As further proof of the growing clout of the values voters, presumptive presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama will make their first joint appearance in one of America's biggest megachurches, in a forum designed to elicit their thoughts not only on the issues but also on how their beliefs and values influence their decision making.
The organizer, host, and master of ceremonies of the August 16 event, the Rev. Rick Warren, is one of the nation's most prominent evangelical pastors. He is known as much for his bestselling books (The Purpose Driven Life) and global good works as for his dynamic leadership of the 22,000-member Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif.
Indeed, Warren's role in all of this may end up being as significant as what either candidate says.
Seen by some as the possible successor to Billy Graham as the nation's unofficial pastor in chief, Warren has done a masterful job of shaping an agenda that falls somewhere between the tightly focused causes of the old guard religious right and the broader-gauge concerns of many younger evangelicals. Unyielding on abortion and the sanctity of traditional marriage, he also calls for greater Christian concern with global poverty, HIV/AIDS, and climate change.
To engage with Warren, in other words, is to engage with a very powerful current within the larger values-voter stream.
And the format of Saddleback's "civil forum" is intended to produce just such an engagement. Instead of a debate, it will give each candidate a chance to talk for an hour with Warren on matters that he says are not usually emphasized in political coverage. Those are likely to include issues on the old and new evangelical agendas, but they will focus even more, Warren says, "on how they'd lead and make decisions."
Many observers say that this is a format in which both candidates could press their respective advantages and perhaps address some of their perceived weaknesses among values voters, particularly evangelicals and conservative Catholics.
McCain's identification with Republican positions opposing legalized abortion and same-sex marriage places him squarely in the camp of the older religious right. And most polls place him decisively ahead of Obama among evangelical voters. (A new Barna poll, however, shows Obama ahead in 18 of 19 different American faith segments except evangelicals, a group that Barna defines more narrowly than most other polls. And even within that segment, support for McCain has slipped.)
Yet there has been some hesitancy even among religious right leaders to embrace McCain, partly because of his uneasiness in talking about faith and partly because of his renegade reputation within the Republican Party. McCain has addressed the second concern by changing his positions on taxes and other matters; with regard to the first, he could use Saddleback to talk more openly and persuasively about the role of religion in his life and career. The crucial question, of course, is whether this will come across as real or contrived.
McCain faces an additional challenge. Recent polling by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that younger conservative Christians are, in fact, concerned with matters that go well beyond the hot-button preoccupations of the religious right.
They will want to know, for example, what McCain (and of course Obama) think about global warming in relation to religious notions of stewardship of the Earth. They are more curious to know what the candidates will do about the world's growing food crisis than about same-sex unions (though conservative Christians prefer that they not be called marriages, as, in fact, does Obama). They will be eager to hear what both candidates have to say about abortion, though in relation not only to Roe v. Wade but also to social policies addressing the poverty that often drives women to opt for abortion.
Abortion would seem to be the greatest obstacle to Obama in gaining headway among the values voters, despite his demonstrated ease in talking about role of faith in his life and political convictions. But Saddleback could give Obama the chance to elaborate on his long-held commitment to encouraging alternatives to abortion and indeed to seeing abortion as a moral issue.
While he is certain to stand by the Democratic platform on preserving legal and accessible abortions, he can now point to a newly proposed plank that outlines policy supports for women who decide to go to term. Already, Catholic and evangelical activists are praising that plank. "I think this is driving toward a more effective and practical way of addressing the root causes of abortion, not just Roe v. Wade," says Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United, a nonpartisan online advocacy group supporting social justice policies.
The Rev. Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland Church in Longwood, Fla., and a registered Republican, also praises the Democratic Party's new direction and adds that he would like to see McCain and the G.O.P. make a similar move beyond ideological stands against abortion toward practical measures that would help reduce the demand for it. "Let's go from the ideological to the practical," Hunter says. And it is very possible that McCain will use Saddleback to show that he and his party are hearing that message.
The topic of civility in politics is also likely to figure into an event that is formally billed as the "Saddleback Civil Forum on Leadership and Compassion." Here, Obama would seem to enjoy an advantage over McCain, whose campaign tactics of the last few weeks have veered toward negative character attacks, including the Paris Hilton celebrity comparisons.
For his part, McCain might take the occasion to argue that pointing out inexperience in an opponent, even through dramatic comparisons, is within the parameters of civil debate. But Obama is on at least as firm ground to argue that the metaphorical overkill in McCain's ads is precisely how civility is breached.
At the very least, it will make for an interesting question, possibly one of many in what could prove to be the most important nondebate of this presidential campaign.