Obama and McCain @ Saddleback Civil Forum

If you’ve been following the presidential election closely then chances are you’ve already seen or heard about the Obama-McCain Saddleback Civil Forum. If you still haven’t seen the program then I highly recommend that you watch it in its entirety, here.

CNN has been milking the program via re-runs. In fact, I am watching a re-run of the forum as I write this. It gets me into my political groove. I’ve already watched and read analysis after analysis by now. But I still feel like sharing my perspective, as well as my own bias on these issues.

At first I was skeptical about it when I saw Rick Warren promoting the faith forum on CNN. My initial thought was: “Great, another debate on religion where the candidates would pander to the lowest common denominator of evangelicals.” But the idea sounded interesting. I want to see the candidates speak about  what they believe in, even if they could just be pandering, or worse: lying to their teeth. So I anticipated the forum and watched it yesterday, live. I even tweeted as I watch the program. That’s how (politically) geeky I’ve become, lately.

When I watched the program, the first thing that caught my attention was Rick Warren’s excellent introduction. It was succinct and immediately set the tone of the forum. Warren reminded the audience that the forum was not a debate. It was a conversation. He also acknowledged the separation of church and state and explained that the forum is not about religion but the inseparable nature of faith and politics. I agree with Warren. We can separate the religion from the politician, but it’s his faith and moral values that influence his decisions.

Obama won the coin toss so he went first. Obama did a great job in answering the questions, especially the divisive topics such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and the nature of evil. His style was conversational. Most of the time, his attention was on Warren rather than the audience. It was like watching two good friends engaging in a philosophical discussion.

When asked about his greatest moral failure, Obama’s answer involved the “stages” of his life–his drug use, his narcissism while growing up. When asked about America’s greatest moral failure, he focused on a central Christian tenet “what you do to the least of your brethren, you do unto me” and brought up the issue of poverty. (I wish he brought up the issue of health care too.)

When asked about his beliefs about “at what point that a baby gets human rights,” Obama did not answer the question directly, saying that it’s “above my pay grade” to answer it. Some people might interpret this as scapegoating. But I think it was a very thoughtful and humble answer.

Obama was very shrewd in answering the abortion issue. He managed to shift the conversation to a higher level perspective. Instead of arguing over the conception issue, Obama brought in the rights of women, and asked the more important question: How do we reduce the number of abortions? It was a key topic in the discussion because whether abortion is legal or not, the fact is, determined women will get an abortion one way or the other. It’s not a black and white issue where there is a clear dividing line. Obama acknowledged the moral difficulty of addressing the abortion issue while explaining that pro-choice doesn’t mean pro-abortion.

When asked about his definition of marriage, Obama’s definition is “a union between a man and a woman,” but he’s not in favor of amending the constitution to uphold this view. Obama is not in favor of same-sex marriage either but he supports civil unions. Fair enough. I’ll leave it to the LGBT community to react to this.

I consider myself as a cultural Christian but I don’t share Obama’s theological views (e.g. his views on salvation). However, his nuanced perspective on the nature of evil appealed to me. This shows Obama’s character and moral inclinations. He is not quick to judge or and act with anger, but is prepared to uphold his faith and ideals whenever the situation calls for it.

There are other interesting questions and issues discussed in the forum, but the issues I mentioned above are, to me, the ones that highlighted the faith and moral values of each candidate. I will now express my reaction to McCain’s responses to the same questions.

Overall, for a man who is not comfortable discussing his faith in public, I think McCain did surprisingly well. There was a low expectation of him going into this forum, but McCain had a grand time answering the questions. He was quick, opinionated, and had more anecdotes to support his answers. McCain’s experience and life stories (e.g. his capture in Vietnam) connected more with the audience than Obama’s philosophical and intellectual musings.

McCain’s style was in sharp contrast with Obama. During the forum McCain had his attention more on the audience than having a one on one conversation with Warren. It felt like McCain was still on his town hall mode of conversation.

When asked about his greatest moral failure, McCain mentioned the failure of his first marriage without expounding any further. When asked about America’s greatest moral failure, McCain suggested that America had been too focused on its self-interests. Essentially, McCain’s answer is similar to Obama’s. But McCain’s focus is on doing more outside of America (e.g. volunteerism, Rwanda, etc.) as opposed to addressing domestic issues (e.g. underprivileged in the U.S.).

