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Baptism by Politics: Sacraments and “The Saddleback Confession”

In his quest to prune the overgrowth of Christianity to reveal to root of the faith, Martin Luther famously reduced the number of sacraments from seven to three, discarding Holy Orders, Last Rites (now known as the Anointing of the Sick), Matrimony (still a sacred vow between two people) and Confirmation, and leaving three: Baptism, Holy Communion, and Confession. That last one has fallen into disuse (something Lutherans share with Catholics), but many subsequent Reformers did away with it altogether, and decommissioned Communion as a sacrament too, leaving, at most, Baptism as the foundational and commonly accepted outward expression of inner grace.

Saddleback-Tablet.jpgNow, under the guidance of America’s new Pastor-in-Chief Rick Warren, even baptism is apparently an option. Or, perhaps, it has been supplanted by a baptism of political conviction. That was clear by his exchanges with John McCain at the Saddleback Forum on Saturday, and from the Monday morning analyses that followed. (The art at right is from The Tablet of London, where I attempted to explain to befuddled Brits what exactly was going on at Saddleback, and why.) 


After watching the Forum, my initial reaction was one shared by many–that McCain did better than expected, and Obama not as well as expected. Obama by no means fared poorly, but I thought some of his answers, especially on abortion, dod not come out as clearly as I would expect at this point. Of course, Obama was in a bind, playing an away game and having to mind his home (pro-choice) base. All the blather about McCain getting advance word on questions because he was outside the “cone of silence” is really blather, for now. McCain has surely been boning up on “Christianity for Dummies,” and if indeed he was tipped off, it’ll be the biggest mistake of his campaign. McCain was more forceful–something everyone likes in a preacher as well as a president–and Obama more thoughtful, reinforcing his image as a brainy guy who is, as TNR’s Michelle Cottle says, “too cool” for the passionate cauldron of politics–or faith.


Yet when I went over the transcripts this morning it became obvious that Obama won on paper. Indeed, he shredded McCain, and with one hand tied behind his back. Warren’s questions were conservative softballs tossed into McCain’s wheelhouse in front of a hometown crowd that neither Warren nor McCain were going to disappoint. Warren’s follow-up interview with Beliefnet’s God-o-Meter made it clear where Warren and his fellow evangelicals stand: He said abortion is Issue No. 1, disagreed with Obama on it, and invoked the analogy of abortion and the Holocaust, and evangelicals to Jews:

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.


Interesting. The problem is that Obama went into the Saddleback Forum in good faith, agreeing to play along with Warren’s premise–and promise–of engaging in a thought experiment: How would your faith guide your decisions as president? Given the complexities of the issues confronting America, and the complexity of American society, that requires nuance and moral reasoning, which Obama seemed to provide, even though Warren directed him not to give his “stump speech.”

McCain, on the other hand, did give stump speeches, offering up re-meat slogans (read the CNN transcript here) and applause lines, and substituting tried-and-true stories for introspection. And Warren didn’t call him on it. Take this exchange:


WARREN: Let’s deal with abortion. I, as a pastor, have to deal with this all the time, every different angle, every different pain, all of the decisions and all of that. Forty million abortions since Roe v. Wade. Some people, people who believe that life begins at conception, believe that’s a holocaust for many people. What point is a baby entitled to human rights?

MCCAIN: At the moment of conception. (APPLAUSE). I have a 25-year pro-life record in the Congress, in the Senate. And as president of the United States, I will be a pro-life president. And this presidency will have pro-life policies. That’s my commitment. That’s my commitment to you.

WARREN: OK, we don’t have to beleaguer on that one. 


Gee, thanks Rick. Warren then proceeded onto the layup of “defining marriage.” Worse still, at a later point, Warren asked McCain if he still favored embryonic stem cell research. McCain said that “For those of us in the pro-life community this has been a great struggle and a terrible dilemma because we’re also taught other obligations that we have as well. I’ve come down on the side of stem cell research.”

Instead of asking McCain how his avowal that he is a pro-lifer who believes life begins at conception squares with his view that human embryos–conceived life–can be used in lab experiments, Warren instead moved onto a question about evil, another layup that McCain answered with a black-and-white, us-and-them blast at radical Islam. Nice. 


The real kicker, however, was the difference (the chasm) between Obama’s standard but thoughtful answer about his Christian faith and his relationship with Jesus–the kind of God talk and Scripture-citing that the Saddleback crowd should swoon for–and McCain’s response to Warren’s opener:

WARREN: First, you’ve made no doubt about the fact that you are a Christian. You publicly say you’re a follower of Christ. What does that mean to you and how does faith work out in your life on a daily basis? What does it mean to you?

