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.

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