Key Constituency Is at Play At Candidates' Faith Forum

Forum host Rick Warren has said he considers both candidates to be his friends.
Forum host Rick Warren has said he considers both candidates to be his friends. (By Vincent Yu -- Associated Press)
By Shailagh Murray and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 17, 2008

LAKE FOREST, Calif., Aug. 16 -- Barack Obama and John McCain made their first joint appearance of the general election Saturday night, breaking away from the debates over national security and the economy that have dominated the campaign in recent weeks to court evangelical voters at an Orange County megachurch.

The forum at Saddleback Church presented a rare opportunity for Christian voters to contrast candidates who do not conform neatly to party stereotypes. While Obama has spoken often about his faith -- and endured a storm of controversy over comments made by the former pastor of the Chicago church he attended until recently -- McCain has largely avoided public discussions of faith and values during his career, which has contributed to a sometimes rocky relationship with evangelical leaders.

The event was hosted by Rick Warren, the author of the best-selling "The Purpose Driven Life" and one of the country's most prominent evangelical preachers. Warren, a Southern Baptist, referred to both McCain and Obama as friends in his introductions. "They both care deeply about America," Warren said. "They're both patriots."

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.

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

In his answers, Obama described many of his positions, even on taxes and energy, in the language of a devout Christian. When asked about his "greatest moral failing," he discussed his teenage drug and alcohol use, attributing it to "a certain selfishness on my part. I was so obsessed with me, and the reasons why I might be dissatisfied, that I couldn't focus on other people."

Confronted with the same question later, McCain cited the failure of his first marriage and went on to say the greatest moral failure of the nation had come in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In a thinly veiled criticism of President Bush's rhetoric after the attacks, the presumptive Republican nominee said he was troubled that Americans had been asked to go shopping to stimulate the economy rather than being called on to "devote ourselves to causes greater than our self-interests."

Warren also queried the contenders about the role Jesus Christ has played in their lives.

"I believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins and I am redeemed through him," Obama told Warren. "That is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis." McCain said he had been "saved and forgiven" through his belief in Christ.

Each also said he defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, but Obama added that he supports civil unions for same-sex couples.

Each was asked to name three people he would rely on for advice. Obama chose his wife, Michelle; his grandmother; and a group of politicians that included former senator Sam Nunn, a Democrat from Georgia, and Sen. Tom Coburn, a conservative Republican from Oklahoma who is backing McCain.

McCain named General David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq; Meg Whitman, a campaign adviser who has helped found eBay; and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an Obama supporter whom McCain praised for his courage in the civil rights movement.

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