Even a cable TV commentator could watch Saturday’s Saddleback Church Civil Forum and figure out why John McCain did so well. In a sanctuary filled with conservative evangelicals, McCain decided to preach to the choir while Barack Obama decided to talk to the pastor. Obama had a conversation; McCain’s goal was conversion. Fortunately for McCain, Karl Rove could not have designed a better set of questions for him.
In his opening remarks, Rev. Rick Warren, Saddleback’s pastor and forum moderator acknowledged that “faith is just a worldview and everybody has some kind of worldview and it’s important to know what they are.” Intentionally or not, understandably or not, Warren’s questions were grounded in the priorities and worldview of American cultural conservatives.
But as pastor of a church in a worldwide Christian community, Warren had an opportunity to go beyond conservative political talking points and ask questions grounded in the church’s alternative and countercultural worldview.
1. Warren asked: “Does evil exist, and if it does, do we ignore it, do we negotiate with it, do we contain it or do we defeat it.?”
This is a first-grade multiple-choice question. No candidate in his right (or left) mind would say anything other than “Yes, and we defeat it.” For the church, the question isn’t whether we confront or defeat evil but how.
A better question: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a Christian pastor, said ‘The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.’ Do you agree? As Christians, how should we confront violent evil such as terrorism?”
2. Warren asked: “The Civil Rights Act of ’64 says that faith-based organizations have the right to hire people that believe like they do. Would you insist that faith-based organizations forfeit that right to access federal funds?”
Like the abortion and gay marriage questions Warren asked, this is a litmus-test question for conservative evangelicals who want the right to hire people whose beliefs fit their missions and worldviews.
A better question: “As Christians, we are called to help orphans, widows, the sick, the poor and others in need. Should we ask or expect the government to pay us to do what God calls us to do?”
3. Warren asked: “America right now ranks 19th in high school graduation. We’re first in incarcertaions. Eighty percent of Americans recently polled said they believe in merit pay for teachers. . . Do you think better teachers should be paid better?”
Another no-brainer. Who believes better teachers should be paid less? Or less than other teachers? This was another litmus-test question that plays to the church-supported home-school and church-school crowd, and ignores the complex realities of inner-city public schools, the shortcomings of voucher plan and so on.
A better question: As Christians, we are called to help those in need and children in particular. How can we ensure that each and every child attends an excellent schools, regardless of their geographic location, test scores or family incomes?
A followup: As Christians, how can we create a redemptive rather than a punitive criminal justice system?
4. Warren asked: Define rich. I mean, give me a number. Is it $50,000, $100,000, $200,000? Everybody keeps talking about, ‘Well, we’re going to tax the rich.’ How do you define that?”
Give me a number? An odd question for anyone other than a tax attorney to ask. Are we talking $50,000 in Southern California or Southern Sudan? Rich for people who spend hundreds of millions running for public office or rich for people who work three jobs and can’t afford health insurance?
A better question: Jesus never said anything about abortion or homosexuality, but he said plenty about wealth and poverty. As a Christian, define the difference between need and greed. How much is enough?
I still think a church is no place for a campaign event, and a clergy person has no business posing as political moderator. But if the church is going to insert itself into the electoral process, it should do so as the church and not as a political action committee.