Key Constituency Is at Play At Candidates' Faith Forum

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.

Christian conservatives gave Bush 78 percent of their votes in 2004, and they remain a vital part of the Republican Party's electoral strategy. But although Democrat Obama has taken stances on issues such as abortion and gay rights that many Christians disagree with, his campaign hopes that he can cut into that showing by keeping his faith in the spotlight and by discussing topics such as poverty and global warming.

McCain and his campaign advisers have been eager to put their struggles with Christian conservatives behind them. Some conservatives remain angry over his role in a 2005 compromise that allowed Democrats to block some conservative judges Bush was attempting to appoint; others still recall his criticisms of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance" during the 2000 Republican primaries.

Many of these activists pointedly refused to back McCain during the GOP primaries, favoring former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney or former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Tony Perkins, head of the socially conservative Family Research Council, criticized McCain this summer for making faith and values less of a priority on his Web site and in other campaign materials than Obama had.

McCain has publicly suggested in recent days that even though he opposes abortion, he might select a running mate who supports abortion rights. That drew warnings from Perkins and other religious conservatives that they might not show up at the polls in November if McCain picked an abortion-rights supporter such as former governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania.

But McCain's campaign has also sought to highlight stances such as his opposition to same-sex marriage and civil unions. The Republican nominee also has spoken about his faith more often in recent months, frequently focusing on how it sustained him as a prisoner of war after he was shot down over Vietnam.

Saturday night, he cited the role of faith in his decision to stay in a Vietnamese prison camp after he was offered release because his father was a high-ranking naval officer. He said it was the toughest choice he had ever made, adding that "it took a lot of prayer, it took a lot of prayer."

The Obama campaign made an aggressive sales pitch at the event, distributing a 12-page booklet to the 2,200 people who streamed through Saddleback's doors that chronicled the candidate's "Christian journey" and his long relationship with Warren.

The campaign also announced Saturday that the upcoming Democratic National Convention would have a strong religious flavor, with "faith caucus meetings" to discuss religious voters' concerns and daily invocations and benedictions from national faith leaders. The list includes Joel Hunter, a prominent Republican pastor from an evangelical Florida church; a Greek Orthodox archbishop; a Roman Catholic nun from Cleveland; and a Colorado couple who are both Methodist ministers.

Topics of the faith caucus meetings include "How an Obama Administration Will Engage People of Faith"; "Moral Values Issues Abroad"; and "Getting Out the Faith Vote."

For Obama, the Saddleback event allowed him to reinforce that he is a Christian before an audience that doubtless included many familiar with Internet and talk-radio-driven rumors that he is a Muslim. That particular falsehood has proven maddeningly difficult to dispel for Obama's campaign, continuing to dog his candidacy even after the high-profile controversy stirred up by Obama's former pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

On Saturday night, Obama's appearance was his second at Saddleback. In December 2006, he and conservative Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) addressed Warren's annual conference on HIV-AIDS.

Obama's 2006 appearance raised the ire of antiabortion groups, who remain deeply skeptical of his efforts to cool the abortion debate by emphasizing pregnancy prevention and recognizing the issue's moral dimensions.

At Saddleback, Obama did not respond directly when Warren asked him at what point "a baby gets human rights." He said the issue is "above my pay grade," and pivoted quickly to his quest to find common ground. He noted that he had inserted pregnancy-prevention language in the 2008 Democratic platform, which he cast as a major turn in party policy.

In his interview with Warren, McCain received loud applause from the crowd of more than 2,000 when he declared his view that unborn children deserve rights "at the moment of conception," and offered one of the most emphatic declarations of his opposition to abortion in his presidential campaign.

"I have a 25-year pro-life record in the Congress, in the Senate," McCain said. "This presidency will have pro-life policies."

Religious conservatives and liberals alike pressed Warren to grill the candidates on difficult topics, such as the role of federal courts in social issues. Warren did ask both candidates which current Supreme Court justice he would refused to nominate.

McCain named the four justices considered most liberal: Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens. Obama singled out Clarence Thomas for criticism, saying he was not prepared for elevation to the court, and also noted that he disagrees sharply with Justice Antonin Scalia.

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