Rick Warren on His Saddleback Summit with McCain and Obama

The Purpose-Driven pastor assesses the nominees' performances, knocks Democratic faith outreach, and denies McCain had a leg up.

Continued from page 1


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….
 
 
It all depends on the hierarchy of their worldview of what matters most to them. My gut reaction when it was over was that Obama will pick up probably some younger votes and McCain will probably pick up some older votes, and it might come down to which group winds up showing up at the polls.
 
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?
 
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.
 
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.
 
Some Obama supporters are claiming that McCain saw the questions before the forum began, giving him a leg up on Obama.
 
They're dead wrong. That's just sour grapes. They both did fantastically well. The only question he knew--I gave them the first question, and I was changing the questions within an hour [before the forum began]. I talked to both of them a week before the debate and told them all the themes. I talked personally to John McCain and I talked personally to Barack Obama. I said, "We'll talk about leadership, talk about the roles of government," I said I'd probably have a question about climate change, probably a question on the courts. I didn’t say, "I'm going to ask which Supreme Court justice would you not [nominate]." They were clearly not prepared for that.
A source at the debate tells me McCain had access to some communications devices in the minutes before he went on stage with you and that there was a monitor in his green room, in violation of the debate rules.
 
That's absolutely a lie, absolutely a lie. That room was totally free, with no monitors--a flat-out lie.

 
[Editor's note: The New York Times reported after this interview that Senator McCain was in a motorcade en route to the Saddleback Civil Forum during some of Senator Obama's interview. Warren had previously asserted that McCain was in a "cone of silence."]
 
Obama has done more to reach out to evangelicals than any Democratic presidential nominee since Jimmy Carter. If he fails to make inroads among evangelicals on Election Day, do you worry that future Democratic candidates will see evangelical outreach as an exercise in futility?
 
Again, I'm a pastor, not a prophet. So I don't know what they would do. But I would say that it will take more than simply inviting people to come pray at the convention to take a lot of people of faith, while saying, "We're going to ignore whatever you believe about three or four hot button issues that there's the major conflicts on."
 
Have you decided who you're supporting yet?
 
I never take sides, and I don't even talk about who or what I might vote for because it's pretty presumptuous of me to tell anybody what I think they should vote for. If I told them, it might influence them. And I think people are smart enough to listen to people on both sides and make a rational decision based on their worldview.
 
Many evangelicals have grown disillusioned with the Bush administration, particularly on the lack of progress on what you call "nonnegotiable issues" like life and marriage. What's your level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with Bush as his tenure winds down?
 
Evangelicals' dissatisfaction goes a lot further than this current administration. A lot of evangelicals are saying "Now, wait a minute—since Reagan, except during the Clinton term, there have been quote champions of the social agenda of people of faith or Christian evangelicals." And if there's been so little progress I think there might be some fatigue, not so much in "Well, we don't want McCain," as much as "It doesn't seem to matter anyway who gets elected because nothing changes." Another administration comes in, and it seems like [evangelicals] are putting less faith in the power of the presidency.
 
Do those disillusioned evangelicals have a point?
 
I think they do. The president's power is vastly overestimated. There are so many things that the candidates promise to change in the campaigns that they have no ability to change by themselves. They can't just wave their wand--they also have two other branches to deal with.
 
Was there a discrete moment when, given the issues you've been focused on lately, you said to yourself, "I'm no longer part of the Christian Right?"
 
I never was a part of it. I'm trying to stake out what I call a common ground for the common good ,and that for all these people who are disenfranchised by both sides, disaffected. A lot of people would say, "I'm not blue or red. I'm not secular left and I'm not Religious Left. I'm not secular right and I'm not Religious Right. I'm somewhere in the middle. I happen to like some of the things from that platform and some from the other platform, and I like some about that candidate and some about that. But there are some things I don't like about this guy and some about that guy." That's healthy. We're trying to create a new area of people who are not going to get polarized either way. All the polls say that young evangelicals are more committed to pro-life than their parents, but what they're against is the Religious Right. They don't want to be part of the Religious Right, and they're not going to automatically pull the Republican lever….
 
Has the Christian Right tarnished the image of the evangelical movement?
 
Without a doubt. In some ways it got co-opted. Part of it was the press's misunderstanding between the term Religious Right, fundamentalist, and evangelical. They are not the same, and they are not synonymous. I'm not and never have been Religious Right, and I'm not and never have been a fundamentalist. I'm an evangelical. A vast majority of the evangelicals never were Religious Right, never were fundamentalists. They were just simply evangelicals.
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Dan Gilgoff
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