Saturday’s Saddleback Civil Forum helped Republican presidential candidate John McCain shore up support among the Religious Right, according to several conservative commentators.
“Any chance that Barack Obama had to win a significant percentage of the evangelical vote–over and above the religious left, which all Democratic presidential candidates get–ended this afternoon at Saddleback Church,” American Values President Gary Bauer told CBN.
Bauer, a former Reagan aide and Family Research Council president who ran for president in 1999, said that occurred when Obama tried to dismiss a question about at what point a baby gets human rights by saying that trying to answer the question “is above my pay grade.”
“I think this was a tremendous moment in this campaign,” Bauer told CBN’s David Brody. “It may really be, ironically, that in November we may look back at this event and end up concluding that this was one of the defining moments of the campaign.”
Brody, senior national correspondent for CBN News, described McCain’s answer to the same question, “at the moment of conception,” with the word, “Ca-ching!”
“If this was the Evangelical version of the game show ‘Jeopardy,’ then that was the daily double and McCain wagered it all and came up with the correct answer (at least according to Evangelicals),” Brody said.
“McCain had a lot to lose at Saddleback Saturday night,” Brody continued. “His advisers tell me he knew how important this night was and he showed up big time. We will see how this performance plays within the Evangelical community, but my hunch is that it will play very well. McCain’s stock is on the upswing.”
McCain, who attends a Southern Baptist church, has been viewed with suspicion by many in the Religious Right since 2000, when he called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance.” McCain made peace with Falwell before his death last year, delivering the commencement address at Liberty University in 2006, but other inroads have been slow in coming. James Dobson, who once said he wouldn’t vote for McCain, said recently “the possibility is there” that he might wind up endorsing the Arizona Republican before the election.
Conservative commentators interviewed on a conference call after Saturday’s forum all declared McCain the winner.
“John McCain–without hesitation, bang, life begins at conception–he gets it,” said Janet Folger of Faith 2 Action. “The judges that he would appoint, he made it very, very clear. I think he also resonated with beyond the base, to those who are pro-life even within the Democratic Party. I think it was exactly what needed to be done. He said it exactly the way it needed to be said.”
One of the reporters on the call, Michael Foust of Baptist Press, asked if anyone on the panel saw “some conflict” between Obama’s saying he supports marriage between a man and a woman while opposing a California marriage amendment.
“Well, there is conflict there,” said Tom Minnery, senior vice president of Focus on the Family Action. “You cannot square the circle as he is trying to do. Either you support marriage or you do not. He says one thing. By his actions, he indicates another thing. And that answer was extremely weak, and shows up the hypocrisy in his position on that issue.”
“I think it would be more refreshing for him if he would just be honest about it and say he favors gay marriage,” Minnery said. “He cannot do that, because the American people do not favor gay marriage. And so, he needs to keep twisting and turning, diving on that issue. And it is hypocritical.”
In contrast to McCain, who said he thinks a California Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage was wrong, Folger said, Obama “publicly praised” and “supported” the decision.
“That’s something that redefined marriage, that undermines the institution that is the foundation of society,” she said. “And Barack Obama is wrong on it, and that did not come out as clearly as it should have.”
“That’s like saying, ‘I’m against slavery, but boy, Dred Scott was the way to go,'” Folger said. “It’s absurd. It’s an absurd, hypocritical position, and he needs to be called on that.”
Another apparent winner in Saturday’s forum was Saddleback pastor Rick Warren, who by hosting the first face-to-face meeting between the two presumptive party nominees emerged as a key player in religious politics.
In his Sunday sermon, Warren advised Saddleback Church members to judge both McCain and Obama on how their character would affect their decisions as president. “Don’t just look at issues, look at character,” Warren said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Look at the candidate and say, ‘Does he live with integrity, service with humility, share with generosity, or not?'”
Bishop Harry Jackson of the High Impact Leadership Coalition dubbed Warren “the new America’s Pastor.”
“Whether anybody on the line likes it or not ¦Warren will go down in history as this generation’s D.L. Moody, or perhaps Billy Graham,” Jackson said. “The issue for him is whether he will steward this unusual influence that he’s been given in the right way that honors God, so that on the Great Day, that the Lord will say as we all want to hear said, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant.'”
Some conservatives criticized Warren for giving a platform in his church to Obama, claiming it would lend credence to the Democratic senator’s pro-choice views on abortion.
Syndicated columnist Star Parker accused the Purpose Driven Life author of “politicizing religion.”
“Our kids can’t pray in public school, or read the Bible or learn to apply traditional values in managing their lives. The Ten Commandments cannot appear in our courthouses. A crÃ¨che cannot be displayed in a public space during Christmas,” she wrote. “Yet somehow we think a church is an appropriate forum for hosting candidates for president?”
“We need political leaders that are more moral,” Parker wrote, “not church leaders that are more political.”
Criticism from the left came from Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He said voters have heard enough about the religious views of presidential candidates.
“Campaign 2008 is starting to feel like a Sunday school Bible drill,” Lynn said prior to the event. “We’re electing a president, not a national pastor. I don’t see what good it will do for the American people to again hear the candidates spout pious platitudes about their favorite Bible verses or how devout they are.”
“Candidates should appeal to the voters based on their qualifications for office and their stands on the issues, not their religious beliefs,” Lynn said. “This event continues the campaign spiral into religious matters. Americans want to hear the candidates’ views on important issues such as constitutional rights, public education, the Iraq War and the economy.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
“Golden Rule Politics: Reclaiming the Rightful Role of Faith in Politics”