I was asked to do an op-ed on last night’s “Civil Forum on the Presidency” at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. I don’t know if it will be picked up, but I thought I would post a draft of the piece here. –JF
Americans have always been concerned about the faith of their presidential candidates. But future historians will write about the 2008 election as the year in which the faith of the candidates was scrutinized like never before.
On at least three different occasions—including Saturday night’s “Civil Forum on the Presidency” at Rick Warren’s southern California church—candidates have participated in nationally televised events to discuss how faith might inform their administrations.
It is no longer news that evangelicals have become a powerful voting bloc in America. John McCain and Barack Obama must win evangelical support to be successful in November. Like it or not, a candidate’s religious faith, and the depth, quality and intensity of that faith, has now become a test of one’s ability to hold the nation’s highest office.
One wonders how Abraham Lincoln—a skeptic for most of his life– would have fared in this political climate. Or what about that divorced movie star and pro-choice governor of California named Reagan who only began expressing his faith publicly after he had been in office a few years? Could these great presidents have passed the religious test?
But before we get too carried away with all of this talk about faith and politics, one wonders just how much Christianity will truly influence the potential presidencies of McCain and Obama. Have we really learned anything significant about the candidates during these forums on faith and public life?
What was most striking about Rick Warren’s event on Saturday is how McCain and Obama said virtually nothing about how faith will inform their presidencies.
Yes, both men were convincing in their affirmation of Christian faith. Obama’s answer to the question of what Christianity meant to him was very evangelical and theologically astute. McCain fell back on the moving story of his encounter with a Vietnamese Christian prison guard who showed him mercy during his imprisonment—a story that tells us more about the guard’s faith than McCain’s.
Neither candidate, however, was able to offer a specific way in which their Christianity would impact the decisions they might make in the Oval Office. If Christianity cannot be separated from the process of governing, as both McCain and Obama believe, then how might the faith of these candidates shape their views on stem-cell research, tax policy, welfare and poverty, or the war in Iraq?
Obama sounded more like an American liberal than a Christian political thinker. If Obama’s faith was truly driving his position on the issues then why not use a forum like this to offer Biblical or theological reasons for his commitment to school teachers, his opposition to the war in Iraq, or his understanding of who is “rich.”
McCain was clear and forceful in his response to Warren’s questions. His answers, however, sounded more like conservative talking points than Christian-informed ideas. We heard a lot about lower taxes, patriotism, military strength, and conservative appointments to the courts, but these views seemed to stem more from Reagan than from the Christian tradition.
Politically, both candidates succeeded on Saturday night. McCain rallied his base. He made his conservative credentials clear and probably eased the minds of those on the Christian Right who are concerned about some of his social and moral convictions.
Obama, with his conversational style and the logic of a law professor, probably won over younger evangelicals tired with the politics of the Christian Right. But no one is expecting Obama to win the evangelical vote. If he can make even minor inroads into the evangelical electorate it could carry him to the White House.
The evening at the Saddleback Church was revealing for what the candidates did not say. All those pundits and secularists who worry about another overtly Christian presidential administration can breathe a sigh of relief.