Fox News is reporting that Evangelical Pastor Rick Warren is planning a reprise of his 2008 Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency. I would urge those in both the Obama and Romney camps to skip this event. I truly hope that a 2012 get-together does not come to pass.
I say this not only because the idea of a sectarian cleric religious-testing American presidential candidates is deeply problematic on Church/State grounds. (Will rabbis, Roman Catholic priests, imams and atheist chaplains be granted the same access and interviewing privileges?)
I would also avoid the shindig because the previous forum that Warren hosted was a disaster by standards of fair journalistic practice.
Let me take you back four years to Saturday August 16th, 2008. Pastor Warren opened his event with words that have intrigued me ever since:
We believe in the separation of church and state, but we do not believe in the separation of faith and politics, because faith is just a world view, and everybody has some kind of world view. It’s important to know what they are. (for a full transcript of the event click here)
You can read How to Be Secular for a lengthy critique of these sentiments. For now I want to note that the evening turned out to be a rout for Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain (but keep reading).
Obama came out inexplicably flat and stiff–a performance I described in an interview as “Dukakis-y.” In the process, he gave a thoughtless answer to a preposterously poorly phrased question about abortion. Warren queried “at what point does a baby get rights in your view“? (!) One could just see all the gears in the mind of the former professor of Constitutional Law grinding, jamming, and gumming up.
The Junior Senator from Illinois coughed out this response: ”Well, you know, I think that whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.” Journalists who were in attendance have told me that one could feel the air sucked out of the room/church after that reply.
Yet it wasn’t only the theologically slanted questions (and audience) that made this such a troubling event. There was also, apparently, a fairness mistake of epic proportions made by Warren and his team–a mistake that granted McCain a huge and unfair competitive advantage.
Right after the interview, and right before McCain was set to take the stage, CBN’s David Brody snagged an interview with Obama. It was the first time I ever saw Obama visibly flustered (the next time was his infamous “left at the altar” meditation after last summer’s budget showdown) . This might have been because his performance was abysmal. Though it might have been because of a storyline we would learn about shortly.
In any case, McCain took the stage and killed. He was funny, charming, and exuding that old Maverick ‘tude. One understood why the D.C. press corps always loved covering the guy. I proclaimed it a hands-down victory for the senator from Arizona. Man, was he good!
The next day, however, we learned why he may have been so good. Whereas Warren assured his viewers that McCain was holed up in a “cone of silence” while Obama was being questioned, the New York Times and others challenged that assertion.
The Maverick (pace Warren) was apparently not in a cone of silence. Rather, he was in a motorcade–and thus potentially “getting smart” as he had access to Blackberries, radio and broadcast feeds. In other words, as his rival was being subject to more or less the identical questions that he was about to be asked McCain and his team may have been listening in. Could that have accounted for his command performance? (The McCain campaign vigorously denied the accusation).
In my own column on the matter the next day I noted:
This is no small matter. In fact, it’s a huge matter, if only because we: 1) were assured by the Pastor that he [McCain] was not able to hear the questions asked of Obama, 2) were led to believe by McCain that he was in the “cone of silence” as well, and 3) watched McCain blow the doors off of every single question that was asked of him.
To this day, Warren has not been forthright in explaining what was going on backstage or how this mistake occurred (I am still trying to track down Warren’s interview with CNN’s Rick Sanchez where Warren acknowledges that McCain was not where he [Warren] said he was during the questioning of Obama. Transcript here). Nor has he apologized to the American people for the error.
A sectarian pastor, in my opinion, should not have been posing questions with such an obvious theological/political bias–especially at the first joint appearance of two individuals vying to be president of the United States.
Warren should not have misled his audience about the whereabouts of McCain, both during and after the event. He should not have been placed in a position to lend such a considerable advantage, however inadvertently, to one candidate.
And he should not, under any circumstances, be permitted to repeat this charade in 2012.
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