With Obama and McCain slated to appear together this Saturday at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, we asked TNR contributing editor Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, to weigh in on the significance of the event and Warren's broader role in evangelical politics:
This Saturday, August 16th, Barack Obama and John McCain will make a joint appearance at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Orange County, California. Religion can have that kind of impact. During the Democratic primaries, at that point where Obama and Hillary Clinton were barely on speaking terms, both appeared at Messiah College, an evangelical school in Pennsylvania.
Politically, the joint appearance is good news for both candidates--but better news for Obama. Politicians rarely lose votes by appearing in church. But since the Republicans have had something of a lock on the votes of white evangelicals, McCain's appearance at Saddleback is not big news. That Rick Warren has invited Obama, and for the second time no less, is. Warren is America's anti-Falwell. If he has little interest in removing evangelicals from politics, he has taken the lead in removing them from automatic identification with Republicans. Equal time in a megachurch is a decided advantage for any Democrat, especially one like Obama, who has been polling relatively well among religious voters. In fact, according to the Barna Group, which routinely surveys Christians, Obama leads McCain among every group except those who call themselves evangelical; even those who prefer the term "born-again" give the edge to Obama.
Regardless of which candidate benefits the most from this joint appearance, however, the biggest winner is Warren himself. A wildly successful author and church planter, Warren is leading an effort to focus the attention of Christian conservatives on questions of social justice. Most of his work in this regard has taken place in Africa, especially Rwanda, whose president, Paul Kagame, seems determined to build a purpose-driven nation in the aftermath of the genocide that once marked his country (and for which he may bear some responsibility). There is no doubt something of a missionary aspect to Warren's work in the region, but once California exurbanites see the devastating effects of AIDS and poverty, they are unlikely to ignore the same problems in West Central Los Angeles.
For those who believe that Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry--and its portrayal of evangelical preachers as hypocritical frauds--offers the last word on conservative Christianity, Rick Warren cannot possibly be a force for good. I have yet to let Jesus enter my life, but I admire Warren. We once appeared on a panel together along with Harvard's Peter Gomes at the Aspen Ideas Festival. When it came time for questions, a woman stood up, proclaimed her Judaism, and asked Warren if she was going to burn in hell. He paused before responding--and then answered her question the only way it could be answered. Yes, he said to audible gasps. My reaction was that either you believe that Jesus is the savior or you do not, and I found myself impressed that Warren remained true to his convictions, knowing full well that the audience would not like what he said.
The important question is not what Warren believes, but what he does. Of all the things he does, the most important is severing a link between conservative religion and conservative politics. Even as recently as the Jimmy Carter presidency, evangelicals put God before party. But starting with the Reagan years, they increasingly reversed their priorities. Jesus no longer saved; Ronald Reagan and George Bush did. Our sins were no longer a matter between us and our God, but involved us and our State. Transgression was criminalized. Courts and politicians judged us, not a Supreme Being.
All of this was an odd step for religious believers to take. If matters of the spirit are eternal and transcendent, why would you conflate your faith in Jesus with your allegiance to James Dobson? The Christian right was more right than Christian. Its poisonous influence on American politics is well-documented. But it also had negative consequences for American religion. Faith is, and ought to be, about more than your position on late-term abortions.
If Rick Warren is successful in linking both political parties with his church, he will pave the way to a situation in which churches will no longer be identified with any political party. Then and only then will evangelical Protestantism become the moral and spiritual force it ought to be, urging its members to manifest their compassion, reminding them of their inclination to sin, and helping them find ways to reconcile their conviction that their God is the one and true Lord with those who adhere to other faiths or none at all.
The joint appearance of McCain and Obama at Saddleback is only one event in a long political campaign. But it is also a significant antidote to the poison that the religious right injected into American politics. The United States is unlikely ever to be as secular as Western Europe. If a better balance between religion and politics is to come about, it will because of what religious leaders do, and not because of what non-believers such as myself want to happen.