First, Rick Warren came across as a little too smug and a bit narcissistic — his subsequent fame on the bobble-head cable shows like CNN and Faux News have only reinforced that perception. This is the first time I’ve seen the guy — everything I’ve read says he’s humble, squeaky-clean, and very charitable — but I’m admittedly skeptical about all of these authors who write pop-bestsellers for the evangelical community (Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins come to mind). I haven’t read any of his “purpose driven” books, so these are just unstudied, shallow first-impressions… I did note that Warren was much friendlier to McCain, introducing many of his questions with “John” — something I did not notice, even after a second viewing, with Obama. He also seemed slightly agitated that Obama was taking too long to answer each question, while he rarely followed up with McCain’s extremely short responses.
Second, McCain was clearly the winner when it came to delivering popular “answers” to the audience. He rarely conversed with Warren, but seemed to use every question as an opportunity to reinforce his Republican credentials in front of a partisan crowd (Warren said last night that he gave out an equal number of tickets to each side, but I don’t know if that was the entire audience, or just a small part in addition to his home-town congregants). Most political pundits agree with this assessment of McCain’s performance and Saddleback’s cameramen certainly didn’t hurt with their close-up shots of his beaming wife and entourage.
What McCain didn’t do was mull over each of Warren’s questions and respond with some thoughtful dialogue. Except for one or two awkward moments, such as suggesting you’re not rich unless you make $5 million a year, his answers were very short and dogmatic and entirely directed at the audience (and/or the camera), almost as if he had rehearsed the whole thing ahead of time. There’s been some speculation about his “cone of silence” but I think he was just exceptionally “on message” this particular night. For him, this was just another town hall meeting in front of a hand-picked crowd, another Q&A with hand-picked questions. I noticed Warren didn’t ask any questions about race, other faiths/religions, energy, war, or resource stewardship. It was more or less an evangelical Christianity 101 litmus test.
Beyond the initial gut-reaction of the pundits, the more contemplative view of the event seems to me (surprise, surprise) to be that Obama’s performance was closer to the stated intent of the forum. He spoke to, and with, Warren, not to the crowd. He actually mentioned Christ and referenced the Bible (McCain did neither). You could see the gears turning as he worked to turn a phrase or illustrate a point (something the Faux News crowd twisted into cold political calculations). His opponents have suggested his nuance belies weakness, while his supporters argue they reflect an appreciation for the complexities of the real world. Whether it will prove to work against him or not, I did notice that he continuously did something that most Americans will probably not like, even though it is in keeping with one of the central themes of Warren’s book. He kept reminding us that life is not always a black-and-white proposition, an us vs. them cowboys and indians movie; sometimes the evil we confront is within us, and we need profound humility and divine guidance to prevent perpetrating even more evil in the name of fighting it. Deeper stuff than McCain’s declaration that “Islamic extremism” is the definition of evil (the example he used about booby-trapped women with mental problems is an oft-repeated urban legend with no basis in fact).
Here are some good links (that agree with me, of course):
http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/susan_brooks_thistlethwaite/2008/08/godless_communism.html (this is not directly Saddleback-related, except that it deals with the non sequitur McCain repeated there, about Georgia’s ancient adoption of Christianity)