I’ll be watching the Saddleback Civil Forum closely tonight along with many other folks. It is the first time since the primaries ended that Barack Obama and John McCain will be talking in the same room about the same issues.

The event is being hosted by Rick Warren, who has caused no little amount of anxiety on the Right for his decision to put Barack Obama on the same stage as John McCain. The consensus opinion is that Warren is going to water down difficult issues for Obama that many evangelicals disagree with him about, and that Obama is going to come out ahead with evangelical voters as a result.

This is, of course, plausible. It would be tempting to avoid the discomfort of asking Barack Obama pointed questions about why he voted against the Born Alive Infants Protection Act during his tenure as an Illinois State Senator. It would be tempting to eschew honest inquiry and direct questioning for being perceived as nice, generous, and big-hearted.

But he won’t.

Expect direct questions on difficult issues for both candidates. Expect Rick Warren to be level-headed, fair, and reasonable. Expect Barack Obama to struggle to coherently explain his position.

And when it happens, expect me to be commenting on it. See you again tonight.

Update #1: Barack Obama has just finished. We got a few of the pointed questions that I predicted on the issue of abortion. Warren didn’t pull any punches, going straight to the heart of the matter at the very beginning, asking, ” At what point does a baby get human rights?”

Obama’s answer was, well, uninspiring. He punted, claiming that scientifically and theologically the question was “above [his] pay grade.” He claimed that there are “moral and ethical elements” to the issue, but declined to specify what they are, and then claimed that he supported Roe v. Wade because “women do not make those decisions lightly.” When asked whether he had ever vote to limit abortion, Obama said he was opposed to late-term abortions if there were exceptions for the life of the mother, but again did not answer the question directly. (Update:  see the important correction from Craig Hendricks.)

Obama’s overall performance was as uninspiring as his answers on these questions. He stuttered a lot and didn’t seem comfortable answering Rick Warren’s questions, even when he was on friendly territory. He didn’t say much that was new, though when talking about faith-based organizations he acknowledged that he worked with churches in South Chicago during the early days of his political career, which was a startling reminder to the careful listener of Jeremiah Wright and a surprising introduction by Obama.

Will evangelicals be persuaded? Doubtful. He didn’t display the charm and charisma that he is famous for, and he obfuscated on key issues that nearly many evangelicals are concerned about. The performance won’t hurt him, but it’s not going to win anyone over.

Update #2: McCain’s performance tonight was masterful. He was marvelously comfortable on stage and remarkably humorous. The most likable guy on stage tonight was not Barack Obama, and it wasn’t Rick Warren.

Most importantly, he was direct and forthright on nearly all the questions. He was eloquent in a way that Barack Obama wasn’t, and he showed a decision making ability and confidence that was striking in contrast to Obama’s reticence to say things without nuancing them repeatedly.

When asked what his greatest failing was, McCain was honest in naming his first failed marriage. When asked when babies get human rights, he didn’t skip a beat in responding, “at conception.” On stem cells, he acknowledged his support for embryonic stem cell research while expressing his hope for skin cell research.

Rick Warren, of course, was the big winner tonight. He was (as I predicted) fair, engaging, and reasonably difficult in his questioning. But McCain comes in at a close second. Policy aside–and such events are never about policy–McCain was more personable, more affable, and significantly more Presidential than his counterpart.

The irony of the Obama’s night is that he has taken up the mantle of a “new politics” for himself, but yet played politics by attempting to couch his answers in such a way that his audience would like them. The American public has not yet seen McCain and Obama in such close context, but the more they see them together, the more they will gravitate toward McCain. Obama’s hope to court evangelicals hasn’t died yet, but tonight it took a beating.

McCain detractors will point out that he didn’t elaborate much on his perspectives or his answers, but this wasn’t a policy discussion–it was a fireside chat, and people who were unfamiliar with McCain or had only heard about how angry he is will be stunned by his affability and his levelheadedness.

Tonight, John McCain made long strides toward putting stories about his inability to court evangelicals and social conservatives to an end.

Update #3: Little Green Footballs on what we learned about Obama:

In our first thread, we learned that Barack Obama is pro-choice but anti-abortion, pro-military but anti-war, opposed to evil, against torture (especially evil torture), against Clarence Thomas, against prostitution and human trafficking, against designing embryos for stem cell research and human cloning, pro-international community but in favor of the Bosnia intervention. Very, very pro-empathy, over all.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. I’m surprised there’s no comment on the disconnect between, and I’m paraphrasing, “human rights begin at conception” and “I support embryonic stem cell research.”


  2. It’s a disconnect, yes. I almost added (not sure why I didn’t) that McCain’s forthrightness in acknowledging an area where he is out of step with the pro-life coalition was refreshing.


  3. craigbhendricks August 17, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    I appreciate your updates. However, I must point out one significant CORRECTION:

    Barack Obamah did not say, he was opposed to late-term abortions if there were exceptions for the life of the mother.” What he actually said was …”if there were exceptions for the HEALTH of the mother.” The distinction is HUGE! An exception for the health of the mother could be anything and everything including unwanted anxiety etc. Please publish this correction.
    Thank you,
    Craig Hendricks


  4. Neither Obama nor McCain were on their home turf in this forum but McCain has pandered enough to the evangelical establishment that he had the obvious advantage.

    I appreciate what you said about the contrast between McCain and Obama on both substantive policy issues and style but there may be another reason that those who observe the two candidates gravitate toward McCain.

    It may have something to do with hue.

    On a lighter note, I really liked McCain’s direct and forthright response to Rick Warren’s question about what should be done about the evil?

    Defeat it.

    He then went on to equate the whole problem of evil with radical Islamic extremism [sic] as a means to turn the question back to his talking points.


  5. I was surprised by Obama’s dodge on abortion, “above my pay grade.” Warren’s question was phrased perfectly for a political/legal answer. He didn’t inquire about personhood but about granting human rights. It’s precisely this point that Congress, state legislatures and the courts are constantly debating. A fetus killed by a gunshot is granted human rights in most states. A fetus born alive during an abortion attempt is granted human rights now as a result of federal law. Etc.

    Obama ducked the question, most likely because he didn’t want to offend his abortion-rights supporters, and in doing so lost an opportunity to articulate some new thinking on the Democratic party’s position on the sanctity of human life.


  6. Obama’s response to the abortion question was disappointing, especially the “above my pay grade” part, but I continue to be a strong supporter of his.

    I do agree that it was a missed opportunity to inform voters about a change in the Democratic platform, which will likely contain language about reducing the need for abortion by ensuring that the public is educated and has access to health care and other resources.

    If McCain actually believes that life begins at conception, why does he support embryonic stem cell research?


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