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August 20, 2008

A Civil Affair at Saddleback

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Last Saturday I took a two-hour break from total Olympics immersion therapy to watch Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Civil Forum on the presidency.


I must admit, I have enjoyed a break in the longest presidential campaign in history by watching the young athletes perform in Beijing. After all, Labor Day is just around the corner and that has historically been the beginning of non-stop wall-to-wall politics in an election year.


Of course, this year it seems like Labor Day must have come early – like around New Year’s Day…


I found the forum at Saddleback, a mega-church in Lake Forest, Orange County, CA, refreshingly civil, insightful, and informative. For those who have tired of the hyperbolic and often course rhetoric of the spring debates – not to overlook the unpleasantness the Democrat primary between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the forum was a breath of fresh air.


Saddleback Church, which got its start in 1980, has grown to more than 22,000 members and has gained national prominence; especially since Pastor Warren’s worldwide bestseller, “The Purpose Driven Life,” was released in 2002. The book has long since become a bridge between the secular world and that of evangelicals and is used by both laymen and clergy as a spiritual guide.


Of Pastor Warren’s performance, for those who are familiar with his work and reputation, you were not disappointed.


One can easily agree with The Los Angeles Times columnist Dana Parsons’ assessment that “he set the perfect tone. He was conversational, he was earnest, he was funny when appropriate, (and) he was knowledgeable.”


A Washington Post account of the event reported that Pastor Warren, “one of the country's most prominent evangelical preachers… referred to both McCain and Obama as friends in his introductions.”


“Each candidate was interviewed individually by Warren for an hour. The two met only briefly, embracing on the stage midway through the event as Obama exited and McCain entered,” noted The Washington Post.


Warren quizzed both men on issues including their positions on abortion, the definition of marriage and the existence of evil in the world.”


“They both care deeply about America… They're both patriots,” said Pastor Warren at the beginning of the relatively relaxed, no-necktie, sit down question and answer session in front of 2,800 in the church – and a live nationwide television audience.


There were pundits on both sides of the political aisle who dismissed the value of the event. Charleston Daily Mail columnist, and the editor of a nationally acclaimed blog, Don Surber wrote that he “skipped the Saddleback Church confessional because I had to wash my hair…”


The Atlantic columnist Andrew Sullivan expressed “concern that the first debate of sorts should be held in a church.” But then, after he watched it, he remarked that “actually this forum so far was in no way offensive to secular values. It did not demand adherence to any religious doctrine and debated moral issues in terms that reflected faith but didn't exclude the faithless. Kudos to Warren.”


Michael Gerson, writing in The Washington Post said: “What took place … under Warren's precise and revealing questioning was the most important event so far of the 2008 campaign – a performance every voter should seek out on the Internet and watch.”


For those voters in the past who have complained that presidential elections have offered a choice between tweddle-dee and tweddle-dum, the forum highlighted the sharp contrasts in what Pastor Warren referred to as the two candidates’ “worldviews,” both stylistically and on essential issues such as national defense, the economy, and most particularly, on abortion.


For those who were reluctant to watch, the forum was much more about a fundamental contrast in values than the candidates’ religious views, which are arguably evenly matched.


Both candidates were good in very different ways. Considering Senator Obama’s accomplished oratory skills, the first meeting of the two candidates since much earlier in the year, gave pause for casual political observers who had begun to buy into the left’s harsh characterizations of Senator McCain’s lack of public speaking skills, congeniality and charisma.


Since the forum, the spinmeisters have collectively expressed surprise at how well Senator McCain performed to the point that NBC's Andrea Mitchell told “Meet the Press” Sunday that he must have cheated. “He seemed so prepared.”


Then, she gave gravitas to the talking points of Senator Obama’s campaign by saying: “the Obama people must feel that he didn’t do quite as well as they might have wanted to in that context.... What they’re putting out privately is that McCain ... may have had some ability to overhear what the questions were to Obama.”


Alas, NBC and Ms. Mitchell seem so dedicated to removing any doubt that they wish to be the sycophant mouthpiece of Senator Obama.


In contrast, Mr. Gerson summed it up best: “It is now clear why Barack Obama has refused John McCain's offer of joint town hall appearances during the fall campaign. McCain is obviously better at them.”


Senator Obama is likeable, conversational, and polished style made me think that he wanted to be our national friend. However, in consideration of the challenges facing the nation and the world, Senator McCain came across as forthright, commanding and indeed, presidential.


Next on the agenda are the candidates’ vice presidential choices, which are only sure to provide more contrast in our choices this November. Then, the party conventions begin August 25th for the Democrats and September 1st for the Republicans.


Meanwhile, Pastor Warren stated Saturday that he wanted to provide a civil environment for his two friends to have the opportunity to give us insight into their different worldviews. He accomplished that and more.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:


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