When asked about his beliefs about “at what point is a baby entitled to human rights”, McCain was quick on the draw: “at the moment of conception” (with loud applause from the audience, no surprise there). McCain went on to proclaim his pro-life stance, and promised the audience a pro-life presidency. McCain scored a big one with the evangelicals who shared this belief.

When asked about his definition of marriage, McCain’s view is similar to Obama’s: “a union between a man and a woman.” However, McCain would favor amending the constitution, should a “federal court decide that the state of Arizona observe what the state of Massachusetts had decided.” I wonder how the LGBT would receive this.

But to me, the most crucial question in the forum is when McCain was asked about the evil and how to handle it. His answer was quick: “Defeat it.” McCain’s worldview appears to be colored in black and white. His warrior mentality was fully exposed (nothing surprising here when you’ve been following the McCain campaign). McCain’s knee-jerk answer leaves no room for self-reflection. He is quick to judge the evil in others, yet failed to address the “evil” perpetrated by the Bush administration in the Iraq war. Another example: there is a moment in the interview when McCain mentioned that “communism is wrong and evil.” Uhm, ok. Tell that to our big lenders, like China.

[An aside: For those who are familiar with the colors of thinking in Spiral Dynamics, McCain’s responses appear to be coming from blue-ORANGE, while Obama appears to be orange-GREEN.]

And therein lies my reasoning why I favor Obama over McCain. Even without taking the details of their policies into consideration, my values and worldview resonate more with Obama than with McCain. I find McCain’s values to be not only outdated but also unsuited for diplomatic relations in a globalized world.

Rick Warren summarized my observation in one sentence: “I see Barack Obama as kind of the thoughtful consensus builder. I see John McCain as the happy, straightforward warrior, and they both answered exactly according to casting.” Exactly.

After what the U.S. had been through in the past eight years, I prefer a leader who is a “thoughtful consensus builder.” A “straightforward warrior” would be ideal in times of war and discord, but in a globalized post-American world, a superpower with warrior-like mentality would do more harm than good. As a case in point, we only need to look at the GW Bush administration and the current geopolitical and domestic state of our nation.

It’s not surprising that McCain’s positions are more in line with evangelical Christians. That’s why I think McCain had the overall edge in this forum. Obama’s moral views are more nuanced. McCain’s moral views appeal more to people’s conservative faith and emotions.

But the real winners in this civil forum are Pastor Rick Warren and Saddleback church. I’ve got to hand it to Warren. He delivered beyond my expectation on the kind of questions he asked. The questions were as intelligent as they were challenging, unlike the typical questions I’ve seen in the televised primary debates (such as stupid lapel pins). The fact that Obama and McCain answered the same questions made it more interesting (even if there were Saddlegate allegations). Warren set a good precedent here on how political conversations should be done on mainstream media. But they shouldn’t have charged $500 for the event. Didn’t the CNN coverage generated enough advertising to offset the production cost?

All in all, the civil forum on faith was an excellent idea. It was superbly produced and delivered. However, I can’t help but be saddened by the fact that the religious and faith-based community have more political influence than the scientific community here in the U.S. As of this time, the presidential debate on science is still a pipe dream.

Comments (12)

  1. Bob D. wrote::


    I appreciate your in-depth and thoughtful post. I happened to watch the Obama portion the other day and had quite a different reaction. It really creeped me out to hear Obama say “I believe Jesus died for my sins” and all that. Undoubtedly my reaction can be partly explained by the fact that I’m not a Christian. But it’s more than that. I literally felt sick during that exchange, because I knew he couldn’t answer any other way and still hope to be president. My intuition is incredibly biased, but I don’t think Obama is being truthful about his heart-felt beliefs. His response to Warren doesn’t fit with the rest of his vibe.

    Statistically, it’s just impossible that there aren’t more atheist/agnostic or even integral types in positions of power, especially on the left. If Obama really is a devout Christian, then great. But if he just doesn’t have the guts to be honest about his real worldview, then I’ve lost all faith in him.

