Both candidates stumbled at the Saddleback Forum
The first official meeting of this year's major presidential contenders took place at an Evangelical church. That fact in itself is remarkable: an unmistaken indication of how clearly both major parties recognize the importance of the Christian vote.
The Saturday-night encounter was noteworthy, too, in that it served as a political coming-out party for Rev. Rick Warren. The pastor of the Saddleback Church is known and respected by Evangelicals as the leader of one of America's most prominent "megachurch" assemblies and the author of the spectacularly successful The Purpose-Driven Life, a book that has had a powerful positive effect on thousands of readers.
Until recently, however, Rev. Warren has steered clear of electoral politics. He has been a social activist, to be sure-- working to restore civil order in Rwanda and to fight AIDS in Africa. But his chosen causes have not sparked partisan sympathies, and he has not joined some other prominent Evangelical leaders in the political battles on abortion, same-sex marriage, and stem-cell research.
Thus Warren has been the sort of Evangelical pastor that American liberals can accept. Writing for the New Republic , Alan Wolfe of Boston College described Warren as "America's anti-Falwell"-- a reference to the famously partisan founder of the Moral Majority. Wolfe despises the leaders of the Christian right, describing their influence on American public life as "poisonous." But he welcomed Warren's involvement, explaining: " If he has little interest in removing evangelicals from politics, he has taken the lead in removing them from automatic identification with Republicans."
Warren rode into the event brandishing his bipartisan credentials. "We've got to learn to disagree without demonizing each other and we need to restore civility in our civil discourse," he said; "and that's the goal of the Saddleback Civil Forum." He identified both Senators McCain and Obama as his personal friends, and established a format in which he would interview each candidate separately, to avoid direct clashes.
From Warren's perspective the event was a success. Both candidates were civil and reasonably direct in answering the pastor's questions. Both spoke candidly about their own religious beliefs and personal faults. Simply by appearing at the Saddleback Forum-- as CBS News observed in a perceptive analysis-- Obama and McCain clearly affirmed Warren's claim that religion has an important role to play in American politics.
But what about the candidates? Who gained more from the encounter?
Obama, who trails McCain badly among Evangelical voters in most opinion polls, had an opportunity to ease the concerns of born-again Christians and by persuading them that his religious views are sincere. He was generally impressive in answering Warren's questions. But was he convincing? That's a different story. Michael Gerson of the Washington Post made the telling observation: "Obama was fluent, cool and cerebral -- the qualities that made Adlai Stevenson interesting but did not make him president."
Pressed on the abortion issue, Obama said that the question of whether or not human life begins at conception is "above my pay grade." Afterward, Warren charitably observed that this was "not a clear enough answer for me." That's an understatement; actually the answer was a political blunder.
If Obama truly doesn't know when human life begins-- if he is uncertain whether or not a small fetus is a human being-- then ordinary moral logic would compel him to vote against abortion, to err on the side of caution in protecting human life. But in fact he has voted consistently in favor of unrestricted abortion.
And regardless of their beliefs on abortion, American voters cannot draw confidence from a leader who announces that a critical issue is "above my pay grade." Obama is not running for a minor office. The presidency might not be the best-paid job in the country, but it is the most important, and a candidate cannot afford to say that some questions are too tough for him. One successful Democratic candidate, having entered the Oval Office, famously announced: "The buck stops here." Just so. If a political issue is above your pay grade, look for another job.
Still, if Obama damaged his own chances by mishandling the abortion question, McCain showed his vulnerability on the same topic. In answer to Warren's questions, the Republican candidate was as forthright as could be. Life begins at conception, he said without flinching. Then he added: ""I will be a pro-life president, and this presidency will have pro-life policies." Those answers drew applause from the Saddleback Forum crowd.
But those answers could also come back to haunt McCain if he risks the wrath of social conservatives by choosing a running-mate who favors legal abortion. In the week leading up to the forum, McCain was rumored to be considering Tom Ridge, a pro-abortion Republican, and perhaps even Joseph Lieberman, a pro-abortion Democrat. Any such choice would cause pro-lifers to suspect that although McCain knows what to say on the abortion issue, he does not take the issue seriously.
Moreover, McCain's unquestioning assertion that life begins at conception makes it impossible to justify his support for stem-cell research on embryonic subjects. If some human lives can be sacrificed to the cause of medical research, it's only a short logical step to the argument that other babies must die to uphold "a woman's right to choose." In defending unrestricted abortion, at least Obama claims not to know whether a human is being killed. McCain cannot offer the same defense for his support of embryonic stem-cell research; he knows better.
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