Today’s forum in Southern California, hosted by best-selling author Rick Warren, will be remarkable not just as the first joint appearance for John McCain and Barack Obama but as a new marker along the crossroads of religion and politics.
“I have been wracking my brain, I can’t think of an instance in a political campaign that the Democratic and Republican nominees appear side by side in a church,” said John C. Green, a senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. “This is unique in a couple of respects. They are in a church, hosted by a pastor and both are there.”
For years, most Democratic presidential candidates avoided discussion on the campaign trail of faith and values, ceding the ground to Republicans who, in turn, solidified their already-strong electoral advantages among religious voters.
But the usual dynamic is not at play this year. More so than any Democrat since Jimmy Carter, Obama talks regularly about his Christian faith, reflecting both his own mid-20s conversion that’s played a key role in the portrait of himself he’s drawn in his two books and on the campaign trail, and his need to battle a mostly beneath-the-radar rumor campaign falsely claiming he is a Muslim.
Chastened by John Kerry’s narrow loss in 2004—and exit polls that showed the so-called God gap played a key role in that loss—Democratic leaders have been on a mission to reframe the values debate by appealing to the so-called “Joshua generation” that polls show is more receptive to considering candidates with differing views on abortion and other hot-button issues—and whose support Obama has aggressively courted.
McCain opposes abortion rights, making him a more traditional fit than Obama, but the Republican, a Baptist who was raised Episcopalian, has failed to excite this voting bloc Bush did.
McCain stands out among Republicans in mostly avoiding discussion of his faith on the campaign trail, and appearing uneasy—even unnatural—when he does discuss it. This reticence or unease has exacerbated skepticism among the Republican Party’s base of religious voters who were already wary of him based on his reputation as a maverick in the party, his criticism of Christian right leaders in 2000, who he famously deemed “agents of intolerance,” his support of embryonic stem cell research, and his eventual rejection of the support of mega-church pastor John Hagee, after various charged statements came to public attention, including the claim that “Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.”
So when Warren, bestselling author of “The Purpose-Driven Life,” approached McCain and Obama about appearing at his church for a nationally-televised forum, what will be the candidates' first and only joint appearance before the presidential debate seemed to suit all of their purposes. Obama could continue his unprecedented outreach to the faithful. McCain could shore up his credentials amongst them. And Warren cements his standing as the highest-profile pastor since the Rev. Billy Graham.
“Both see an opportunity: In McCain’s case, to show up and strengthen support among evangelicals, and with Obama to try to make inroads with evangelical voters,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Warren is a Southern Baptist preacher who says he considers both candidates his friends. He built those relationships—and his clout—by declining to tie himself to a single party and instead push a social agendathat appealed across political lines.
The leader of a 22,000-member church, he opposes abortion and gay marriage, but has focused less on flashpoints than on what he views as common-ground issues such including third-world HIV/AIDS prevention, poverty, climate change and human rights. Warren and his team have delivered “purpose-driven training” to thousands of pastors worldwide, aiming to turn their churches into forces of community and social change.
His bid to erect a bigger ideological tent has ruffled some conservative evangelicals. When Warren invited Obama to speak at his church in December 2006 for a global AIDS summit, National Clergy Council president Robert Schenck told reporters that Obama’s policies, including his support of abortion rights, “represent the antithesis of biblical ethics and morality, not to mention supreme American values.”
Warren, though, has sold 35 million copies of his books. One out of 20 U.S. churches have reportedly participated in his “40 Days of Purpose” course, and hundreds of thousands receive his daily Purpose of Life devotional emails.
By agreeing to appear on Warren’s stage, McCain and Obama can tap into a vast network of followers, experts say.
“He is the poster child of the new generation of evangelical leadership that has a broader political agenda than gay marriage and other social wedge issues,” said Dan Gerstein, a Democratic political consultant in New York. “The lines separating the parties, and particularly as it relates to these two candidates, are shifting and this voting bloc that had been extremely, solidly Republican is more and more up for grabs.”
White evangelical Protestants still overwhelmingly favor McCain, according to a June survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The Republican senator received 61 percent of the vote to Obama’s 25 percent. The figures align roughly with June 2004, when 69 percent backed Bush and 26 percent supported Kerry. (Bush ultimately took 78 percent of this vote, up 10 percentage points from 2000.)
The difference is that more than 11 percent of evangelicals are undecided this year, twice as many as in 2004, the survey found.
Warren will question the candidates individually, in back-to-back, one-hour interviews, on four areas: the role of the presidency in government, leadership, the candidates’ world view and America’s role internationally. McCain and Obama will appear separately but answer the same questions. As Obama takes the stage first, McCain will be sequestered, unable to hear what Warren is asking of his rival.
“I’m not going to play ‘gotcha’ with one candidate and not with the other,” Warren told CNN this week. “This way, it will be totally fair. You compare apples to apples.”