LAKE FOREST, Calif. Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain wrestled with the issues of faith, moral failures, abortion and same-sex marriage in a wide-ranging forum hosted Aug. 16 at Saddleback Church.
Rick Warren, pastor of the Orange County mega-church, said the forum comes at the end of the primary season as both candidates prepare for the upcoming Democrat and Republican Conventions.
"As a pastor, I believe in the separation of church and state, but I don't believe we can separate religion from politics, because one's faith determines one's worldview, which informs one's decisions and determines how one would lead," Warren said.
More than 5,000 peopleSaddleback members, civic and community leadersattended the event, which was covered live by CNN and Fox News. In all, more than 550 media personnel from across the globe covered the event. In addition, the forum was live streamed on several Web sites, including MySpace. Radio stations affiliated with FamilyLife, Moody, Salem and Pilgrim Radio networks carried the forum live. In all, more than 200,000 suggested questions were e-mailed to Warren in advance of the forum.
A distinctive of the evening was its non-traditional format, which shunned the traditional debate genre for a more personal question- and answer-session in which Warren posed questions one-on-one to the candidates. The topics varied from stewardship, leadership and worldview to America's role in the world. In keeping with the casual atmosphere, Warren questioned each candidate behind a dais and all three donned sports coats minus ties.
Determined by a toss of the coin, Obama, the presumptive Democrat candidate, took the stage first. Among the first questions posed by Warren to Obama was to describe America's biggest moral failure.
"I think America's greatest moral failure, in my lifetime, has been that we still don't abide by that basic precept in Matthew that whatever you do for the least of my brothers … I think that basic principle applies to poverty, it applies to racism and sexism, it applies to not thinking about providing ladders of opportunity for people to get into the middle class."
On a personal level, Obama said his teen years when he experimented with drugs and alcohol was his own personal failure.
Obama also took a few minutes to explain his own Christian faith, acknowledging the concepts of sin and redemption.
"That is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis," he said. "I know that I don't walk alone, and I know that if I can get myself out of the way that I can carry out, in some small way, what He intends."
During his segment, McCain mentioned the break-up of his first marriage as his biggest moral failure before talking about his view of America's greatest shortcoming.
"Throughout our existence, perhaps we have not devoted ourselves to causes greater than our self interest, although we've been the best at it than anybody else in the world. I think after 9/11, my friends, instead of telling people to go shopping and take a trip we should have told Americans to join the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, the military, expand our volunteering."
On the issue of abortion, Obama told Warren he was pro-choice and supported Roe v. Wade.
"I've come to that conclusion not because I'm pro-abortion but because, ultimately, I don't think women make these decisions casually. I think they wrestle with these things in profound ways," he said.
Obama declined to answer Warren when he asked the candidate when he thought life began.
"I think whether you are looking at it from a theological or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity is above my pay grade," he said. "One thing I'm absolutely convinced about is there is more than an ethical element to this issue. Anybody who tries to deny the moral difficulties and the gravity of the moral issue is not paying attention."
Obama said although he was pro-choice his major priority was providing resources to help reduce the amount of abortions.
McCain was more direct in his response saying that life begins at conception.
"I have a 25-year pro-life record in Congress, in the Senateand as president of the United States I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies."
That pro-life commitment, he said, would extend to appointments on the U.S. Supreme Court. Many legal experts anticipate the next president will be responsible for appointing two to three new justices during his administration.
"This nomination should be based on the criteria of a proven record of strictly adhering to the Constitution of the United States of America and not legislating from the bench," the Arizona senator said. "Some of the worst damage has been done by legislating from the bench."
The differences between the two candidates remained evident on the issue of homosexuality, especially the concept of same-sex marriage.
Although Obama said he believes marriage should be between a man and a woman, he said he opposes a constitutional amendment to protect traditional marriage.
"Historically we have not defined marriage in our constitution," he said, "It has been a matter of state law. That's been our tradition.
He also indicated his support of civil unions for same-sex marriage.
"I don't think in any way this affects my core beliefs about what marriage is," he said. "My faith is strong enough and my marriage is strong enough that I can afford those civil rights to others."
McCain clearly asserted his opposition to same-sex marriage saying he believes justices erred in the recent California Supreme Court ruling allowing same-sex marriage.
"I strongly support preserving the status of marriage between a man and a woman …, said McCain. "That doesn't mean that people can't enter into a legal agreements, that doesn't mean that they don't have the rights of all citizens. I am not saying that. I am saying that we should preserve the unique status of marriage between one man and one woman."
He went to say that as a federalist, he believes states should have the right to determine their own laws regarding the issue, but if states are ultimately forced to accept same-sex marriages from other states, he would support a federal constitutional amendment.
In a brief testimony to the bi-partisan atmosphere championed by Warren, Obama and McCain shared the stage for a few moments in between sessions. The candidates greeted each other with a quick hug as the crowd treated them to a hearty ovation.
Warren founded the Civil Forum earlier this year as a way to "promote civil discourse and the common good, encouraging leaders in business, education, the arts, entertainment, government health and the military to address both sides of issues, which are often divisive."
Interest in the forum was massive. In the hours before the event, thousands of protesters from all walks of life lined the streets leading to the Orange County mega-church, home to 22,000 members and guests. They carried signs about the war, abortion, taxes and freedom.
Helicopters crisscrossed the skies as teams of horse patrols lined along the streets. Mobile command centers from various police agencies worked in tandem with the Secret Service.
Before sending the crowd home, Warren appealed to them to foster a more disciplined discourse.
"One of the greatest freedoms we have in this country is the freedom of speech," Warren said. "They even have the right to protest this meeting, which is a good thing, but we have to learn how to have civility in our civilizationhow to stop being rude, how to stop demonizing each other, how to have a discussion and a debate, because we all want America to be a greater place."