The 'Purpose Driven' candidate

A week ago, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama appeared back to back at a forum hosted by Evangelical pastor Rick Warren, the founder of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA. Each presidential candidate was asked identical questions by Warren, most dealing with matters of faith.

Though the answers of the two candidates were clearly of interest to the audience, there was an overriding question that came to mind during the two hour Q-and-A: Of what relevance is it for Americans to know the religious beliefs of our presidential candidates? We are a nation that is constitutionally bound to respect the separation of church and state and whether either candidate is a card-carrying Christian or not should have no bearing on his (or her) fitness to be president. Of course, it does and has become an unspoken, though overt litmus test.

Over the last several decades, a rising tide of politically active evangelicals have presented themselves as a significant voting block and so have inserted themselves into the political process. Warren, for example, represents a church of 22,000 and has become nationally known for authoring "The Purpose Driven Life." He clearly has a following that extends beyond Saddleback's membership and his theology resonates with many Americans. These conservative evangelical pastors &

Pat Robertson, John Hagee and Gary Bauer among others &

have become political power brokers and the Republicans have, during the last two national election cycles, successfully sought their support. McCain did likewise last February when he went to visit John Hagee, evangelical pastor of the 17,000 member Cornerstone Church, seeking his endorsement for his candidacy (later he looked more closely at Hagee's views and returned the endorsement). The Democrats are only beginning to sell their bona fides to the evangelical community having decided every religious vote counts.

So there McCain and Obama were at the Saddleback Church, fielding theological interrogatories from Warren while offering up their Christian credentials. One of Warren's questions was about evil in the world. "Does evil exist? Do we negotiate with it? Ignore it? Contain it? Or defeat it?"

McCain looked out at the audience and answered, definitively, "Defeat it." The audience applauded. Obama, on the other hand, gave a more nuanced and complex answer suggesting that we must be humble when discussing evil, meaning we can look into the abyss but then the abyss can also look into us, as it did at Abu Ghraib prison, Guantanamo, and any other site where we tortured prisoners. It was a Nietzchean response and perhaps not the most politic. The audience did not applaud.

Warren then asked each candidate: "When is a fetus given the rights of a human being?"

For pro-life McCain this was a softball and he looked out at the audience and said, "At conception." Again he received loud applause. For someone who is pro-choice, however, this question does not lend itself to a two-word answer. The conundrum surrounding abortion &

when is life life and when is it not? &

reveals a moral, philosophical and theological choice which is profoundly complex.

Obama's deliberative response suggested that the ultimate answer was "above his pay grade." Not the most artful rejoinder, but honest. If you are pro-choice what is there to say other than the ultimate answer must reside with the woman and not the government? The audience did not applaud.

Something else came out of this forum which is disturbing. Throughout the primaries, and now in the general campaign, it seems more and more evident that the electorate is suspicious of complexity and views Obama's unwillingness to give simplistic answers to complex questions as weakness. His thoughtfulness is said (by Republicans and pundits) to be professorial, elitist and even arrogant. Actually a page taken from the Clinton primary playbook and delivered en toto to Team McCain.

The answer to high gas prices is not offshore drilling. Pure fantasy. The answer to the war on terrorism is not found in Iraq. And leaving is not surrender. We can't defeat evil; it will ever be with us. Mysterium iniquitatus. The mystery of iniquity. When confronted with evil we should respond &

and Darfur today is our "never again." We can't react to every crisis with our military, no matter the bellicose, saber-rattling rhetoric of Bush-McCain. Witness Georgia. It's complicated. It requires an appreciation for subtly and nuance and negotiation, otherwise called diplomacy. Diplomacy is not appeasement. But if all you've got is a hammer (one word), then every situation looks like a nail.

Thus far it seems the electorate and the media prefer two words (a.k.a. sound bites) rather than many, hence we may once again elect a man who is anti-intellectual and detached.

Can this truly be a possibility? Indeed.

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