Avoiding Another Saddleback Ambush

Celebrity conservative evangelical megachurch pastor Rick Warren, whose book sales must be slumping or something, has announced he wants to hold another presidential candidate forum in August. As you may recall, Warren’s 2008 forum at his Saddleback Church was generally regarded as one of the high points of John McCain’s campaign.

At TNR, veteran politics-and-religion writer Amy Sullivan offers some skillful advice for how Barack Obama, should he choose to enter this particular lion’s den, might avoid another rout. Last time around, she notes, the Obama campaign carelessly set expectations too high, didn’t get control of half the seats (which mostly went to Saddleback’s predictably conservative members), and then got ambushed by Warren’s choice of questions, which, in violation of the two campaigns’ understanding, wound up skewing heavily towards social-conservative red meat topics.

Sullivan appropriately wonders about Team Obama’s blind spot concerning Warren:

In the months following the forum, Obama aides didn’t bother to learn much more about Warren. That became clear when the pastor was invited to give a prayer at Obama’s Inauguration, and political liberals reacted with outrage, citing Warren’s endorsement of the anti-gay marriage Prop 8 in California, his controversial comments about homosexuality following the election, and a Fox News appearance in which he agreed that the President of Iran should be assassinated.

Look, there’s nothing wrong, in my opinion, with the president addressing a religious audience now and then. He’s actually, without getting much credit for it, a reasonably deep religious thinker himself. But he’s really wasting his time trying to establish religious common ground with conservative evangelicals, who generally regard Obama’s “doubt is essential to faith” rap as the rankest sort of heresy, and have been taught for years now that liberals are waging “a war on religion.”

So I’ve got a better idea than another Saddleback venture: why not set up a forum at a mainline Protestant Church? As an LDS member, Romney’s not in a very good position to turn down any invitation to appear at any conventional Christian gathering (What’s he going to say? A Methodist or Presbyterian or Episcopalian venue isn’t “orthodox” enough?) and Obama could remind people that he’s neither a Muslim or a “secular socialist” without validating the likes of Warren or reinforcing the secular media’s ignorant belief that the only “real Christians” in America are fundamentalists or right-wing Catholics.

Besides, us mainliners could use a morale boost, after being mocked by the evangelicals (not to mention conservative Catholics like Ross Douthat) for years as stone losers in the competition for dollars and souls. It is routinely forgotten that most American presidents from both parties (the only recent exceptions being, ironically, the Democrat Socialists Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter) were members of mainline Protestant denominations. It’s about time we stopped being treated like lepers.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.