Spinning the Faith Forum

Because I recently wrote on RD about blindspots in media treatment of moderate evangelicals such as Rick Warren, I was naturally interested in the spin on his “Saddleback Forum” interview with Barack Obama and John McCain.

I first learned about the forum via post-mortems on the liberal web magazine, Salon. Many of Salon’s writers, as well as people on the message boards, sharply criticized Warren. They were outraged that he apparently lied about whether McCain had access to some of the questions in advance, and they attacked him in predictable, somewhat stereotypical, ways for being an ego-driven grandstanding televangelist. They also loved to hate a Saddleback member who claimed not to be rich despite making $250,000 dollars a year. (Did this parishioner reveal fatal flaws in Obama’s outreach strategy to evangelicals, as many Salon people suggested, or does it suggest the value of reaching out to the huge majority of evangelicals who are poorer?)

I will leave analysis of the forum to others and concentrate on Salon’s most damning attack, which responded to a follow-up interview that Warren gave to Beliefnet. Salon’s editor, Joan Walsh, sees this interview conceding, after the fact, that the whole thing had been a set-up to ambush Obama. She writes: “Now Rick Warren tells Beliefnet that Obama is going to have to do more than ‘talk faith’ to win evangelical votes, and compares an evangelical Christian voting for a pro-choice politician to a Jew voting for a Holocaust denier.”

When I followed the link to Beliefnet (which, by the way, became part of the FOX news empire last year), I found something more ambiguous. Walsh was paraphrasing Warren’s response to a question from beliefnet about McCain, not Obama. “How much headway” had McCain made among hard-core Christian right-wingers (despite their suspicion that McCain is lukewarm on abortion) based on his pious pro-life rhetoric? I quote Warren’s response:

[Evangelicals are] not a monolith. That’s a big myth. They’re going to make up their minds based on the hierarchy of their values. For many evangelicals, of course, if they believe that life begins at conception, that’s a deal breaker…. They would call [abortion] a holocaust and for them it would be like if I’m Jewish and a Holocaust denier is running for office… it’s a deal breaker…. [But] It all depends on the hierarchy of their worldview…. My gut reaction when it was over was that Obama will pick up probably some younger votes and McCain will probably pick up some older votes.

In other words, it is not entirely clear whether Warren agrees with the position that Walsh notes, while he clearly sees many evangelicals in tension with it.

Still, does Walsh’s larger claim that Warren “sandbagged” Obama stand, given that Warren was lobbying both candidates to toughen their anti-abortion stances? This was a clear agenda of Warren’s Beliefnet interview, in which he complains about Republicans who have talked too much about criminalizing abortion without doing enough, and about Obama’s refusal to declare the moment of conception as the time when developing embryos gain full rights under the law.

Even on this issue — where Walsh’s spin appears in its best light — Warren broadens the discussion from abortion as a sole litmus test to one issue alongside others. He speaks about refusing to “ignore” the “three or four hot button issues” — one which is clearly abortion, but which seem to include poverty, HIV/AIDS, and environmental issues. He says that his forum aimed to overcome polarization and “stake out what I call a common ground for the common good.” This matches his description of Obama as a “friend” who is a “thoughtful consensus builder.”

Near the end of the interview, Warren hammers on the point that was getting lost at Salon. He champions evangelicals who say: “I happen to like some of the things from that platform and some from the other platform, and I like some about that candidate and some about that.” For Warren, “that’s healthy. We’re trying to create a new area of people who are not going to get polarized.” Even young evangelicals who are pro-life “don’t want to be part of the Religious Right, and they’re not going to automatically pull the Republican lever.”

Thus despite the real concerns about Warren’s recent interventions, the general point about his potential to move some center-right evangelicals a few degrees toward the left — even if this is merely from solid Republican to undecided — still stands after his forum. Meanwhile, Salon’s response is a good example of secularized liberals shooting from the hip with oversimplified dismissals of evangelicals — the sort of thing that Amy Sullivan diagnosed as a serious moral and tactical failing in The Party Faithful. Since my last RD commentary pointed to some of Sullivan’s limitations, here we should give her due credit.

Simply because I have written these comments, I do not wish to be read as a fellow traveler of Warren’s. Although he is left of the far right, he is far to the right of the standard-bearers of the religious left, and his interview lobbies the candidates about abortion in ways which, in my view, are not constructive for building common ground or for reducing the numbers of abortions — to say nothing of moving beyond the failures of the Bush administration. Moreover, many evangelicals who listen to Warren will surely pull the Republican lever — and insofar as this stems from basic disagreements (including whether someone making $250,000 a year is too “poor” to pay more taxes) I urge the Democrats not to pander to them. It is crucial to disentangle the promising strategy of reaching out to evangelicals from the dubious strategy of centrist Democrats making “triangulated” compromises on issues of economic justice.

Still, it remains true that many evangelicals are likely to switch their loyalties to the Democrats — and the exact numbers will depend partly on whether they perceive that mainstream liberals are treating them with nuance and respect, as opposed to stereotypes and contempt.