Megachurch Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Civil Forum marked the first time then Republican presidential nominee John McCain and Democratic nominee Barack Obama appeared on stage together in 2008 election cycle. Warren talked to Beliefnet the day after the big event.
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….
In the press materials announcing the event, you were quoted as saying that your questions would touch on four areas that go beyond what political reporters typically ask: poverty, HIV/AIDS, climate, and human rights. But during the forum, those issues seemed to be overshadowed by traditional culture war issues.
That was an incomplete statement that got sent out [by Saddleback]. It wasn't fully accurate of where I was going with it. I wanted to do the four themes of personal leadership, the role and responsibility of the presidency, of worldview, and of international issues. My two frustrations about the event--and these were just personal, it was a fantastic event--one of them was that I so wanted to ask follow-up questions to each one of their answers. I wanted to say "Yeah, but…, yeah, but…" I could have gone deeper, but if I would have done that I wouldn't have gotten to everything I wanted to. I could have spent 30 minutes with them discussing each one of those questions. I was intentionally choosing not to follow up.
The second thing was that a lot of the questions I wanted to have answered I actually forfeited in the last section in order to let them share the stuff they wanted to. I had a question that got asked only of Obama
about human trafficking. I had a question on AIDS that I didn't get to ask. I had a question on climate change that I didn't get to ask. I had a question on poverty, the causes of poverty and the solutions to poverty. Because they took up so much time in some of their answers, when we got down to the end, some of my questions got bumped because they were in that fourth section of America's responsibility to the world.
Because it was truncated in that way, do you have any concern that the event turned into a forum mainly on the culture war issues that you had set out to transcend?
Well, we got 22 or 25 questions asked, and there were three culture war questions. There was one on abortion
, one on gay marriage
, and one on stem cells. So I wouldn’t say it got co-opted at all.Going into the forum, the expectation was that Obama, who talks openly about his faith, was going to be right at home and that John McCain, who is unaccustomed to talking about his, was going to be a fish out of water. How did the candidates perform relative to those very different expectations?
They both played exactly to casting. I've known these guys as friends for some time, and if either of them got elected president I wouldn't agree with everything they're doing, but I happen to like them both. 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.
Before last night, McCain had been widely criticized by Christian activists for keeping mum about his faith and about values issues like abortion and marriage. Your forum seemed to change that. How much headway did McCain make among skeptical evangelicals?
I'm a pastor, not a prophet, so I would not predict how evangelicals are going to vote. I will tell you they're not monolith. That's a big myth. They're going to make up their minds based on the hierarchy of their values. For many evangelicals, of course, if they believe that life begins at conception, that's a deal breaker for a lot of people. If they think that life begins at conception, then that means that there are 40 million Americans who are not here [because they were aborted] that could have voted. They would call that a holocaust, and for them it would like if I'm Jewish and a Holocaust denier is running for office. I don't care how right he is on everything else, it's a deal breaker for me. I'm not going to vote for a Holocaust denier….
Continued on page 2: 'To say I don't know on the most divisive issue is not clear enough...' »