Are we now officially a Christian nation?

I admire Obama's courage in going to the Saddleback Church forum, but I regret he did it. I hope he doesn't come to feel the same way.

Published August 18, 2008 3:15AM (EDT)

I marvel at Barack Obama's courage going into the lion's den of evangelical Saddleback Church, where the membership skews Republican. I truly believe his kind of leadership will be crucial in moving the country forward after the polarizing Bush administration. McCain occasionally does semi-courageous political jaunts -- he went on an American poverty tour this spring, but when nobody was looking, at the height of the Obama-Clinton race, and (more to his credit) he visited the NAACP last month.

But Obama's move was much bolder: Nationally televised, prime time (OK, on a Saturday), and set up as the town hall he won't have with McCain. I think he did reasonably well, though not overwhelmingly so. I loved his saying he wouldn't have appointed Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court, and his firm support of choice and gay civil unions. He seemed very comfortable talking about his Christian faith.

On the other hand, that bothered me a little bit too. I'm not sure why Obama voluntarily sat down for a nationally televised conversation about his private religious faith with a relatively conservative Christian leader, as though that's a reasonable station of the cross, so to speak, for a major American presidential candidate. There's no doubt Rick Warren's congregation has done good things on social justice issues, especially AIDS, but Warren has made no secret of his extreme views on abortion and gay rights (as well as his support for the Iraq war). Obama visiting the church, speaking there? Smart politics. Attending a nationally televised forum, almost as big deal as a debate, at such a church? I think that was wrong.

And while "Pastor Rick" went out of his way to say Obama and McCain were his personal friends, I personally perceived Warren as mildly pro-McCain. I thought Warren hurried Obama through his answers. Maybe not intentionally. He sat there and went "um-hm" and "hmmm" and "OK" and "yeah" literally every few seconds throughout a lot of Obama's early answers -- maybe trying to be fair, to show empathy; maybe because he himself wasn't quite comfortable. Either way, it had the effect of feeling as if he was rushing Obama. Warren was much more deferential to McCain -- and ironically, McCain punched through his answers more quickly, got deeper into Warren's list of questions, and seemed overall more in control.

I was impressed by McCain; he was much more at ease in this setting than I expected. I thought he used this opportunity, before a group that, let's remember, doesn't love him either, to hammer home his worldview and the specific policies he knows he and Saddleback members have in common -- from the Supreme Court justices he wouldn't reappoint to arguing his crazy hawkish view on the Russia-Georgia conflict (because Georgia was "one of the earliest Christian nations"). My reaction to that creepy pandering was, simply, oy. But the crowd loved it. He played his prisoner of war role to great advantage as well.

While I appreciated Obama declaring himself pro-choice before this crowd, I thought by far his worst answer was on the question of when life begins, when he replied: "Answering that question is above my pay grade." That quip could haunt him; nothing is above the president's pay grade. I think it reflected his discomfort with the question, but he had to expect it, given the setting. McCain's worst answer was his first, when asked to name three people he admires and would seek for counsel. He listed Gen. David Petraeus and then went for bipartisan points with civil rights hero John Lewis -- but descended into pandering by including eBay's Meg Whitman. Still looking for Hillary Clinton's disgruntled female supporters? I pray they see through that.

Still, I'd call McCain the winner tonight. He used the forum to punch home his message, while Obama delivered a soft getting-to-know-you pitch. I'm sure he did himself a little bit of a favor just by going. We'll see. The Jesus I believe in wishes he hadn't felt he had to, but maybe that's just me.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2008 Elections Barack Obama John Mccain