Why are we doing this again? Why another “forum” on the spiritual life and political consequences for would-be presidents? This Saturday evening both Senators John McCain and Barack Obama will sit down for separate hour-long chats with mega-preacher Rick Warren, whose aphorism-driven Purpose Driven Life has been selling in vast numbers since its publication in 2002.

It will be held at Warren’s Saddleback Church (with 22,000 members the biggest church in California) and is sponsored by the Saddleback Civil Forum. Since both major party candidates will be there, however, it will of course be treated as a “news event.”

During the primary season, CNN had two similar “values” forums and we learned as much as we probably needed to about what candidates’ prayed about, what their favorite Bible story was and how evolution meshed with the Genesis creation story. (With some irony, I point out that then-candidate John Edwards told Soledad O’Brien that he “sinned” multiple times every day but rejected answering her specific inquiry about his “greatest sin” noting that no one particular sin was greater than the other.)
Trust me, I love a good theological discussion as much as a good legal one.  However, since we aren’t hiring a chief theologian for America, Pastor Warren should (and might) avoid direct inquiries about the Virgin Birth and the timetable for Armageddon. Nonetheless, the candidates will surely treat this appearance with the man often touted as “the new Billy Graham” as a golden opportunity to play whatever religion cards they hold.  
Whether the questions are about abortion or poverty, how could they not throw in a few church-based anecdotes or biblical allusions to this crowd? But why? Surely they know that presidents don’t have religious functions (that’s what a secular government is all about). So those comments would probably be read as subtle “I’m really more religious than that other guy” winks and nods.
Perhaps this wouldn’t bother me so much if the candidates had had all (or any) of those ten issue forums Senator McCain asked for this summer. They didn’t happen. And what about the forum on science scheduled for Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute last March which no candidate was willing to attend? And, oh, remember the Democratic debate at the Constitution Center where our founding document actually received only minor attention?
We have a lot to learn from the candidates.  My prediction: we won’t learn any of it at this Saturday Night At the Church.

Rick Warren
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