MCCAIN: It means I’m saved and forgiven. We’re talking about the world. Our faith encompasses not just the United States of America but the world. Can I tell you another story real quick?



The crowd laughed, but it’s not that funny on reflection.

After giving an interview in 2007 in which he announced he was a Baptist and no longer an Episcopalian, as he was also telling people, McCain tried to cut off further discussion by saying: “I have attended North Phoenix Baptist Church for many years, and the most important thing is that I’m a Christian. And I don’t have anything else to say on the issue.” That would actually be a welcome throwback to the kind of Eisenhower reticence rather than piety, but of course McCain has continued to assert that he is a Christian–while at the same time confessing that he has never been baptized. According to this excellent Pew resource on McCain’s religious record, McCain in April of this year called his decision about baptism a “personal thing,” and defended his decision to forego baptism saying, “I didn’t find it necessary to do so for my spiritual needs.”


McCain’s personal story is affecting, and he certainly seems to be on a journey of faith. But not to probe his understanding of how he is a Christian without baptism or sacramental membership in a Christian community is a dereliction, especially given the setting on Saturday and the Christian right’s repeated questioning of Obama’s own bona fides. Not only do some 10-15 percent of voters still think Obama is a Muslim, in large part because of GOP propaganda, but others think he is the Anti-Christ or, as Cal Thomas has declared, a “false prophet” who is not a Christian.

How is it that Barack Obama–baptized, confirmed and communicated–is not a Christian and John McCain is? At The Immanent Frame, evangelical Christian and Calvin College philosophy prof James K.A. Smith supplies part of the answer when he argues that evangelicals are defined theologically by their sociology–that is, evangelicalism would be better understood as “a sort of ethos, a sensibility, a contingent set of practices and institutions within which one lives and moves and has her being. ‘Evangelical’ is an identity forged at a level more visceral than doctrinal.” In his reading (which is worth spending time on to fully digest), “it takes one to know one” when it comes to evangelicalism–not baptism or other sacraments.


From that point of view, McCain carried the day, with folks as diverse as Michael Gerson and William Kristol. And beyond. As Mark Silk of SpiritualPolitics put it, “McCain said enough in the way of magic words to enable pro-lifers to profess themselves satisfied that he’s one of them.”

Those are the magic words, the shibboleths, that offer safe passage into the tribe. And indeed McCain may be one of them, and will likely be rewarded come November. Certainly my Catholic, sacramental bias is showing here. Yet I still find it passingly strange this is what Christianity has come to in America. That we have arrived at a new version of “Cuius regio, eius religio”–that the the faith of the rulers determines the faith of the people, or, in a democratic model, the dominant faith determines the faith of the rulers. It’s Rick Warren’s world today. We just live in it.

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Reaganite in NYC

posted August 19, 2008 at 5:13 am

This is an interesting discussion. If McCain was raised as an Episcopalian, would he not have been baptized as an infant? The assumption you’ve made here is that he’s never been baptized.
Maybe it is Eisenhowerian reticence … or perhaps it is catechetical ignorance on McCain’s part. But, in the end, does it matter? After all we’re electing a President, not appointing a seminary rector.

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David Gibson

posted August 19, 2008 at 10:27 am

Reaganite: I wondered about infant baptism too, but could find no reference to it online or in McCain’s bio book. Then again, perhaps he’s in accord with the Southern Baptist view on adult baptism only. Which is fine.
As to your second observation, McCain is making much of his Christianity, either because he feels he wants to, or because he must due to the sway of evangelicals, or both. Also fine. But if he puts it in play, then it’s more than fair game. As Obama’s faith is fair game, and had been.
PS: Thanks again for your insightful and constructive comments.

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Pastor J.C. Sistrunk

posted August 20, 2008 at 1:35 am

I watched McCain talked about his Christanity,and his worst moral
failure of his first marriage,why did’t he gave any details of what
happened, like Obama did with his drinking and drugs etc.I guest he would
have felt uneasy to talk about his adultress affair at the Saddleback
Church, and the Evangelical followers. Is’nt it strange that McCain did’t
mentioned that his faith in God is what got him through his ordeal
as a POW,he talked about the drawing of the cross in the sand, and that
they both were Christains. I have never heard McCain say how olded he
was when he became a christain. Their are many POW’S that are not
christains. Was he a christain at the time? I don’t think so. Rick
should have dug a little deeper by asking McCain was he a confessed
christain at the time of his capture, or did he accepted Jesus doing
his POW experience , also on the moral issue,and the reason I said
that, because any one who do not know about the failure, could think
the failure was because of his wife unfaithfulness. When the last we
had a candidate to run for the office of president that was a known
adultress,I don’t mean a rumor without proof or speculation without
facts. John 8:32 know the truth for it will set you free.

