Rick Warren shined as the moderator of a recent forum which featured the major candidates for US President this season, Barack Obama and John McCain. For transcripts of Warren’s interviews with the candidates, go here. For the videos, go here.
To the dismay of many who wish that born-again Christians kept their faith and their political opinions to themselves (see the Garrison Keillor quote below), here comes a Southern Baptist pastor who, besides making the cover of TIME magazine, organizes an event at the intersection of faith and politics which attracted enormous interest. 200,000 questions were pre-submitted by interested individuals. The resultant interviews were broadcast multiple times on both Fox and CNN. Do the math on this event and you cannot fail to get an idea of the immense soft power a figure like Pastor Rick Warren is able to wield in the current political climate.
In a sense, Warren is following in the footsteps of Billy Graham, another prominent evangelical who hobnobbed with the powerful. But he is doing more than Graham ever did in building bridges with people of both parties around issues of concern to many people of faith such as abortion; the definition of marriage; confronting evil in the world, if necessary, by military intervention; rules to apply in government funding of faith-based initiatives that address things like poverty, substance abuse, and disaster relief; the twin disasters of a low high school graduation rate and a sky-high incarceration rate, and so on.
If the purpose of the forum was to show how revealing a discussion at the intersection of faith and politics can be, and how discussion along those lines can occur without being rude and without demonizing those who advocate approaches at variance with one’s own – Warren’s pro-life positions, defense of the traditional definition of marriage, support for US military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his hands-on emphasis on the need to address poverty, HIV/AIDS, and the persecution of believers around the world have never been in doubt – the forum was a smashing success.
A number of liberal opinion-makers are intent on minimizing the importance of born-again Christians as a religious phenomenon or a (split along racial lines) voting bloc. Said minimization is an exercise in smoke and mirrors and a luxury which politicians who want to be elected cannot afford. Barack Obama and John McCain knew what they were doing when they accepted Rick Warren’s invitation. By their candid willingness to speak about the intersection of faith and politics in their approach to life and decision-making, both candidates earned the respect of a very large number of Americans for whom the intersection is of decisive importance.
It goes without saying that, for most evangelicals, Obama’s answers on the issues of abortion and Supreme Court judges left much to be desired. McCain’s less than warm relations with the “Religious Right” quotient of the Republican party have also not been forgotten, but this will hurt McCain among evangelicals far less than is sometimes imagined. But the larger political point is quite different. Warren and many other evangelicals will continue to reach out to people in the political arena regardless of party affiliation. They will seek to make common cause and find common ground on a host of issues. It has not always been so. It’s a step in the right direction.
For another take, note Duane Smith’s (pre-event) comments. Amy Sullivan’s pre-event comments were insightful. After the event, the number of comments favorable to the event and to Warren’s role in it from across the political spectrum have been very high. Here is one example; here is another. Here’s a fine discussion by E. J. Dionne.
Ann Althouse’s remarks are telling (she’s a UW-Madison law professor, and Obama supporter):
I can't think of anyone I've seen do a better job of probing prospective Presidents. He did a brilliant job of demonstrating the way and the extent to which religion belongs in politics. If Warren is to be the new face of Christian evangelism in America, we are experiencing a great advance.
Here is Garrison Keillor’s famous and funny sour-grapes remark, after evangelicals contributed once again to a Republican victory in national elections:
I’m trying to organize support for a constitutional amendment to deny voting rights to born-again Christians. I feel if your citizenship is in Heaven, like a born again Christian’s is, you should give up your citizenship. Sorry, but this is my new cause. If born again Christians are allowed to vote in this country, then why not Canadians?