Posted on Wednesday, August 20, 2008
“I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private
affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation [n] or imposed by the
nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.”
—John F. Kennedy, 1960 Any Democrat who imagines that Barack Obama’s got
the presidential election locked up needs to watch the so-called
Saddleback forum featuring him and John McCain online at cnn. com.
Broadcast live on Aug. 16, it was hosted by Rick Warren, the California
televangelist and author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” a spiritual
self-help manual for people who think God drives an SUV and a
Christian’s highest calling is monitoring others’ sexual behavior. The
calculatedly casual Warren—he preaches to congregations of upwards of
17,000 wearing blue jeans and an untucked, open-collared
shirt—definitely marks an evolutionary step up from the Virginia divines
Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell. During the two hours, there
were no melodramatic Armageddon predictions, no accusations that
Democrats are in league with Satan, nothing about flinging virgins into
volcanoes to appease a wrathful God.
OK, maybe even Falwell never said that. Warren’s more like a TV
game-show host, a description he embraces, than a fire-and-brimstone
shouter. He urges his followers not to hate people they disagree with.
Even so, it’s possible to feel disquiet about presidential candidates
submitting themselves to spiritual inquisition by any preacher. Will
they next undergo questioning by a Catholic cardinal? A rabbi? Orthodox
or Reformed? A Muslim imam? By Christopher Hitchens, bestselling scourge
of God? I know a female Methodist preacher I’d enjoy watching give
McCain the third degree.
Never mind the implied recognition of smiley-face evangelism as
America’s semi-official religion. What politician wouldn’t pander
shamelessly when asked to describe his personal relationship with Jesus
Christ on national TV?
For Obama, Job No. 1 was to associate himself with a reasonable suburban
deity instead of a ghetto shouter like Rev. Jeremiah Wright. That he
accomplished through a combination of unabashed piety (“ Jesus Christ
died for my sins”) and artful dodging. The question of when a “child”
acquires human rights, for example, Obama called “above my pay grade.”
(McCain barked out a quick “At the moment of conception.”)
Me, I quit taking Obama’s religious views seriously when he claimed to
have no idea that Wright said things like “God damn America.” However,
the candidate’s studious, professorial air definitely ameliorated any
tension that might have resulted from his stating unequivocally that “I
For any of Pastor Rick’s followers who might conceivably vote
Democratic, the message was clear: Obama’s no radical; he’s your
moderate Democratic neighbor. More broadly, anything making it harder to
depict Obama with cloven hoofs, horns and forked tail could help lower
turnout among ecclesiastical hotheads.
But there’s a risk to a Democratic nominee who responds like a Ph.D.
candidate to a question about the existence of evil. To wit, do we
“ignore, contain, negotiate with or defeat it?” Obama treated it as a
theological issue, even pointing out that some of history’s worst
catastrophes have come in the name of fighting evil.
It’s an answer that Illinois’ own Adlai Stevenson might have given. And
that’s the problem. McCain’s approach to evil? “Defeat it.” He’d follow
Osama bin Laden “to the gates of Hell,” the GOP candidate vowed. Did he
sound like Bruce Willis in a two-dimensional action/ adventure flick?
Exactly. Also, however, like Ronald Reagan, who McCain must have invoked
10 times. President Bush’s name hardly came up—father or son.
In a characteristically thoughtful Atlantic Monthly article about
presidential debates, James Fallows argues that “Mc-Cain is not a good
debater, not even by comparison with George W. Bush.... Worse, he will
look and sound old and weak next to Obama.”
Well, he didn’t at the Saddleback forum. Directly following Obama,
McCain came across as brisk, confident, charmingly self-deprecating, a
man’s man in the old-fashioned sense and—forgive me—a leader. Like it or
not, as the brilliant blogger Digby has pointed out, “McCain is the man
George W. Bush was pretending to be, right down to the flight suit. The
Real Thing is actually far more dangerous than the cheap imitation.”
Asked about his own relationship with Christ, McCain delivered an
oft-told tale about a Vietnamese prison camp guard drawing a cross in
the sand on Christmas Day during his five years as a prisoner of war.
Did it actually happen? McCain never mentioned it until 1999, after a
similar story emerged about the late Russian novelist, Aleksander
Solzhenitsyn. But here’s the deal: There’s no proving it didn’t or
denying McCain’s genuine appeal. Yes, he’s peddling economic snake oil
and a delusional world view more appropriate to a film script than the
visible world. To win in November, Obama’s going to have to take him
head-on. Democrats are kidding themselves if they think it’ll be easy.
—–––––•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and
recipient of the National Magazine Award.