humility, and compassion in our leaders. A non-Christian might pass on Warren's closing exhortation to pray for God's guidance in deciding whom to vote for on November 4. But to his other exhortations--to study what the candidates stand for, to register to vote, and then to vote on Election Day--who can say no?

Plenty of pastors mine the Bible for moral teachings and character lessons. Warren's approach to Scripture on this particular Sunday was hardly unusual. And taken as a civics lesson, his message was fine. But as a sermon for a church, it left something to be desired.

The irony of Saddleback is that one of the two candidates--it was not McCain, but Obama, in his remarks about Christ dying for his sins and redeeming him--actually said more about the Christian faith in the civil forum than America's most influential pastor did in his message on Sunday to his congregation. Such are the oddities that attend the present moment, in which our faith-involved politics carries on, triumphant.

Terry Eastland is the publisher of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.