The Saddleback Forum

I watched the Saddleback Forum last night, in which Pastor Rick Warren interviewed Barack Obama and John McCain. To be honest, it wasn’t entirely what I expected. Rick Warren is an evangelical who normally focuses on issues like global warming and poverty, rather than the usual evangelical hot topics of abortion and gay marriage. Yet, a lot of Rick’s questions focused on abortion and gay marriage. And the audience appeared rather conservative, as it applauded Obama and McCain for affirming that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Rick’s questions started off with character. He referred to a biblical passage that says leaders seek out advice and wisdom. He asked the candidates to give an example of how they changed their minds as they grew in wisdom. He also told them to talk about one of their moral failings.

At first, this part took me aback. I’m so used to voting for leaders based on their political stances, that I rarely consider what kind of people they are. I can vote for absolute scum, provided that they tow the conservative line on the issues. When Bill Clinton ran for President in 1992, and George H.W. Bush was making “character” an issue, I didn’t take him all that seriously, since there are prominent Republicans who have extra-marital affairs. But the Bible doesn’t just want leaders who take righteous political positions. It wants leaders who are righteous people, who seek after wisdom and advice.

As I read more and more about the current President, I see that there were a number of areas in which he did not do this. He just went with his gut feeling, which he possibly interpreted as God’s direct guidance. I’m not saying the White House should be like it was in the 90’s, with its continuous bull sessions that accomplished little. But the Bible emphasizes listening to advisors, especially those with age and experience.

This part of the forum was where the candidates got to be authentic. Sure, Obama was referring to Rick’s Purpose Driven Life when he said “It’s not all about you.” But I thought he spoke from the heart when he said that, in his youth, he assumed his personal satisfaction was the most important thing in life. And that’s the Obama he discusses in Dreams of My Father, whom conservatives like to point out to us: the one who was unhappy and defensive. But that selfishness hopefully lessens with maturity. I’m still waiting to reach this point myself, to be honest!

McCain said that his greatest moral failure was his divorce from his first wife. I think that McCain spoke from the heart, since no one likes to fail in marriage. But he also helped himself politically. Often, politics grades our leaders according to a standard of perfection, and it plays a game of “Gotcha!” over every mistake they’ve ever made. But McCain showed us he was human, and that he’s not particularly happy about all of the choices he’s made in life. He didn’t blow his mistakes off with “I’m not perfect,” as Newt Gingrich seemed to do when James Dobson inquired about his past infidelities. Nor did he beat himself up. He simply acknowledged that he should have been a better person in his first marriage, but he wasn’t.

When the questions turned to faith, I thought some of the answers were pretty contrived. Obama said being a Christian means accepting Christ as his personal Savior, and that this helps him to get through life. He sounded like he was reading a script, especially considering that he doesn’t mention the cross all that much when he discusses his faith in Audacity of Hope (see Obama on Faith). Rather, in his book, he said he became a Christian to ground himself in a story, and also because he liked the African-American church’s emphasis on social justice and the church being a hospital for sinners. In his interaction with Rick Warren, Obama affirmed his hope that Jesus will wash his sins away. But a lot of evangelicals say that Jesus already has washed believers’ sins away, after they accepted him as their Savior. Did Obama recognize this nuance? Or does he embrace a Christianity that affirms the need for continual cleansing and forgiveness? I don’t know. This whole part struck me as rather inauthentic.

McCain also gave the obligatory answer to Warren’s question of “What is a Christian?” His replied that it means he’s been forgiven, but he didn’t seem all that authentic when he said that. Overall, he didn’t refer much to Christ or the Bible in the course of the interview. He did tell some heart-warming anecdotes–about choosing to stay in the POW camp so that another soldier could leave, about one of his Vietnamese captors drawing a cross in the ground, and about his adoption of a little girl from Bangladesh. He struck me as a solid man of character and conviction: as someone who believes in America and in service to others. But is he overly religious? I didn’t get that impression. He probably sees religion as a good thing–as a vital part of America’s fabric. And he most likely believes in God. But I’m not sure if he’s committed to Christianity, per se. At the same time, I can’t judge, since I don’t see his heart.

The part on political issues was okay. Obama said that abortions haven’t gone down under President Bush, which Fox News reported to be inaccurate, based on the Alan Guttmacher Institute’s statistics. I heartily applauded when McCain acknowledged the importance of home and charter schools, in a time when California has cracked down on the right of parents to teach their children at home. I hope he’s sincere on this, and isn’t just throwing red meat to the base.

Obama and McCain also gave different answers on whether evil exists. Obama responded that it did, but that we need to be humble as we confront it, lest we do evil ourselves. And McCain essentially equated evil with Islamic fascism. Obama’s answer struck me as more thoughtful, even though he should’ve been specific. I have problems limiting the label of “evil” to America’s enemies, since I’m sure that our greed has hurt people in the past. At the same time, McCain did well to tell a story about Muslim extremists who strapped bombs onto ladies with mental retardation, then proceeded to blow them up. “If that’s not evil, then I don’t know what is,” he said. And he’s right.

The event started out intriguing, then it became predictable, with a few interesting parts thrown into the mix. At least it gave me a chance to do a political write-up!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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7 Responses to The Saddleback Forum

  1. Raffi Shahinian says:

    Nice overview of the event. I’ve also posted my 2 cents this morning. Thought you might be interested.

    Grace and Peace,
    Raffi

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  2. James Pate says:

    Thanks for the link, Raffi. Actually, Obama sounded a lot better when I read what he said after he talked about personal redemption. I need to think more about what you say about Christ dying for the world–in a grand, cosmic sense. I agree with you that there are Bible passages like that–particularly in Colossians. I wonder if that relates to what I John says–Christ died not only for our sins, but for the sins of the world.

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  3. Kevin says:

    Andrew Sullivan asks when McCain first started telling that cross in the ground story. I was searching and came across your blog and perhaps you might know? So far the first reference seems to be in a book in 1999.

    And it does appear that McCain was familiar with Solzhenitsyn’s work.

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  4. James Pate says:

    I’m not sure, Kevin, but I know I’ve heard the story before.

    I’m not too surprised that McCain knew Solzhenitzyn’s work, since he does strike me as a fairly well-read person (even though the media has portrayed his as a dunce).

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  5. FT says:

    I saw clips of this thing on CNN. I thought it was good. Obama’s response about evil was so typically a liberal response though.

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  6. James Pate says:

    Hi Felix,

    You mean the part about us becoming evil in our response to do good? Actually, a liberal response would be more that government programs and education can dramatically cure evil. At least that’s always been my impression.

    P.S. That Shadows of WCG board can get VICIOUS. I don’t mean J, but some of the people who comment.

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  7. FT says:

    Actually James—I thought how Rick Warren conducted the whole debate was good. It was civil and there was no strident partisan personal attacks. Let’s be clear, I hated Barack’s view about evil. It is sooo lefty and is so obsessed with the person fighting evil becoming evil. I was for McCain’s version of his view on evil. It struck a chord in my soul.

    I will give you an e-mail so you can about your exploits on J’s site. Again, I agree with you about J. He is a great guy, you may or may not agree with him but he is a man of class. As with other former WCGers, some of us can be very strident (and inflexible) in what we say sometimes.

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