Let’s get to the big mistake first: Barack Obama should not have agreed to do this. If I were the Senator I’d be looking for a time machine this morning and go back to the day I agreed to show up, change my mind and write this note: “Dear Rick: Thanks for the invitation to appear the same night as my friend John McCain at your church. I get alot of invitations, though, and will be appearing elsewhere that evening.”
This crowd was swarming toward McCain to begin with, and Rick Warren has quite conservative views on plenty of hot button issues. But Warren is still a man best known for his homey advice about putting God first (not a very controversial notion for a Christian), so many viewers probably thought he would play “fair and balanced.” Well, Jay, he did not. He was clearly well-schooled on how to set up questions with well-tested right-wing talking points, so that Obama would have had to spend a great deal of time just correcting the questioner. (You and I understand that technique well, both as talk show guests and hosts of our own shows.)
Let me give you a few examples on core constitutional and human rights questions. Here was Warren’s set up to his stem cell questions: “We’ve had this scientific breakthrough of creating these pluri-potent stem cells in adult cells…” as if everybody knows we don’t need all those embryonic stem cells which create all the problems for “pro-lifers.” That crowd would rather grow all these “frozen” embryos into “snowflake babies” (which will never happen) and refuse to admit that these embryos will eventually be discarded as medical waste. But Warren’s setup is the problem: there was no great breakthrough that means that all research can be done with adult cells. That is the line of the Religious Right; it is not the scientific consensus. To the lay listener, however, it sounded like God’s own truth, not Pastor Warren’s spin. Senator Obama more or less fell into the presumption, too.
Another example comes from the discussion of the “faith-based initiative.” The setup included Warren’s claims that “eighty percent of Americans believe that faith-based organizations do a better job at community services than the government” and the related: “The Civil Rights Act of l964 says that faith-based organizations have the right to hire people that think like they do.” We are entitled to our opinions in this country, but the fact that 80% of us believe something doesn’t make it true. Social scientists who study all this do not generally conclude that faith-based groups as a whole do better than “secular” or government groups at helping those in need. On the hiring issue, what has kept President Bush’s faith-based initiative from passing Congress has been precisely that many Senators do not think the landmark Civil Rights Act even addressed the issue of taxpayer-funded church positions or activities.
Obama did stick to his guns in claiming that the government wouldn’t fund religious discrimination, but Warren’s follow up on hurricane assistance was clearly designed to force the Senator to hedge on whether you could allow a relief agency under some circumstances to refuse to hire people from the “wrong church,” even to pick up debris and house people. (Sadly, I heard reports of this happening post-Katrina, but only rarely.)
One last example of Warren’s set-up technique was his phrasing of the question on “human trafficking,” which he claimed was a $32 billion slavery enterprise (figuring out the take of criminals is always tough, but $32 billion is often what is thrown around by the Religious Right). He continued that “27 million people are living in slavery right now, many of them in sex traffic.” Every civilized person is against human trafficking, but it is mainly not about sex. Indeed the Justice Department has prosecuted very few cases about sexual slavery over the past 7 years because the situation is just not commonplace. The often brutal economic trafficking is a real issue, but it is very complex to tackle without having the United States enlist international enforcement efforts — which the Right always objects to as somehow giving over American sovereignty to the UN or some other hated entity. But, again, Obama slipped into the sex discussion first and then had little time to get at the broader economic issues.
When we started this opening salvo in the “blogalogue,” I also suggested that we knew enough already about each candidate’s personal faith. (I’m convinced that each is deep and abiding.) Warren, of course, brought it up again and then listened to McCain tell his story again of how a North Vietnamese guard made a cross in the dirt when he visited McCain’s POW cell one Christmas. Warren looked like he was hearing a first-hand account of the Resurrection; but, in fact, this story is told every time that McCain appears before a religious audience. It’s virtually a part of the McCain “religious stump speech.”
So, all in all, the evening served up biased questions on the social issues and little value for Obama with the still mainly very conservative “evangelical” crowd. But thanks to Rick Warren for assuring us that we Americans “have the freedom to protest this meeting.” I did and I’m glad.