On Saturday night, presidential hopefuls Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama shook hands and embraced at the Saddleback Civil Forum, marking the first time the two had shared a stage since the end of the primary season.
Megachurch pastor and host Rick Warren fielded the same questions to each candidate in an interview format, allowing candidates to dialogue with Warren instead of debate each other. Obama appeared first, while McCain stayed in a sound-proof room to avoid hearing questions, according to the Washington Times.
Warren’s directed his questions towards personal as well as policy issues, such as when he asked each candidate to name their own greatest moral failing as well as America’s.
McCain answered with a to-the-point directness that characterized his responses, saying only, “The failure of my first marriage.” About America, McCain said that citizens should work harder throughout the world to serve causes “greater than our self-interest.” He continued that America should have encouraged people to join the military or organizations such as the Peace Corps after 9/11, instead of focusing on economic growth.
Obama’s answers to the question was more lengthy, as he told about his experimentation with drugs and alcohol as a teen and his own selfishness. “This country, as wealthy and powerful as we are, still don’t spend enough time thinking about ‘the least of these,’” he said about America, citing the book of Matthew.
McCain also talked about his faith more openly than he has previously, as CNN analysts noted. To be a Christian means that “I am saved and forgiven,” he said. He also shared a personal story about his time in a Vietnam prison camp, when a guard drew the sign of the cross in the dirt on Christmas Day. In that moment, "we were just two Christians worshipping together," McCain said.
Obama answered that his faith means that he is redeemed because “Jesus died for my sins.” He also explained how his faith informs policy decisions, such as looking out for “the least of these” and “loving mercy.”
The Hot-Topic: Abortion
For many evangelicals, the most important question in the forum came when Warren asked when a human life is entitled to human rights.
McCain quickly answered, “At the moment of conception,” drawing applause from the Saddleback audience. He went on to promise that he would be a “pro-life president with pro-life policies.”
A moment later, however, McCain came back to the issue via a question about embryonic stem cell research. He voiced hope that research with adult stem cells would soon make the debate on embryonic stem cells merely “an academic one.” In the meantime, he said he favors funding for embryonic stem cell research because of “other obligations” Christians have besides pro-life issues.
Obama said that answering the question of when life begins was “above his pay grade.” He reaffirmed his support for Roe v. Wade, but said he wanted to find ways to reduce abortions such as adoption. When pressed by Warren on his voting record, Obama again pointed to his desire to provide resources – healthcare and support – so women could make an informed decision.
Obama supported pursuing research on embryonic stem cells that would otherwise be discarded because of their potential, and echoed McCain’s hope to avoid the dilemma altogether via the use of adult stem cells. He elaborated that in “narrow circumstances” it was acceptable to pursue cures in this way, whereas embryo creation specifically for such a purpose was not.
The Hot-Topic: Marriage
Obama stood by his previous statements about gay marriage, while saying that he personally believes marriage is a sacred union between one man and one woman. He noted that the institution of marriage is strong enough to allow civil unions for others without jeopardizing it, and that the issue should be left to each state to decide.
McCain defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and also favored leaving the amendment issue with the states. He noted, however, that if a federal court ordered his state, Arizona, to honor gay marriage that are currently allowed in Massachusetts, then he would have to favor a federal marriage amendment.
Other questions covered a wide range of topics, ranging from the candidates’ values, vision and virtues as applied to many of the critical issues of interest to the faith community and general public, including a discussion on abortion, traditional marriage, stem cell research, education, religious persecution, world orphans, the theory of evil in the world, and their vision for the future of America – at home and abroad.
Warren concluded the evening by reminding the live, television, radio and Internet audiences that, “one of the greatest freedoms we have here in America is the freedom of speech -- even the freedom to protest this meeting. That’s a good thing, but we have to learn how to have civility in our civilization -- how to stop being rude; how to stop demonizing each other; and how to have a discussion and a debate -- because we all want America to be a greater place.”
Nearly 5,000 church members attended the two-hour event.