First, it allowed the public to see more clearly the worldviews, character and issue positions of John McCain and Barack Obama.
Second, it elevated Rick Warren's stature as a spokesman for evangelicals in the public's mind. It may mark, to some degree, a changing of the guard in the evangelical political leadership from the Robertson's and Falwell's to the Rick Warren's of the evangelical world.
Third, it may have been a watershed event in the presidential election, at least as far as evangelicals are concerned.
As I said yesterday, Warren did a masterful job of asking questions which shed valuable light on the character and policy positions of McCain and Obama. It showed McCain as strong, conservative, energetic, and very human figure. He had a command of the issues, was open about his own failings, faith, and character forming experiences. Obama came across as nuanced, lawyerly, very liberal and sincere in his religious convictions. As Warren aptly commented: "Obama is the thoughtful consensus builder. He's a constitutional attorney. He's going to talk about shades and variations and things like that. John McCain is the straightforward happy warrior, and he's going to get right to the point... They both showed exactly the personalities that they have."
Warren also elevated his position as a spokesman for evangelicals in the public arena. I really don't see Warren as a replacement for Falwell or Robertson. I don't think he's a political animal. I think he's more concerned about the issues than actively working to elect particular candidates. I think that's a wise position to take. The church needs to have moral voices who will speak out on the issues and encourage their members to be politically engaged without necessarily telling people who to vote for. I think Chuck Colson has been masterful at this. He refuses to endorse candidates and as a result has retained his moral authority. Pastors need to fulfill the prophetic and pastor roles of, respectively, challenging the political leaders on the great moral issues of the day and equipping their people to effectively engage the political process with the information they need to make informed decisions. This maybe a new paradigm for many evangelical leaders engaging the political process.
In an interview subsequent to the event, Warren gave an interesting description of what he was trying to do with the Civil Forum. He said:
How would you size up the Saddleback Civil Forum in light of the goals you'd laid out for it going in?It accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, and that's two or three different things. First and foremost, I wanted to raise the visibility of the church being at the table in civil discussions. The faithful have a voice as much as the faithless have a voice….This is America, we believe in democracy, and nobody should be left out and nobody should be excluded.And the second thing I'm trying to do is create a new model for civil discourse--we have to restore civility to our civilization. Our nation seems to be getting more and more rude, more and more polarized, and I wanted to point out that you can disagree without demonizing people, without dissing them and caricaturing them and treating them like they’re the enemy. They happen to be Americans.I've been in a lot of nations around the world where I've seen political division turn into hatred because there was so much caricaturizing and demonizing of the opposition that it turned into hatred and soon that turns into genocide. And I just don't want to go down that path here in America, and we’ve seen a lot of that that with talk shows and the partisan politics--we're more divided than we’ve ever been….
Warren also had some interesting observations on democrat attempts to moderate the public's perception of their stance on abortion. He basically said people will see through attempts to merely give lip service to the abortion issue without substantive changes.
The Democrats recently added language to their party platform that they say is aimed at reducing demand for abortion. Does it represent a significant step toward a pro-life position?It is a step, there's no doubt about that. I've been getting a lot of feedback on it. I was out of the country, and people starting writing me about it. The general perception was: too little too late--window dressing. I'm not saying I would say this, because I haven't even read it, but what I was hearing form people was that [Democrats] were saying "It's OK to be pro-life and be a Democrat now." In other words, "You can join us. We're not changing our firm commitment to Roe v. Wade, but you can now join us." Well, for a person who thinks that abortion is taking a life, I'm sure that's not going to be very satisfactory to most of those people. And to put it in right at the last minute at the end of a campaign, there was some question about that: Why are they doing this?
And he seemed to take Obama to task for his weak response on the question on abortion.
When you asked Obama about when life begins, he punted, saying "It’s above my pay grade." Should someone running for the highest office in the land have a clear answer to that, or is that kind of ambivalence acceptable?No. I think he needed to be more specific on that. I happen to disagree with Barack on that. Like I said, he's a friend. But to me, I would not want to die and get before God one day and go, "Oh, sorry, I didn't take the time to figure out" because if I was wrong, then it had severe implications for my leadership if I had the ability to do something about it. He should either say, "No, scientifically, I do not believe it's a human being until X" or whatever it is or say, "Yes, I believe it is a human being at X point," whether it's conception or anything else. But to just say "I don't know" on the most divisive issue in America is not a clear enough answer for me.That's why to say that evangelicals are a monolith is a myth, but the other thing is that you've been hearing a lot of the press talk about "Well, evangelicals are changing, they're now interested in poverty and disease and illiteracy, and all the stuff I've been talking about for five years now." And I have been seeding that into the evangelical movement and it's getting picked up, and a lot of people are talking about doing humanitarian efforts.But I really think it's wishful thinking by a lot of people who think [evangelicals] are going to drop the other issues. They're not leaving pro-life, I'm just trying to expand the agenda. And I've moved from pro-life to whole life, which means I don't just care about that baby girl before she's born, I care about it after she's born. I care about whether she's born into poverty. I care about whether she's born with AIDS because her mother had it. I care about whether she's a crack baby. I care about whether she's going to have an education.If an evangelical really believes that the Bible is literal—in other word in Psalm 139 God says "I formed you in your mother's womb and before you were born I planned every day of your life," if they believe that's literally true, then they can't just walk away from that. They can add other issues, but they can't walk away from the belief that at conception God planned that child and to abort it would be to short circuit the purpose.
And finally, whether evangelicals can vote for Obama, he gives an astute observation on judging candidates not just by their statement of beliefs but by what they'll actually do.
As I said before, Warren was one of the clear winners for the event. The other being McCain.It sounds like it would be unconscionable for an evangelical to vote for a pro-choice candidate like Obama.All I can say is you’ll see what happens. This is why there's a difference between simply talking the lingo….After the 2004 election the Democratic pundits were saying, "The Democrats lost in '04 because they didn't talk the language of faith." And actually that's kind of, not paternalistic, but it's talking down. It's basically saying, "If you just get the right words, then they'll think you’ve got the lingo." And just because a person can say God and Jesus and salvation and whatever doesn't mean they have a worldview. And people want to know what do they believe, not just their personal faith. It's just like how many different beliefs do Jews and Christians have and still call themselves Christians or Jews? It's all over the spectrum.
I think this was a defining event from the standpoint of evangelical voters. I think it will persuade some of the undecided evangelicals and it will energize others to get excited about supporting McCain.
And it will start to influence Catholic voters who are concerned with the social, moral issues. A significant chunk of them are undecided about McCain and Obama. The debate will elevate McCain's stock among Catholic voters.
It's still a long way to go to November 4th. A lot can and will happen. Looking back, the Saddleback Civil Forum could well be viewed as one of the defining moments of the campaign. We shall see.