If anyone had any doubt about the influence of Rick Warren, last night provided a remarkable demonstration of his pull -- Barack Obama and John McCain both agreed to submit, one after the other, to televised questions from the evangelical pastor at his church in Orange County, California.
Warren, of course, is the author of "The Purpose Driven Life," which, after selling 25 million copies, is now reportedly the best-selling hardback book ever. Saddleback Church, which Warren founded in 1980 with one family, now has 22,000 people at worship each week. Warren has become ubiquitous -- even in Boston, he has spoken at Harvard and was this year's commencement speaker at Gordon College -- and his words have been printed on Starbucks cups. And he has become the best-known advocate of a new set of public policy priorities for evangelicals in the public square -- yes, he opposes same-sex marriage and abortion, but his public focus has been on AIDS in Africa, and he has devoted considerable energy to training pastors in the developing world.
The Saddleback Civil Forum, as Warren dubbed last night's event, featured Warren interviewing Obama, and then McCain, for an hour each, before an audience of 2,200. The candidates, in their first joint appearance since becoming the likely nominees of the two major political parties, appeared on the stage together for a few seconds, and shook hands.
Warren asked the candidates about marriage, abortion, stem-cell research, and what Christianity means to them. Obama's answer, according to a partial transcript from Warren:
"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. But what it also means, I think, is a sense of obligation to embrace not just words, but also through deeds and expectations that God has for us. And that means thinking about the least of these - acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God."
And McCain's response:
"It means I am saved and forgiven."
(I just realized this morning that Rick Warren is now apparently running his own news service, so for all the Rick Warren news you need, provided by Rick Warren, about Rick Warren, check out this site. I was trying to think about whether there are any other religious leaders who communicate about their own activities in this way; the only parallels that come to mind are denominational heads, like Pope Benedict XVI or Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who have news departments that chronicle their appearances and utterances.)
There's lots of coverage of the Saddleback event in today's papers; the Globe's story, by Sasha Issenberg, is here.
But there is also some critical comment now emerging about Warren's role in the campaign.
The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, who is now a senior fellow at Georgetown's Woodstock Theological Center, sent out an e-mail yesterday wondering what would happen if a Catholic figure attempted such a feat.
"Before the forum takes place, let me say how weird the whole event appears to me as a Catholic priest. First, my understanding is that the forum will take place in the sanctuary of the Saddleback Church. I think that is inappropriate. A church hall would be OK but not the sanctuary which should be reserved for worship service. This is not a question of separation of church and state--I leave that to the constitutional lawyers. This is a question of what is religiously appropriate and inappropriate to do in churches. Catholics appear to have a very different standard than Evangelicals (both white and black). The Vatican is even opposed to holding concerts in churches. Second, imagine for a second that the forum was being sponsored by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago and was held in the sanctuary of his cathedral. The outcry would be defining. The public and the media appear more easily to accept political activity by Evangelical clergy than by Catholic clergy. Catholic clergy are held to a higher standard. For example, Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson can run for president, but imagine what would happen if Cardinal George or Cardinal Egan ran for president. Don't get me wrong. I do not want Catholic cardinals or clergy publicly getting involved in partisan politics. I am happy that canon law and tradition restrict political activity by Catholic clergy. I just wonder if there is a double standard here."
And, the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of Interfaith Alliance and a frequent critic of the role of faith in politics today, praised Warren, but said:
"Some of the questions Pastor Warren posed crossed the line and promoted the fiction that the American people are electing a pastor-in-chief, rather than a commander-in-chief. Questions like 'What does it mean to trust in Christ?' create a religious test for public office and should have no place in the political discourse for a secular office. America is the most religiously diverse country in the world, and Christianity is only one of those faith traditions. Millions of voters who tuned in tonight will feel disenfranchised by some of the questions posed in this forum. And both the candidates deserve criticism for engaging in a competition to be 'holier than thou.' The American people want real solutions for real issues. Discussing the personal theology of the candidates does little to elucidate those solutions."
(Photo by Getty.)