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In Defense Of Rick Warren

TNR contributing editor Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, gives his take on Obama and McCain's appearance at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church yesterday:

If you watched the Best Political Team on Television discuss the joint appearance of Senators Obama and McCain Saturday night at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, you heard a lot of chatter about which candidate performed better. In their usual manner, however, the mainstream media--or, as leftwing bloggers calls it, the Village--missed the point. The real debate was not between the candidates but between Rick Warren and the Best Political Team on Television.

Warren won, and in a landslide. His questions were at times inane, but nowhere near as inane as the campaign has been. Paris Hilton and Britney Spears made no appearance. Barack Obama was not asked to defend himself against the idea that he is a rootless celebrity. Speaking to one preacher, he was never asked to comment on his former preacher. This was politics before Karl Rove. The only question is whether it will also be politics after Karl Rove.

John McCain was given fair and balanced treatment as well. If he wanted to emphasize foreign policy, Warren let him do so. If he was more comfortable repeating stories he has told many times before, that was OK with the pastor. My guess--and it is only a guess--is that Rick Warren does not know much about policies in which he is not all that interested. But neither does McCain. Like Obama, he was allowed to project the kind of person he is.

All this was contrary, not to the media narrative of the campaign, but to the media's narrative of itself. We ask tough questions, television journalists convince themselves, and our job--remember Tim Russert--is to contrast what candidates say with what they said. But there is not, and never has been, anything tough about it. Candidates learn how to get their talking points across, no matter what the question. By the time the debates roll around, everything has been said, which means that everything is repeated.

I saw two men, not two candidates, speaking with Rick Warren. One was conversational, intelligent, and responsive. He seemed to listen to the questions, to think about them, and to answer them. I liked his performance, but, then again, I am a liberal and a Democrat. What was most interesting to me, though, was that Obama never pretended to be anything other than what he is. If you want a president who knows the details of policy on the one hand and thinks the world is complicated on the other, you would vote for this guy.

McCain also took the opportunity Warren offered to be himself. He was witty, energetic, and quick. He was far too quick for my tastes--I would not be happy with a president so convinced that his job was to rid the world of evil--but I was left in no doubt about how he views the world. Over the course of his career, there have been many John McCains: the conservative, the maverick, the conservative redux. But only one John McCain is about to receive the Republican Party's nomination for president in 2008, and that one got to show his stuff.

If Rick Warren's job was to elevate the tone of the campaign, he succeeded. Any person who had not been paying too much attention to the ads and the spin was offered a real choice about the nature of leadership. Is this the right moment for a leader who will try to elevate us by speaking to our ideals? Or is elevation really another term for elitism, the times demanding someone who will respond to our fears? We have had choices such as this in the past, but we were not all that aware of what we were choosing: In the fateful 2000 campaign, for example, such a choice was there, but the mainstream media scoffed at Al Gore's thoughtful side and accepted George Bush's word that our foreign policy was humble.

Whoever wins the 2008 presidential election, it will not be like that one in 2000. This time, we will not be able to pretend afterwards that we did not know what the stakes were. For that we have Rick Warren, and not CNN or Fox, to thank.

--Alan Wolfe

Click here for Noam Scheiber's case that Obama emerged the victor from the event. Click here for Wolfe's take on the broader significance of Obama and MccCain's appearance at Saddleback Church and Warren's potentially positive influence on religion and politics.