Obama, McCain to join evangelist's forum
Appearances set for Calif. megachurch
The Rev. Rick Warren is so prominent and respected that just being seen with him is a boon for any presidential candidate.
For Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, their appearances at a forum tonight at Warren's evangelical megachurch in Southern California bring risks along with rewards.
The event will play to one of Obama's strengths, talking about his Christian faith, but it will also underscore the gulf between his views and those of the most conservative Christian voters. Many of McCain's positions are more in line with the evangelical worldview, but he is uncomfortable - and some critics say unconvincing - talking about his personal beliefs.
While the forum is their first joint event of the general election, the candidates will appear separately, spending one hour each with Warren, before coming together on stage for a handshake. The pastor, who does not endorse candidates, will be the only one asking questions. The forum will be broadcast live from 8 to 10 p.m. on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC.
Warren is an antiabortion Southern Baptist who is nonetheless part of a shift away from the religious right's strict focus on abortion and marriage. The environment, poverty, and education have also become pressing concerns, especially for younger evangelicals.
Warren is best known for building Saddleback Church into a 23,000-member congregation in Lake Forest, Calif., and for writing the multimillion-selling book "The Purpose Driven Life."
But he and his wife, Kay, are also leading advocates for HIV/AIDS victims worldwide. They have invested enormous resources in their PEACE Plan, now underway in Rwanda, which aims to combat corruption, illiteracy, and other social problems through church partnerships with government and business.
Older-guard evangelical leaders who oppose broadening the agenda have been leaning on Warren. In a stream of statements in the days leading up to the forum, they implored him to press the candidates about their positions on abortion.
Warren, who made the rounds of the network morning news shows yesterday to promote the forum, told David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network: "I'm going to ask them questions about character, competence, about values, vision, virtue, about their convictions in leadership, about their experience. And I'm going to deal with their personal life, because character matters. Their personal life does matter as a leader. God says so."
For Obama, the forum gives him an ideal setting to counter the misperception that he is Muslim. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 12 percent of respondents believe the Illinois senator is Muslim.
Obama became a Christian as an adult, but during the campaign left his church home, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, after repudiating the former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., over explosive remarks from the pulpit about race and the US government.
The benefit of the forum to McCain, who was brought up Episcopalian and now attends a Baptist church in Phoenix, is less clear. While many of his views, including opposition to abortion, match the outlook of conservative Christians, he is far less comfortable than Obama discussing his faith.
McCain supporters have taken to circulating excerpts from his memoir "Faith of Our Fathers," that explain his beliefs. He recently met privately with Archbishop Charles Chaput of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver, one of the most vocal US bishops on the duty of Catholics to make the abortion issue a priority in choosing public leaders.
The Chicago Tribune yesterday published a lengthy interview with McCain about his faith, including a previously undisclosed account of him rioting against his North Vietnamese captors so he and fellow prisoners of war could hold Sunday church services. McCain also said his religious beliefs influence his public policy stands, including abortion.
Yet, many evangelical leaders have backed him only reluctantly. And he put conservative Christians on edge Thursday by floating the prospect of picking a running mate who supports abortion rights.
Foon Rhee of the Globe staff contributed to this report.