Political Animal


July 18, 2012 4:49 PM Avoiding Another Saddleback Ambush

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Don Elliott on July 18, 2012 5:01 PM:

    Great idea. How about Fourth Presbyterian Church in the President's adopted home town of Chicago? Large facility, plenty of social outreach ministries to talk about in the promotion, great worship, and on the north end of Michigan Avenue, near where the plutocrats live. I'd drive down for it!

  • T2 on July 18, 2012 5:01 PM:

    make no mistake, a Saddleback forum is a political tool of the Conservative Evangelical RIght. Hopefully Obama can send Biden, but in any event I'm sure he will be better prepared for the highly partisan nature of an event of this kind.
    I'd rather see something like this set up in Salt Lake City, at the Tabernacle...it would be hard for Mitt to hide his Mormon roots there.

  • c u n d gulag on July 18, 2012 5:09 PM:


    He's a shameless self-promoter, and a sycophant for the right.

    Obama's already helped this grifter along twice - the debate, the the invocation at the Innauguration.

    He doesn't own Warren jack-sh*t!!!

    Go to some nice mainline Protestant Church - one where gays and single mothers are welcome.

    Let Mitt explain why he doesn't want to debate faith there. Obama's paid his dues with the rabid Evangelicals

    Shorter: FECK WARREN!!!

  • TCinLA on July 18, 2012 5:10 PM:

    Forget all this religious bullshit.

  • Raoul on July 18, 2012 5:13 PM:

    Warren at the inaug was a disaster for the progressive base. And as you note, the forum didn't go well either. I hope Obama is twice-stung and much wiser for it.

  • pol on July 18, 2012 5:21 PM:

    Not IN a United Methodist Church. We're strong separation of church and state people.

  • kindness on July 18, 2012 6:11 PM:

    Somehow being mocked by the likes of Douthat does NOT make me feel like a loser at all. In fact, if I am being mocked by him, I feel I'm winning.

  • Arlington BigFish on July 18, 2012 6:19 PM:

    Well, Bill Clinton may have been raised a Southern Baptist, but for the 8 years he was here in Washington, he & his family attended my United Methodist Church -- on a pretty regular basis, I might point out. I expect because Hilary's a born-&-raised Methodist.

  • Maritza on July 18, 2012 6:20 PM:

    Politico reported that the Obama campaign said that Obama will not participate in Warren's forum.

  • Maritza on July 18, 2012 6:25 PM:

    Here is the link from Politico stating that President Obama will NOT be attending Warren's forum.


  • Joseph P. on July 18, 2012 6:38 PM:

    All I remember from the Saddleback Debate is that Warren claimed that McCain, who went on after Obama, was in a sound proof room during Obama's time. He even joked about it to McCain when he came out---"How was the sound proof room?" To which McCain responded, "I had my ear pressed to the wall!" In fact, McCain was not even in any room at all---he was in his limousine on the way to the debate, and could very easily have listened to it live on he radio. It was a small lie, true, but a deliberate one---another way that Warren slanted the debate to favor McCain.

  • Mitt's Magic Underpants on July 18, 2012 6:54 PM:

    Warren is a standard egomaniacal bigot.

    That Obama had him speak was why I didn't let my daughter stay home from school for the inauguration.

    And Obama's continuing blind spot about the enemy is ... a drag, to say the least.

  • POed Lib on July 18, 2012 7:00 PM:


    Set up a panel of religious people, but balance rightwingnazis, catholics, and fundies with some U-Us, episcopalians, and Disciples of CHrist.

  • zandru on July 18, 2012 7:08 PM:

    The local League of Women Voters has often held candidate debates in a Unitarian church. [ insert obligatory Unitarian joke ]

  • POed Lib on July 18, 2012 7:15 PM:

    What's the joke? Garrison Keillor's continual jokes about Unitarians have probably been the single biggest factor in increasing membership...

  • schtick on July 18, 2012 7:17 PM:

    Willard would love a forum with Warren. Just like McCain he'll get to listen to the questions on the way to the forum so if Warren forgets one, Willard can remind him just like McCain did.
    Warren is the perfect example of why religion should not be exempt from taxes. They want to play in politics, they pay their share of taxes. Of course, we have to work on the rich paying taxes first, then the rich churches sticking their noses in politics.

    crapcha....Institute copersan....exactly

  • Joseph P. on July 18, 2012 7:17 PM:

    I agree with pol above. People that respect the separation of church and state do not think a debate hosted by a religious denomination is a good idea.

  • revchicoucc on July 18, 2012 7:17 PM:

    Why would a debate / conversation about religious / ethical / moral issues have to be held in a church building? Have it in a symphony hall, in a major metro area / TV market in a swing state -- Buell Theater in Denver for example. Have a panel of theologians / religious leaders / clergy with a respected academic leader / college president as moderator -- each campaign chooses two panelists, the four panelists choose the moderator. Frame it as a model for civil discourse.

    Ah, but they say I'm a dreamer.

  • Mitch on July 18, 2012 8:31 PM:

    "Itís about time we stopped being treated like lepers."

    You want to be treated like a leper, be an out and proud atheist. There are vast swaths of the nation where we unbelievers are treated rather harshly, to say the least. And, of course, this hatred of atheism is why we have had exactly one open atheist in Congress during it's centuries of operation.

    So, count me in on those who say that Warren, his church, and questions by/for/of religions have no place in American politics.

    Not to mention that they are (literally) un-Constitutional, under Article VI, paragraph 3:

    "The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

  • stinger on July 18, 2012 10:02 PM:

    I'm with Mitch. This type of event only postpones even further the day when an atheist will have a chance at the presidency. Candidate forums should focus on policy, not religious issues.

  • jhm on July 19, 2012 7:43 AM:

    I think Mr. Romeney's magic underwear will fail to protect him if he accepted an invitation to an unacceptably 'mainline' [read:fair and balanced] forum.

  • Don on July 19, 2012 1:26 PM:

    How 'bout we stop kowtowing to all you folks who believe in an invisible man in the sky? Believe what you want, but shut the hell up about it already.