    Monday, August 18, 2008 at 1:56 pm #
  2. admin wrote::


    good point. that’s the part i mentioned that I don’t share Obama’s theological views. Obama didn’t have to pander like that. McCain didn’t mention God or Jesus during the forum.

    however, there are still nasty rumors and doubts about Obama’s religion (as being Muslim, not that there’s anything wrong with it, but it’s false.) i think that’s why Obama had to play that Jesus card. of course, it’s possible that Obama really believe that. in which case, it’s still possible to separate his religious views from his thoughtful leadership. JFK was able to do it. Blair did it. i guess it depends on how a leader does it. Bush’s example is a nightmare scenario.


    Monday, August 18, 2008 at 2:05 pm #
  3. admin wrote::

    btw, i make it a habit to check out FactCheck.org to see the skewed partial views of both candidates.

    see: http://www.factcheck.org/elections-2008/saddleback_bloopers.html

    “Obama makes misleading claims about ethics legislation and abortion at a church-sponsored forum. McCain exaggerates his tax-cut proposals.”

    Monday, August 18, 2008 at 2:42 pm #
  4. Cool analysis — and I agree with your take on things.

    My sense (in SDi terms) is that McCain is heavily BLUE with some orange in fiscal areas. But I also think he has a tendency to revert to authoritarianism as his fallback stance — a black and white, good or evil position. Scary!

    I don’t see that in Obama, who might be a bit yellow intellectually, but still stuck in GREEN socially — not so bad. But I think he understands the value of BLUE religion much more than many other liberals.

    At the meta level, I am afraid that Obama has that “intellectual” thing going on that dooms so many Democrats. McCain has cultivated his inner redneck to the point that he sometimes sounds like Bush.

    And those little stories he told were ALL about being folksy and down to earth, not one of them there “liberal elitists.”

    I don’t have your optimism. The American public continually proves to be dumber than I give them credit for.


    Monday, August 18, 2008 at 7:37 pm #
  5. Howard wrote::

    I thought the Saddleback debate was a wonderful way to gauge the two candidates and compare them to one another. I also think that Rick Warren did a great job, with balanced and probing questions … questions which any legitimate candidate for President of the United States should have already wrestled with on his own, way before arriving at this debate. Therefore, why did Obama respond to the questions as if it was the first time he has ever considered these points. John McCain’s immediate and decisive answers show that he had already given a great deal of thought to real concerns, as posed in these questions … where as Obama had to take the time to stutter and deliberate over the same questions asked of McCain. This was very revealing, and so were the Obama camp’s accusations of cheating, after Obama lost the debate … just another indication that Obama is a sore loser who is not qualified to lead this country … and, McCain is.

    Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 9:13 am #
  6. admin wrote::


    i’m still optimistic 😉

    serendipitously, i just received this message from Science Debate 2008 on my inbox. i’m crossing my fingers.

    It is a mistake for the campaigns to assume evangelical voters are not also intelligent, educated, and weighing the 14 science issues in their voting decisions. In fact, a whopping 85% of Americans polled would like to see the candidates attend a forum on the 14 questions.

    Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 12:52 pm #
  7. bmcknight62000@yahoo wrote::

