Magazine article The Christian Century

Warren's Forum Aims for 'Civility'

Magazine article The Christian Century

Warren's Forum Aims for 'Civility'

Article excerpt

With a California megachurch as the setting for their first joint campaign appearance, Republican John McCain gave crisp, campaign-tested responses, and Democrat Barack Obama offered nuanced replies to questions on religion, character, leadership and public policy.

It was not a debate, and the clearest winner--in terms of heightened influence--of the mid-August, nationally televised "civil forum" surely was pastor-interrogator Rick Warren.

Using his acquaintance with both senators, Warren brought them to his 120acre Saddleback Church campus in Orange County for sequential one-hour interviews. Obama has been openly courting evangelicals, especially those who see common ground with him on global warming, poverty, religious tolerance and health issues.

McCain is often uneasy in talking about personal faith, much like the Episcopalian-raised first President Bush. McCain, who has long described himself as an Episcopalian, attends a congregation in Phoenix that, like Saddleback, is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (though that denominational link is purposely obscured in laid-back California).

A weekly average attendance of 22,000 worshipers puts Saddleback Church, in suburban Lake Forest, among the five largest megachurches in the country.

Like the big-church pastors of Crystal Cathedral, about 20 miles away, and Willow Creek Community Church, near Chicago, Warren maintains a huge network of fellow clergy who attend his workshops and receive his newsletter.

Many of the several hundred thousand on his mailing list first connected to Warren when they read his best-selling book The Purpose Driven Church.

Warren captured further attention with The Purpose Driven Life, which has sold some 40 million copies, and through his world-traveling efforts, along with his wife, Kay, to fight poverty and HIVAIDS.

But Warren, 54, "is not quite a household name yet," said polling expert John Green on the Web site of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life before the August 16 forum was held. A poll last year of likely voters in Western states found that fewer than 20 percent could identify Warren. The 2007 Pew Research Center national survey sample found that about 80 percent of adults were familiar with Billy Graham and about one-third knew the name of religious broadcaster James Dobson.

Warren, who is in position to have the ear of the next president, appears to prefer the diplomatic style of Graham over Dobson's hard-line approach.

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However, according to Time, two weeks before the 2004 presidential election, Warren sent an e-mail to several hundred thousand pastors that, while it did not endorse George W. Bush, listed "nonnegotiable" issues for Christians: abortion, gay marriage, human cloning and stem cell research.

For the recent forum, Warren posed questions on those topics to Obama and McCain, but also asked them to name the three wisest people they know, their greatest moral failure, and an issue on which they had changed their minds. He prefaced that last question with implicit criticism of "gotcha" political tactics that always treat position reappraisals as flip-flopping.

The forum pleased some Christian conservatives who have been critical of Warren's embrace of an expanded social agenda. "He showed me he's at least as good at interviews as he is at selling books," wrote Joel Belz, founder of World, a conservative Christian magazine based in Asheville, North Carolina. …

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