Presidential nominees offer perspective on faith-based issues.
Not your typical campaign questions
by Christin Davis –
Questions on the war, the border, the price of oil and reaction to campaign statements became ones of character and faith at the Saddleback Church Civil Forum on the Presidency on August 16 in Lake Forest, Calif. The first joint appearance of the presidential candidates in the 2008 campaign took place not in a university hall or town square, but in the sanctuary of this evangelical mega-church in Orange County.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., respective Republican and Democratic presidential nominees, fielded questions moderated by pastor and author Rick Warren.
The forum had a casual and optimistic air. Both candidates-sans the usual red or blue necktie-separately sat down with Warren and freely answered his direct, sometimes thorny questions, beginning with Obama as determined by a coin-toss. Both received strong applause.
The two-hour event was broadcast live on CNN, Fox News, C-SPAN, Daystar and local KDOC. A room full of reporters and camera crews-furiously tapping keyboards to log stories in real time-even had a united, patriotic spirit. During the singing of the national anthem, before either candidate took the stage, a few hundred members of the media stood and even finished singing the nation’s song aloud when the audio feed cut out.
Warren divided the individual interviews into four segments: leadership, worldview, stewardship and America’s role in the world.
“While debates typically focus primarily on the candidates’ positions and only secondarily on how they’d lead and make decisions, this Saddleback Civil Forum will reverse that ratio,” Warren said in a press-release. “Since the oath of President is a commitment to protect the Constitution, it’s critical to know how each candidate interprets the nature of its principles. Leadership involves far more than promoting programs and making speeches, and since no one can predict what crises will happen over the next four years, it is vital to know the decision capacity and process of each man.”
Before welcoming the first candidate onstage, Warren said, “I believe in the separation of church and state, but not in the separation of faith and politics…[McCain and Obama] are both patriots and they have very different views on how America can be strengthened. We’ve got to learn to disagree without demonizing each other. We need to restore civility in our civil discourse and that’s the goal of the Saddleback Civil Forum.”
Following are some of the conversations pertinent to The Salvation Army, and the church in general, as we prepare to select the next President of the United States. Candidates were separately asked identical questions; the senators’ answers are presented here consecutively.
Questions of faith
WARREN: The Bible says that integrity and love are the basis for leadership. Looking over your life-nobody’s perfect-what would be the greatest moral failure in your life and the greatest moral failure of America?
OBAMA: I had a difficult youth…There were times where I experimented with drugs. I drank in my teenage years and I traced this to a certain selfishness on my part. I was obsessed with me and the process for me of growing up was to recognize that it’s not about me. I think America’s greatest moral failure in my lifetime has been that we still don’t abide by that basic precept in Matthew that whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me. The basic principle applies to poverty. It applies to racism and sexism. It applies to not thinking about providing ladders of opportunity for people to get into the middle class. There is a pervasive sense, I think, that this country is wealthy and powerful as we still don’t spend enough time thinking about the least of these.
MCCAIN: My greatest moral failing, and I have been a very imperfect person, is the failure of my first marriage. I think America’s greatest moral failure has been throughout our existence, perhaps we have not devoted ourselves to causes greater than our self-interest, although we’ve been the best at it of anybody in the world. I think after 9/11 instead of telling people to go shopping or take a trip we should have told Americans to join the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, military, expand our volunteers, expand what you are doing, expand the great missions that you are doing not only here in America but throughout the world.
WARREN: You’ve publicly said that you are a Christian. What does that mean to you and how does faith work out in your life on a daily basis?
OBAMA: As a starting point, it means I believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins and that I am redeemed through him. That is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis. I know that I don’t walk alone, and I know that if I can get myself out of the way, that I can maybe carry out in some small way what he intends. It means that those sins that I have on a fairly regular basis hopefully will be washed away. But what it also means, I think, is a sense of obligation to embrace not just words but through deeds the expectations that God has for us. It means acting justly and loving mercy and walking humbly with our God. And that trying to apply those lessons on a daily basis, knowing that you are going to fall a little bit short each day and kind of trying to take note and say, ‘Well, that didn’t quite work out the way I think it should have, but maybe I can get a little bit better.’ It gives me the confidence to try things, including things like running for president.