    I could not disagree with you more on the question is there evil in the world today and what can be done about it? Tolerate it, defeat it or the other word escapes me now but it was not yo confront it like Obama said. I saw Obama as a stammering child who was clearly intimidated by being in the spot light. Back to the question about evil. Obama’s answer(and please go back and listen to it)is absurd and shows how much he really does not love America. It did not take him but one or two sentences to get himself back to America. That America is the evil one. He did not come out and say that. But its very clear if you listen to the man speak about evil. He cited Dufar as being evil and then came right back to America. Saying that evil should be “confronted with humility”. Are you kidding me? This is the man you want for your President. When there is evil done in this world such as the evil John McCain spoke of and when asked what is to be done with evil he said without hesitation “defeat it”. You dont negotiate with evil. When you see evil being done you act. I cant imagine living in the Obama home God forbid a burgalar decides to break in and has his family at knife point and screaming profanities and coming at his children to harm them. What is going to do? Oh sir were you a product of single parent household? Or did your dad beat you when you were a child? McCain’s answer to Warren was about the evil acts that took place when members of the Jihad strapped bombs to people who were handicapped and rolled them into a crowd of innocent people and blew them up. Now that’s evil. Obama does not love America and neither does his wife. Are people in America really this blind and dumb? Just because the man is a great motivational speaker and that is it. That they dont look at his record. Or lack there of. Or the little things he says here there that make me cringe to think that this man a man when asked about evil in the world starts with America? If he wants to talk about evil in America and there is. Try talking about the 40 million babies that have been murdered at our hands. Lets put a stop to that. Obama is a racist and a bigot. His spiritual advisor as Obama has quoted was Jeremiah Wright for over 20years. I’m sorry if my spiritual advisor for over twenty years said that blacks our a plague that America doserved to be attacked on 911. I would have went to him personally and said my two cents and then denounced the church. This has been his spiritual advisor for over twenty years! The man obviously shares the same views as him. I know he has come out and denounced it now. But if he was not running for president I just cant help but believe he would still be apart of that congregation that preaches hate against America and hate against a race of people. That is who he is to the core. Read, search people do your homework.Look into these canditates. Don’t just listen to these news outlets and radio shows. I have not by any means been waving the McCain flag for the past couple of years. But from what I have learned about Obama and the stark differences that that the conversation at Saddleback showed…I am now.

    Friday, August 22, 2008 at 3:42 pm #
  8. Paul wrote::

    After reading the comments by B Mcknight, Howard and Bob D, only a heavy dose of reality could soothe my disbelief that these Republicans could be so factually ignorant. First of all this was a religious, evangelical forum rather than a civil forum as Rick Warren intimated. I mean evangelical in the modern American meaning of the term, not in the Biblical sense. I came to this conclusion because eradicating evil IS NOT a constitutional requirement for the President of the United States. Concomitantly, evil CANNOT be eliminated according to the teachings of Jesus, whom we Christians are supposed to be telling the world about (Evangelizing). He said in Mark 7:21-23, “…from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. ALL THESE evils come from inside and make a man unclean.” The only 2008 Presidential candidate who has committed the evils of sexual immorality and adultery is John McCain, by his own admission. Yet, you Republicans think that just because Iran and North Korea were listed by George W. Bush as evil empires, that Evangelicals should support anyone who speaks about destroying them. Take a lesson from the fall of the Soviet Union. Republicans claim that Reagan caused its collapse because of his tough stance and being in office when it happened. Well, with that logic, we should blame George W. Bush for the restoration of Russian power including its recent incursion into Georgian territory as well as the attacks on 9/11. You should be aware as a Christian that no world power would exist were it not God’s plan. Read about Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel chapter 4. Or look to the New Testament, which we true Evangelicals follow, to read Jesus’ response to Pilate in John 19:11, “you would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” The greatest evil, as maintained by Republicans and so-called Evangelicals is abortion. Do you believe that only Democrats and non-Christians get abortions? You guys need to check the statistics. Before the law was changed to legalize abortions, Democrats, Republicans, Christians and non-Christians got abortions based on their ability to pay. Those who couldn’t afford a “medical procedure” got “back-alley” abortions. If you want to claim the moral high-ground as it relates to the sanctity of life, then consider that the United States kill more people through capital punishment than any other industrialized nation in the world. Additionally, recent DNA testing has proved some of those individuals were innocent. Where is the moral outrage from religious groups like Focus on the Family, on this form of evil which also takes innocent life? Oh, I know where they are and why they are not teaching people like you about the love of Jesus Christ through His Gospel, they’re busy praying for it to rain on Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. By the way it was a perfect night weather-wise.
    Postscript: Are you familiar with Biblical teaching on God sending rain. Jesus said in Matthew 5:45 that our “Father in heaven causes His Sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” You decide for yourselves where you fall among these groups. May God bless you in your search for the truth!

    Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 7:40 pm #
  9. ELIASS wrote::

    Obama answered questions thoughtfully and wisely. I believe he is a sincere man and he will be president. What i like about Obama is that he speaks from the heart and seems to be in touch with the average people of the united states of america.
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    If you want to vote : http://www.iftheworldcouldvote.com

    Thursday, October 9, 2008 at 10:19 am #
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