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The hands-down winner of Saturday evening’s Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency was John McCain. The loser was American secularism. As for Barack Obama, well, let’s just say it was his most Dukakis-y performance yet.
While commentators have made much of how “nuanced” Obama was in his responses to Pastor Rick Warren’s prompts, I think it would be better to describe him as “calm, even subdued.” And let me not mince words: being nuanced, calm and even subdued is not necessarily the winning formula in front of a megachurch full of Evangelicals.
In mainstream Evangelical culture one testifies to the Glory of God exuberantly, unhesitatingly, with hands thrust heavenward, heart open wide and eyes scanning the horizon for possible indices of the Kingdom’s coming. It looks like McCain, who will never be confused for a seminarian, figured that one out.
With his here-I-stand swagger he played to the galleys expertly (this is one of the first times I can recall where his opponent was not the overwhelming crowd favorite). Here is McCain delegitimizing the liberal 4/9 of United States Supreme Court. Here he is recounting that POW anecdote for the one zillionth time (but now he smartly adds that he and his gun guard “were just two Christians worshipping together”). Here he is reminding us that he is “saved and forgiven.” Here he is talking about his church (an aside that reminds us that Senator Obama doesn’t have a church).
But most of all he rehearsed his anti-abortion bona fides. With Obama conveniently playing the role of Pro-Choice Blue State Guy, the Maverick started sharpening the contrasts. This may well be remembered as the night that pro-Life Evangelicals finally understood what they should have understood 12 months ago: McCain delivers on this issue and has a quarter-century track record of doing so.
As for Obama, his normally ace religious outreach team made a variety of mistakes. The candidate was not well prepared. He was far too somber and reserved. His qualifiers and provisos were better suited for a chat with the dean of Harvard Law, than a folksy Man of God who always looks like he is on the verge of hugging the nearest sinner in sight.
My guess is that Obama’s people assumed this event would be similar to the Compassion Forum held at Messiah College this past April. But that took place in a much smaller venue. The conversation was moderated by two professional journalists, neither of whom wear their religion on their sleeve. It was taped in front of an audience of assorted religious luminaries (who themselves posed questions). The crowd was brimming with youthful Evangelicals who lived in dorms and looked kind of hip. It also featured a certain Senator from New York who, in retrospect, never gave Obama anything as nasty as “The One” ad.
Contrary to some newspaper reports, that gathering at Messiah was not a free-for-all (The New York Times’ reporting was particularly disappointing in this regard). On the contrary, it was a thoughtful and serene affair with a decidedly un-sectarian spirit. Maybe the Obama folks figured the Saddleback gig would just be more of the same.
But here’s what was different: this was an Evangelical, not an ecumenical, forum, and for this reason McCain had an immense, nearly insurmountable, home field advantage. This was an audience that was very concerned about what Warren referred to as something “that’s a Holocaust for many people.” Obama should have armed himself properly before walking into that pro-Life coliseum. Was the Senator the only person on earth who didn’t know that Pastor Rick was going to ask a question or two about abortion?
Why didn’t his staff didn’t hire the best liberal theological talent that money could buy, lock them in a Chicago basement, and tell them not to come out until they could make a few biblical verses sound like the founding charter of NARAL? Suffice it to say, when Warren asked “at what point does a baby get human rights?” the ideal response with this crowd was not to quip that the problem was “above my pay grade.”
All year long I have been saying that Obama simply needs 5 to 10 percent more Evangelical support in 2008 in order to neutralize previous Republican advantages. An estimated 11 percent of White Evangelicals are still undecided. I see little, however, that Obama did on Saturday to get them to alight from the fence.
Although Pastor Rick demonstrated a certain degree of restraint, the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency was, ultimately, a Christfest. Why the first joint appearance of the two candidates was refracted through the prism of an Evangelical “worldview” is beyond my limited powers of comprehension.
When Warren asked “what do you say to people who oppose me asking you these questions?”, I assume the “people” in question were secularists. And on the basis of McCain and Obama’s responses (and participation in this event) I must assume that neither thought these secularists were worthy of serious consideration.
By Jacques Berlinerblau |
August 17, 2008; 5:20 PM ET
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