MCCAIN: It means I’m saved and forgiven, and we’re talking about the world. Our faith encompasses not just the United States of America, but the world. The Vietnamese kept us in prison in conditions of solitary confinement of two or three to a cell. They did that because they knew they could break down our resistance. One of the techniques that they used to get information was to take ropes and tie them around your biceps, pull your biceps behind you, loop the rope around our head, pull your head down between your knees and leave you in that position. You can imagine, it’s very uncomfortable. One night I was being punished in that fashion. All of a sudden, the door of the cell opened, the guard came in, a guy who was just what we call a gun guard…He loosened the ropes. He came back about four hours later, tightened them up again and left. The following Christmas, because it was Christmas day, we were allowed to stand outside of our cell for a few minutes…He came walking up. He stood there for a minute then with his hand on the dirt in the courtyard he drew a cross and stood there a minute, rubbed it out and walked away. For a minute, there were just two Christians worshipping together.
WARREN: On abortion…at what point does life begin? At what point is a baby entitled to human rights?
OBAMA: Well, I think that whether you are looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity is above my pay grade…I’m absolutely convinced that there is a moral and ethical content to this issue. I think that anybody who tries to deny the moral difficulties and gravity of the abortion issue is not paying attention…I am pro-choice. I believe in Roe v. Wade and came to that conclusion not because I’m pro-abortion, but because ultimately, I don’t think women make these decisions casually. They wrestle with these things in profound ways in consultation with their pastors or spouses or their doctors and their family members. And so for me, the goal right now should be-and this is where I think we can find common ground, and by the way I have now inserted this into the Democratic party platform-how do we reduce the number of abortions because the fact is that although we’ve had a president who is opposed to abortions over the last eight years, abortions have not gone down…What I can say is there are ways that we can work together to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies so that we are actually reducing the sense that women are seeking out abortions. And as an example of that, one of the things that Ive talked aobut is how do we provide the resources that allow women to make the choice to keep a child. Have we given them the health care that they need? Have we given them the support services that they need? Have we given them the options of adoption that are necessary? That, I think, can make a genuine difference.
MCCAIN: At the moment of conception. I have a 25-year pro-life record in the Senate and as President of the United States, I will be a pro-life President with pro-life policies. That’s my commitment.
WARREN: Define marriage.
OBAMA: I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now for me as a Christian, it’s also a sacred union. God’s in the mix. [WARREN: Would you support a constitutional amendment with that definition?] No, I would not, because historically we have not defined marriage in our Constitution. It’s been a matter of state law; that has been our tradition. Let’s break it down. The reason that people think there needs to be a constitutional amendment, some people believe, is because of the concern about same sex marriage. I am not somebody who promotes same sex marriage but I do believe in civil unions. For gay partners who want to visit each other in the hospital, for the state to say you know that’s all right, I don’t think in any way inhibits my core beliefs about what marriage is. I think my faith is strong enough and my marriage is strong enough that I can afford those civil rights to others even if I have a different perspective or a different view.
MCCAIN: A union between one man and one woman…I strongly support preserving unique status of a marriage between man and woman…That doesn’t mean that people can’t enter into legal agreements. That doesn’t mean they don’t have the rights of all citizens.
WARREN: We’ve had scientific breakthrough of creating plury potent stem cells through adult stem cells. Would you favor or oppose the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research since we have this other breakthrough?
OBAMA: Keep in mind the way that stem cells legislation that was vetoed by the president was structured. What it said was you could only use embryos that were about to be discarded, that had been created as a consequence of attempts at in vitro fertilization. So there were very tightly circumscribed mechanisms that were permitted. I think that is a legitimate moral approach to take. If we are going to discard those embryos and we know that there’s potential research that could lead to curing debilitating dieseases-Alzehimer’s Lou Gehrig’s disease-if that possibility presents itself, then I think we should in a careful way go ahead and pursue that research. Now, if in fact adult stem cell lines are working just as well, then of course we should try to avoid any kind of moral arguments that may be in place…There is nothing inappropriate with us pursuing science that could lead to cures so long as we’re not designing embryos for that purpose.
MCCAIN: For those of us in the pro-life community, this has been a great struggle and a terrible dilemma. I’ve come down on the side of stem cell research, but I am wildly optimistic that skin cell research, which is coming more and more into focus and practicability, will make this debate an economic one.
WARREN: Does evil exist and if so, should we ignore it, negotiate with it, contain it or defeat it?
OBAMA: Evil does exist. I mean, we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil sadly on the streets of our cities. We see evil in parents who have viciously abused their children and I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely and one of the things that I strongly believe is that we are not going to, as individuals, be able to erase evil from the world. That is God’s task. But we can be soldiers in that process and we can confront it when we see it. The one thing that I think is very important is for us to have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil. A lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil in the name of good. I think one thing that’s very important is having some humility in recognizing that just because we think our intentions are good doesn’t always mean that we’re going to be doing good.
