Obama, McCain air views on faith

Contrasting styles offer a preview of the debates

John McCain and Barack Obama spoke about matters of faith and politics in a forum moderated by Pastor Rick Warren (center) last night in Lake Forest, Calif. John McCain and Barack Obama spoke about matters of faith and politics in a forum moderated by Pastor Rick Warren (center) last night in Lake Forest, Calif. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / August 17, 2008
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LAKE FOREST, Calif. - Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain offered contrasting claims of kinship to an audience of evangelical Christians last night as they shared a stage for the first time, just days before their parties' nominating conventions.

The forum - in which each candidate separately faced the same, hourlong series of questions from Rick Warren, minister of Saddleback Church - was likely the last time the candidates will face each other before they meet for their first debate in September, and the two candidates demonstrated starkly different approaches.

Obama, who on a previous visit described Saddleback Church as "my house," showed an ease on its stage, relying on his comfort with the language of evangelical Christianity - and citations from Warren's own writings and policy proposals - as he attempted to establish a personal bond with the flock through its minister.

McCain, who has often differed with religious conservatives over both policy and style, turned often to his audience while delivering a feisty recitation of his platform as he presented himself as a forceful champion for their common agenda.

Demonstrating the growing range of concerns to evangelical Christians, the candidates were challenged not only over their views on social issues such as abortion and gay rights, but taxes, education, and the standards for military intervention abroad. Warren, however, began with an appeal for soul-searching, asking the candidates to explain their understanding of evil, their method of decision-making, and to identify their greatest moral failures.

"When I find myself taking the wrong step, I think a lot of the time it's because I'm trying to protect myself instead of trying to do God's work," Obama said, after citing his youthful drinking and drug use.

"My greatest moral failing, and I have been a very imperfect person, is the failure of my first marriage," said McCain, who elsewhere has suggested the union collapsed due in part to his infidelity.

The fact that such an unusual exchange took place in a Sun Belt evangelical church is a testament to the central role that white, evangelical Protestants play in American elections, and to a new aggressiveness among Democratic candidates in competing for their votes.

"With Republicans, we usually think of them as comfortable in an evangelical setting," said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. "It's big news that a Democrat will be in that setting. And Obama's much more comfortable in that world."

Obama, in his first appearance after a weeklong vacation in Hawaii, addressed Warren as "Pastor Rick" and repeatedly poked fun at his host's wealth. He quoted verse from Matthew and spoke of the divine in personal terms that evangelicals employ to define their individual relationships with God.

"I believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins, and that I am redeemed through him. That is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis," Obama said. "I know that I don't walk alone."

McCain was far more reticent about declaring his faith. His only direct reference to the divine was a conclusory "Thank God" after praising the work of faith-based organizations in New Orleans.

While McCain's platform and voting record put him largely in line with evangelical leaders on traditional moral concerns like abortion and gay rights, he has exhibited over his career little enthusiasm for championing their priorities.

Yesterday, however, McCain delivered an account of his views on those subjects so direct that Warren expressed surprise at his terseness.

McCain frequently steered the conversation toward issues such as school choice that are core causes for the Republican right. He framed his defense of Georgia in that country's ongoing conflict with Russia as a defense of Europe's oldest Christian nation.

"It's a chance for McCain to reinforce that he's with the evangelical community on most issues," McCain strategist Charlie Black said before the forum, pointing to McCain's position in favor of stem cell research as the only area where he anticipated significant policy disagreement.

When challenged for reflection or evidence of his personal commitment, McCain turned to anecdotes. On several occasions, he took familiar stories from his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam - stories that elsewhere have affirmed secular values - and drew from them lessons in religious devotion.

Later, when asked which Supreme Court justices he would not have nominated, McCain ticked off the names of all four judges on the Supreme Court's liberal wing, suggesting they were trying to legislate from the bench - a core complaint of religious conservatives.

Obama, for his part, had named the court's only black member, the conservative Clarence Thomas, questioning his qualifications as a "jurist or legal thinker." He also suggested he would not have chosen Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., two other Republican appointees.

When asked by Warren when life begins, Obama demurred, saying the question was "above my pay grade." He then stated his support for abortion rights, and acknowledged that his stance would not sit well with many evangelicals. When he got the same question from Warren, McCain answered with one word: "Conception."

Despite earlier efforts by McCain's campaign to partner with Obama for a series of town-hall meetings, yesterday's appearance is expected to be the only time the candidates are together other than the standard complement of three debates in September and October.

At Warren's urging, the two candidates greeted each other midway through the forum, exchanging a handshake and a listless hug. Posters promoting the "Saddleback Civil Forum" seemed to put the emphasis on Warren's role as mediator, sandwiching the pastor's head shot between the two candidates'.

Warren founded Saddleback Church nearly three decades ago, and now draws an average of 22,000 churchgoers each Sunday to a campus that yawns through the inland hills of southern Orange County. He developed a national constituency through the publication of a devotional book, "The Purpose-Driven Life," that has sold a reported 35 million copies.

Seated at a table that resembled a talk-show set than a pulpit, Warren described the candidates as "my friends," and addressed them by their first names. That soft edge extended to an agenda centered on humanist concerns - often tied to human rights and healthcare in developing countries - traditionally associated with the American left, not the religious right.

Yet despite the focus on the world's poor, Warren acknowledged the upper-middle-class, professional character of his suburban churchgoers, who are expected to hear his sermon today on what to look for when considering a presidential candidate.

"In this region, you're poor" if you earn $150,000, Warren said to Obama, when the Democratic senator offered that amount as a threshold for the middle class. McCain later raised that ceiling: Only those making over $5 million qualified as rich, he joked.

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