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Bob in Atlanta

posted August 25, 2008 at 7:19 pm

What makes a man a Christian? I believe the Bible is very clear that it is faith alone in Christ alone. That faith alone in Christ alone is a personal relationship and acceptance of what Christ did for us on the cross. When someone chooses to believe in Christ is of no concern in a political campaign (Pre POW, Post POW, Pre Divorce, Post Divorce). Also on divorce, it is wrong and I am against it according to scripture. However; it is not something that keeps a person from being able to serve as president. Ronald Regan was divorced, and what most Christians consider the greatest US president to date. Now, what is wrong is sitting in judgment of another man’s sin. When last I checked, Christ died for every sin that every man has done. Christian arrogance makes us no better than the Pharisees, and last I checked judging others is one of the sins that God hates above others. If both Obama and McCain have faith alone in Christ alone…Guess what? They are both Christians, and joint heirs with Christ. McCain does have my vote though.

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Pastor J.C. Sistrunk

posted September 11, 2008 at 2:57 am

To Bob of Atlanta, if you are referring to my blog about John McCain
being divorced,my comment was about how the Right Wing of the Repub-
Party can smear a Democrat Candidate about their past mistakes
and sing the blues about it.If Obama had and affair as McCain,
and married his mistress while he was still married to his first
wife you would have heard the Republicans talking about family
values and how important they are in a candidate for the presidency
of the U.S.. I am not judging any one ,I am only stating facts. I
have a problem with the word Christain most of the church people
use, especially the Evangecial Movement,I thought most Pharisees
were dead ,they are the judges of this country, when the last you
voted for a Democrat for president? They are the self-righteous ones.
You use the word Christain arrogance, what about the hypocrites
in the White Churches that are using Obama’s en-experience rather
than to admit they won’t vote him because he is black. McCain has
been in the senate for 26 years and voted against most every bill
that would have made a difference to the middle class.He still
doesn’t have a plan to get this country on track. Do you make
more than 250,000 a year? If you are voting for McCain you must
be in the upper class. Bob you need to admit to yourself that
everytime someone use the word Christain that dosn’t mean they are.
The Bible said, the tree is known by the fruit it bears. It’s going
on right now with Sarah Palin,she has been called a righeous person
by a Evangecial Christain already without even knowing her back ground
completly.God will judge us fair on that day, I am glad I won’t be
judged by your Republican Party? .Ask yourself the question
why did Rick Warren invited Obama to that forum when he knows
that 90% of his people are going to vote for McCain, this wasn’t
about salvation it was about Politics.Their is a whole lot about
your Republican Party that is not right, don’t forget about the
2000 election and how they cheated, and 2004 in Ohio they cheated
again. Remember how they did John Kerry about his Viet-
Nam heroism record ,and they dismissed Bush’s papers that
talked about his National Guard record,the secretary said the
information was true, but she did’t know about the signture.
I can go on and on.James Dobson and his crony prayed that it
would rain on the night that Obama would gave his his speech,
guess what? they are the religious Right of the Republican
Party, even though Rev. Dobson said’s he won’t vote for McCain,
but his followers will. I think you get the picture it not judging,
it’s about facts and truth.I did’t say a person could’t
serve as president if he or she been through a divorce.Regan
divorce took place in 1948 because he was persueing politics,
he was the first president to went through a divorce. Remember
that Gustav kept the Republicans from having their full swing
Convention that Monday Night . Be careful what you pray for.
Pastor J.C. Sistrunk
Pastor J.C. Sistrunk

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Sherry Young

posted October 19, 2008 at 6:10 pm

Thank you for the article. When I watched the forum I Thought Obama’s responses were real, sincere, and thoughtful. Whereas McCain’s responses were quick fundamentalist lines. Clearly those lines were what Rick Warren was wanting as well as the audience you could hear. Obama wants government to be effective for all citizens. As Christians we should care about health care for all, having better standing with other countries,not going to war, reaching out to less fortunate people to better themselves, and freedom to practice our faith.
I am a Christian who wants to share Christ and I am also pro-choice. I have no idea when life begins. I do know I don’t want the government invading my private life and making my moral decisions for me. Republicans are not the moral authority and I hated to see them use this forum to make out like McCain is the real Christian.
Sherry Young

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