I'm not Rick Warren's biggest fan. Don't get me wrong; I admire his godly character and zeal to claim this world for Christ. But I could live without the hokey acronyms and, especially, his "felt needs" approach to evangelism.
That said, I was impressed with Warren's hosting skills at the Saddleback Civil Forum on Saturday night. Warren is the only Christian leader in America who could pull off this event. Sen. Barack Obama wants to peel away more of the evangelical vote, and he trusts Warren not to play gotcha with him on the issues where he disagrees with evangelicals. Sen. John McCain needs to bolster his credibility with evangelicals, and he knows Warren harbors no long-standing vendetta against him for sometimes bucking conservative political orthodoxy.
Moreover, Warren gave conservatives what they wanted out of the event. He coaxed both candidates into sharing how they would compose the Supreme Court. He asked questions about personal morality, and both candidates shared their views on same-sex marriage and abortion. Obama certainly didn't impress by dodging Warren's question about when life begins. Granted, we can't expect our presidents to be experts on science or theology. But in formulating their policy positions on such a crucial issue as abortion, politicians necessarily draw on theology and science. They can't pretend to avoid the problem.
At the same time that he addressed standard conservative issues, Warren broached other topics important to evangelicals and nonbelievers alike. He asked about education, taxes, foreign military interventions, and so on. Rarely did the candidates break new ground. And yet this event somehow did.
For example, Warren introduced the forum saying, "We've got to learn to disagree without demonizing each other, and we need to restore civility?in our civil discourse, and that's the goal of the Saddleback Civil Forum." With this standard as his goal, Warren succeeded magnificently. The candidates' personalities emerged clearly as they responded specifically to an impressive array of questions. Anyone who watched the event got a real sense for the candidates' comparative strengths and weaknesses. Though Warren's event lacked the side-to-side comparison of presidential debates, it also avoided the stage theatrics that sidetrack them.
Let's give the pastor credit. Journalists are trained to distrust their interview subjects and try to outwit them into revealing something they didn't want to share. Pastors likewise harbor no illusions about human nature. But they also must navigate the choppy waters of church life where they try and convince clashing personalities to work together for the common good, a task they share with politicians. As a result, Warren shared evident rapport with the candidates, which put them at ease and made for a more substantial discourse. For so long, evangelicals have contributed to America's poisonous political climate. It's about time we became part of the solution.
Let me share one final concern, though. One of Rick Warren's heroes is Billy Graham - a great choice. I hope Warren's relationship with Graham and knowledge of his life will help Warren avoid the pitfalls of intervening in politics. Like Warren, Graham befriended the rich and powerful around the world. His two closest friends in the Oval Office were Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Only Graham could befriend two consecutive presidents who disagreed on so much. That's because Graham had his policy views, but he didn't let them get in the way of personal spiritual counsel.