MCCAIN: Defeat it. Couple points: One, if I’m President of the United States, if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice. I will do that and I know how to do that. I will get that done. No one should be able to take thousands of innocent American lives. We are facing the transcendent challenge of the 21st century-radical Islamic extremists. Not long ago, in Baghdad, Al-Qaeda took two young women who were mentally disabled and put suicide vests on them, sent them into a marketplace and by remote control, detonated those suicide vests. If that isn’t evil you have have to tell me what is. We’re going to defeat this evil…We’re in a long struggle, but when I’m around the young men and women who are serving this nation in uniform, I have no doubt. None.
WARREN: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 allows religious organizations, not just churches but faith-based organizations, to keep and hire people that they believe share common beliefs with. Would you insist that faith-based organizations forfeit that right to access federal funds?
OBAMA: First of all, I think you are aware, Pastor Rick, that I gave a speech earlier this summer promoting faith-based initiatives. I think that we should have an all-hands-on-deck approach when it comes to issues like poverty and substance abuse. And as somebody who got my start out of college working with churches who were trying to deal with the devastation of steel plants closing in the south side of Chicago, I know the power of faith-based institutions to get stuff done. What I have said is that when it comes, first of all, to funding faith-based organizations, they are always free to hire whoever they want when it comes to their own mission, who their pastor is, the various ministries that they want to set up. But, and this has been a longstanding rule, when it comes to federal funding, then we do have to be careful to make sure that we are not creating a situation where people are being discriminated against using federal money. That’s not new. That’s a concept that was true under the Clinton administration. That’s a concept that was true under the Bush administration. In 95 percent of the circumstances it’s not an issue because people are careful how they use the funds. There are some tough issues, five percent of the situations where people might say, ‘You know, I want to hire somebody of my faith for a program that is fully funded by the federal government and we’re offering services to the public…’ As a general principle, we want to make sure we’re not using federal funding to discriminate.
MCCAIN: Absolutely not. And if you do, it would mean a severe crippling of faith-based organizations and their abilities to do the things that they have done so successfully…I went to New Orleans after Katrina. The Resurrection Baptist Church was doing tremendous work with thousands of volunteers…Various authorities told me, off the record, that they were doing so much more good than the government organizations. They said it was incredible and New Orleans could not have been on the path-and they’ve got a long way to go-on the path to recovery if it hadn’t been for the faith-based organizations who are still operating in New Orleans much to their credit.
WARREN: In one minute, why do you want to be president?
OBAMA: You know, I remember what my mother used to tell me. I was talking to somebody a while back and I said the one time that she’d get really angry with me is if she ever thought that I was being mean to somebody or unfair to somebody. She said, ‘Imagine standing in their shoes. Imagine looking through their eyes.’ The basic idea of empathy. I think what has made America special is that notion, that everybody’s got a shot. If we see somebody down and out, if we see a kid who can’t afford college, that we care for them too. And I want to be president because that’s the America that I believe in and I feel like that American dream is slipping away. I think we are at a critical juncture economically. I think we are at a critical juncture internationally. We’ve got to make some big decisions not just for us, but for the next generation and we keep on putting it off. Unfortunately, our politics are so broken and Washington is so broken that we can’t seem to bring together people of goodwill to solve these common problems. I think I have the ability to build bridges across partisan lines, racial, regional lines to get people to work on some common sense solutions to critical issues and I hope that I have the opportunity to do that.
MCCAIN: I want to inspire a generation of Americans to serve a cause greater than their self-interest. I believe that America’s best days are ahead of us, but I also believe that we face enormous challenges, both national security and domestic…From the time I was 17 and raised my hand and was sworn in as a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy, I’ve always put my country first. I put my country first when I had the honor of serving in the military and I had the honor of putting my country first as a member of the House of Representatives and in the United States Senate. America wants hope. America wants optimism. America wants us to sit down together. I have a record of reaching across the aisle and working with the other party and I want to do that. I believe that Americans feel it’s time for us to put our country first and we may disagree on a specific issue but I want every American to know that when I go to Gee’s Bend, Ala., and meet the African-American women there who are so wonderful and lovely and an experience I’ll never forget. And when I go to places where I know they probably won’t vote for me, I know that my job is to tell them that I’ll be the president of every American and I’ll always put my country first.
The Saddleback Civil Forum series was established, according to its website, to promote civil discourse and the common good of all. The first forum, held during Passover week this year, featured five Jewish World War II Holocaust survivors sharing their stories. In September, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair will be featured. Warren created the Civil Forums to further three goals: helping people accept responsibility, helping the Church regain credibility, and encouraging our society to return to civility.