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The Subtext of Saddleback

6:49 PM, Aug 16, 2008 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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Saddleback Church
Lake Forest, Calif.

Saddleback's "Civil Forum on the Presidency" starts in about an hour from now. Note the grand title of this event, when the reality is that the two campaigns are battling for the votes of evangelicals. Bush got a whopping 78 percent of the evangelical vote in 2004, and Kerry just 22 percent. Obama knows he can't win a majority of the evangelical vote. But he also knows that the presidency may be his if he can move that vote his way by several percentage points in a few key states. Obama's strategy starting even before he formally announced has been (1) to talk about his faith and, as one of his aides told me, (2) to "just show up." By which is meant showing up when evangelical leaders do the inviting, talking with them, getting to know them. Obama is better at talking about his faith than McCain, who is famously reluctant to say much, yet who knows the importance of evangelical voters in the past two presidential elections. Tonight's event will be a test of how evangelicals respond to what each candidate says-or doesn't say.

I hope Rick Warren, the only interrogator in this event, does follow through with his stated intention to ask "how each candidate interprets the nature of [the Constitution's] principles." (That clumsy formulation is his.) Warren might start with the oath the president takes, the only oath of office actually spelled out in the Constitution. A discussion of that bit of constitutional text might indeed yield a civil forum on the presidency.