Sunday morning at Saddleback Church

Most of Rick Warren's churchgoers still back McCain, but praised Obama's "values." The weekend's big winner was Warren.

Published August 18, 2008 10:23PM (EDT)

LAKE FOREST, Calif. -- Going to a Sunday morning service at Saddleback Church feels a little like going to an alternate Disneyland, where Mickey, Donald and their brethren are all a lot more purpose driven. You drive off an Orange County highway through suburban sprawl, turn left onto a campus big enough to have traffic lights on the premises, and follow the cars ahead of you into the right parking lot. Inoffensive background music burbles out from hidden speakers, and recycling bins are plentiful (though they advertise that cans collected will help fund Bible distribution, not "Little Mermaid" sequels). Kids are playing everywhere. A visitor gets greeted so often that the cheeriness starts to tip towards creepy.

Once you walk past the ample and well-marked bathrooms, refreshment stands and into the glass-fronted sanctuary topped with a massive metal cross, of course, you remember you're at a church, not a theme park. (Albeit a church that advertises, after the service, programs run by something called the "Sports and Adventure Ministry.") Still, the morning after Barack Obama and John McCain joined Saddleback's pastor, the Rev. Rick Warren, for their only joint appearance before the official debates this fall, it was easy to see why Warren is considered such a religious innovator (enough to merit the cover of Time magazine a couple weeks ago). In the same way as Obama claims to represent a new style of politics that doesn't get hung up on the ossified battles of the last generation, Warren's church is aiming for a new style of evangelical Christianity.

Warren didn't appear on stage Sunday morning until after the church's musical director, a short, bald man with rimless eyeglasses who bopped around like a Jazzercise instructor, led the choir and band through a few Christian lite rock numbers. (Think gospel, but with most of the soul the genre shares with R&B taken out and replaced by something more like a wedding band.) They had performed the night before, too, warming up the crowd before Obama and McCain with some pop covers and prompting one cable news campaign reporter to remark that one of the singers looked like "a shorter, less Jewish Debra Messing." The congregation in the main worship hall-- a small fraction of the 22,000 people who attend the various services Saddleback runs every week -- was still settling in, with the dress code trending toward shorts, flip-flops and golf shirts.

But once Warren walked in wearing jeans and an untucked striped shirt, even someone who knew nothing about him would have recognized that he wasn't trying to be the next Jerry Falwell. Though the sermon was titled, "Making Up Your Mind: Questions to Consider Before the Next Election," Warren barely got political -- and his spiritual guidance didn't push any social conservative buttons. "Here's what I want you to do, between now and election," he told the church. "Don't just look at issues, look at character. Issues are important, but you also have to look at character." He set a bar that certainly didn't seem like it aimed to disqualify either side -- pick a candidate who's got integrity, humility and generosity. Warren did say, though, he couldn't vote for an atheist. "An atheist says, 'I don't need God,'" Warren said. "They're saying, 'I'm totally self-sufficient in myself,' and nobody's self-sufficient enough to be president -- it's too big a job."

If Obama's going to have a chance with any evangelical voters (besides the growing number of self-described progressive evangelicals that the campaign can definitely count on), it could be with the kind of suburban, easygoing Christians in sunglasses and short-sleeves who turned out at Saddleback Sunday morning. "Rick Warren is at the forefront of a kind of younger generation of evangelical Protestant leaders who want to have a Christian public presence in the culture, but who are less tied to the Republican politics of their predecessors," said Andrew Walsh, the associate director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, in Hartford. "They're values-oriented guys, but less convinced that either their own principles or the best politics lies in a total commitment to the Republican Party."

Still, though the churchgoers were friendly, the closest I found to anyone who said they'd vote for Obama was a woman who didn't want to say who she supported - and whose husband, a chatty man wearing a tie with a Biblical verse on it, decided that was probably because she'd be offsetting his vote for McCain (which she didn't deny - or confirm). The church is in Orange County, still a pretty conservative place, and conversations with members this weekend left no doubt that McCain would win most of the congregants' votes. Warren's flock doesn't seem particularly preoccupied with abortion or gay marriage, unlike the far-right Baptist churches of the South and the Midwest. But they like McCain, mostly because of secular concerns like taxes.

"We are one of those people that make over $250,000 a year, and I don't agree that that makes us rich," said Melinda Sacks, who runs her husband's law office in San Clemente, referring to Obama's answer at the forum that put her in the "wealthy" category. "Even with that kind of income, we struggle to pay everything we have gotten ourselves into." Obama's answers at the forum proved he would "definitely" share the broad values of church members, said Dean Mercill, 66, a retired Los Angeles Times marketing employee. But Mercill still plans to vote for McCain. "I'm pretty much a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, and I was a Marine -- what he went through for five years, you gotta hand that to him." But he liked what he saw from Obama on Saturday night. He shook his head at the Internet-based attacks on the Democrat. "I mean, come on , whoever buys into that, they gotta have a screw loose." Paul Guns, 52, a fire captain from Mission Viejo, said he might vote for Obama – in a decade or so. "Just stay in the Senate, stay busy, learn more foreign policy and come back in ten years, Obama -- and I betcha I'd vote for you," said Guns. "He's as genuine as can be. It's just he's a green apple hanging on the tree, and McCain is a ripe, red apple ready to be picked. Obama just needs to ripen some more."

After the forum Saturday night, Gary Bauer -- who comes from the right- wing branch of Christianity that Warren is trying to escape a little bit, and who was spinning for McCain -- told me he didn't think Obama's ready expression of faith would sway many evangelical voters his way. "Barack Obama is going to get the same percentage of the religious vote that John Kerry and Al Gore got," he said. Obama's declaration of his Christian values wouldn't help. "That's Christian identity politics, and I'm sure it has some influence, but I don't think at the end of the day it's the deciding factor," Bauer said. "Jimmy Carter could have come in here and sounded much more comfortable with his faith, but people -- having seen a Jimmy Carter presidency -- would not vote for him just because they're likely to see him in heaven."

There's only one thing Warren was unrelenting about as he instructed his flock about the election: go vote. " Study all the different candidates at every different level, you need to register to vote, and then you need to vote," he preached. "When I hear people say, 'I don't like either of the candidates, I'm just not going to vote,' I want to say to them, 'Well then, you need to move to another country, because people died for that vote.'"

Warren might not endorse Obama, even if IRS regulations allowed it. even if IRS regulations allowed it. The audience Saturday night -- and Sunday morning -- was certainly conservative, even in the press filing center, where, surprisingly, some reporters stood and sang along when the national anthem was played before the forum. But Warren seemed proud to have opened up a space where a Republican and a Democrat could discuss moral issues and get a respectful hearing. And his followers were pretty sure only Warren could have pulled it off. Forget Obama, forget McCain -- the real winner from the weekend won't be on the ballot at all in November. But if he has his way, he'll see you in church soon.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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