In appearing at the recent faith forum at Saddleback Baptist Church, Sen. Obama was trying to do two things. It was a way of countering the persistent rumor that he's a Muslim, and he was continuing in his bid for the evangelical vote. John Kerry got 22% of the evangelical vote in 2004. Bill Clinton had gotten up to a third of it in the 90's, and Obama figures he ought to be able to do as well as Clinton.
I didn't watch the event, but the reviews are in. Obama took the format to be one of conversation with Rick Warren, the pastor of the church, while McCain took it as a campaign event and made his appeal directly to the audience. McCain gave canned, stump speech style answers to almost everything, but probably came out on top because the audience seemed more in sync with him, and because Warren seemed to tilt to McCain.
One person made this observation: McCain talked about God, Obama talked about Jesus. She was right, but misses the point. McCain correctly recognizes that the evangelical movement is really about cultural traditionalism and civic piety. In fact, the new evangelical movement began out of opposition to the social revolution of the 1960's. Before that, evangelicalism was a backwater. After the 60's, cultural traditionalists needed a place to rally and they found it in the evangelical church.
So McCain understands that, for his purposes, civic piety only requires reference to God, not Jesus. American civil religion has always been that way. We couldn't agree on theological details, but golly, we all believed in God. It's why "God and Country" sounds natural, but "Christ and Country" doesn't. Having given the expected "nod to God," McCain can then shift to the real interest of evangelicals, which is the promotion of cultural traditionalism.
The whole episode is regrettable. For one thing, who appointed Rick Warren to be the arbiter of what matters to Christians? Even among Christians, evangelicals are a minority. Who gave them the right to call the shots?
The press has glommed on to Rick Warren because he appears to be a new generation of evangelical leader. In other words, he's a nice person, and not a jerk like the old-timers. I grant that Rick Warren is a nice person and has done some good things. The problem is that he's still a conservative baptist who believes that if you aren't a baptist, you're going to hell.
When asked, at an Aspen Institute event, if Jews who didn't believe in Jesus were going to hell, Warren thought for a moment, and then said, "Yes." You can give him credit for not pandering to the audience, but it also shows that Warren's theology is thoroughly in keeping with the baptist position, which is precisely that, unless you confess Jesus, you're going to hell. (See Romans 9-11 for St. Paul's counter-argument which culminates in his flat statement, "all Israel will be saved.") Saddleback Church is really a baptist church, by the way. The word "baptist" was left out of the church name because they thought it might hurt their market share.
Warren is good on the environment, and good on AIDS work, but is a cultural traditionalist on gays and abortion. In fact, Warren equates an evangelical Christian voting for a pro-choice politician with a Jew voting for a holocaust denier. (Sigh.) Everybody plays the Hitler card sooner or later, I guess.
Martin Luther once said, "I'd rather be governed by a smart Turk than a dumb Christian." It is not the civil government's role to promote the faith. The civil government is to run civil society, which is made up of all citizens, not just Christians. The government's job is to run well what the government is supposed to run. A smart Turk is more likely to do that than a dumb Christian.
These "faith forums" make me nervous for just that reason. It's too much like the mullahs of the middle east who back candidates based on the strictist possible adherence to a theological position. That kind of thing almost always leads to disaster.
All this is why I'm leery of Democrats getting religion. Sure, we might be able to peel off 5-10% of the evangelical vote, but that can be done without trying to flaunt how religious we are. Clinton did it. How? By talking about jobs and education, which are important issues for evangelicals too. Besides, when we do it, we talk about "people of faith," which sounds amorphous--who isn't a "person of faith"?--so that the Republicans still wind up looking like the "most Christian."
Plus, I've never understood how Christians could support these displays of public piety in the first place. Didn't Jesus rap the pharisees for the public flaunting of their religion? They like to say "long prayers" in public, and be seen praying in the marketplaces and on street corners, he said. When you pray, he said in Matthew 6, go home, go into the closet, and pray in secret. It sounds weird to say it, but we Christians ought to pay attention to what Jesus said.