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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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.