Evangelical leaders say presumptive Republican nominee John McCain made significant strides toward attracting the votes of social conservatives August 16 during a presidential forum in which he and Democrat Barack Obama differed sharply on abortion, "gay rights," and the judiciary.
The two men appeared on stage separately for one hour each at Saddleback Church in California and were asked nearly identical questions by the congregation's pastor, Rick Warren. The event was dubbed "the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency."
Although some pro-family leaders had expressed concern the forum wouldn't cover hot-button social issues, those fears quickly disappeared minutes into the event when Warren, noting that there have been approximately forty million abortions since Roe v. Wade, asked Obama, "At what point does a baby get human rights?"
"I think that whether you're looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective," Obama responded, "answering that question with specificity is above my pay-grade."
Obama added that he believes "there is a moral and ethical element" to the abortion issue but stressed that he is pro-choice.
"I believe in Roe v. Wade, and I come to that conclusion not because I'm pro-abortion, but because, ultimately, I don't think women make these decisions casually," he said.
Asked the same question about when a baby gets human rights, McCain said "at the moment of conception."
"I have a twenty-five-year pro-life record in the Congress [and] in the Senate," he said. "And as president of the United States, I will be a pro-life president. And this presidency will have pro-life policies .... That's my commitment to you."
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, applauded the format and said he felt "people learned a lot more about" the two candidates than "they're going to learn in the debates." He also said the fact that the event took place at a Southern Baptist church with a Southern Baptist pastor asking questions means that there has not been the "decline of evangelical influence" in politics as some have said.
"I think people have a very clear choice," Land told Baptist Press of the two candidates. "I thought that Obama did as well as he could have done given his worldview and given the format, and I thought McCain was better than I've ever seen him. ... I think he assuaged some of [social conservatives'] doubts about his commitment to the pro-life cause and his understanding of it."
During a media teleconference following the debate, three pro-family leaders — Tom Minnery of Focus on the Family, Janet Folger of Faith 2 Action, and Harry Jackson Sr. of the High Impact Leadership Coalition — agreed that McCain had helped himself with social conservative voters. Obama has been making a concerted effort to attract the vote of conservative evangelicals, who traditionally have been part of the GOP base.
"I think that Senator McCain closed the deal," said Jackson, author of The Black Contract With America On Moral Values and pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland. He also has co-authored a book with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. "I think he made a clear contrast between himself and Barack Obama .... If he can continue with the kind of fervor and integration of issues and faith, I think that he may be on to a new high in his campaign. If he retreats to a place of not wanting to talk anymore about these kinds of things, I think it will not help him. So, [it was a] tremendous win .... I think it's a new chapter. I hope it continues."
Jackson, however, warned that if McCain chooses a "pro-abortion vice president" he would be giving "the election away to Obama."
Folger expressed frustration with Obama's answer as to when a baby gets human rights.
"I would submit that he shouldn't be receiving the salary of president if he doesn't know the answer to a very basic medical question that's uniformly reported in every medical textbook, every modern-day embryology, and fetology book in existence," she said.
Land called Obama's answer "evasive" and said he dodged "a tough question."
Pro-lifers also took issue with two other statements Obama made about abortion. At one point he said "abortions have not gone down" even though "we have had a president who is opposed to abortion," when in fact the abortion rate has fallen during the Bush administration. The pro-choice Guttmacher Institute reported earlier this year that the abortion rate was at its lowest point in three decades. At another point Obama said women don't make the decision to abortion "casually," which a separate Guttmacher study seems to refute. The study showed that 86 percent of abortions are made for the sake of convenience. Only 1 percent of women said their abortion was the consequence of rape, and less than 1 percent cited incest.
On other issues, Obama was asked to define marriage and responded by saying it is the "union between a man and a woman." But he said he would not support a constitutional amendment with that definition.
"Historically, we have not defined marriage in our constitution," said Obama, who also restated his support for same-sex civil unions. "It's been a matter of state law."
It was unclear whether Obama was referring to a proposed marriage amendment in California or a proposed federal marriage amendment, although he opposes both.
"You cannot square the circle as he is trying to do," Minnery said. "Either you support marriage or you do not. He says one thing. By his actions, he indicates another thing. And that answer was extremely weak, and shows us the hypocrisy in his position on that issue. I think it would be more refreshing for him if he would just be honest about it and say he favors gay marriage. He cannot do that, because the American people do not favor gay marriage."
McCain said he believes the decision by the California Supreme Court to legalize "gay marriage" was wrong.
"I strongly support preserving the unique status of marriage between man and woman," he said before stressing his backing of marriage amendments on the state level. McCain's home state of Arizona will be voting on a marriage amendment in November. "... In my state, I hope we will make that decision, and other states, they have [made that decision] to recognize the unique status between man and woman. And that doesn't mean that people can't enter into legal agreements. That doesn't mean that they don't have the rights of all citizens. I'm not saying that. I am saying that we should preserve the unique status of marriage between one man and one woman."
McCain voluntarily gave his thoughts on a federal marriage amendment, which he has opposed.
"[I]f a federal court decided that my state of Arizona had to observe what the state of Massachusetts decided [on gay marriage], then I would favor a [federal] constitutional amendment. Until then, I believe the states should make the decisions within their own states."
Warren also asked each man to name an existing Supreme Court justice they would not have nominated. Obama named Justice Clarence Thomas, a leading conservative on the court.
"I don't think that he was as strong enough a jurist or legal thinker at the time for that elevation, setting aside the fact that I profoundly disagree with his interpretations of a lot of the Constitution," Obama said. "I would not nominate Justice Scalia, although I don't think there's any doubt about his intellectual brilliance, because he and I just disagree."
McCain said he would not have nominated Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, David Souter, and John Paul Stevens, the court's four most liberal members.
"I think that the president of the United States has incredible responsibility in nominating people to the United States Supreme Court," McCain said. "... This nomination should be based on the criteria of a proven record, of strictly adhering to the Constitution of the United States of America and not legislating from the bench. Some of the worst damage has been done by legislating from the bench."
Land said he found some irony in Obama naming Clarence Thomas as the one justice he'd not nominate.
"When he said that, I thought, you know, the one argument that if I were Sen. Obama I'd stay away from is experience," Land said.
On other issues:
• Obama and McCain were asked to describe what their Christian faith means to each of them. Obama responded, "Jesus Christ died for my sins, and that I am redeemed through Him." McCain said, "It means I'm saved and forgiven."
• Both expressed their support for embryonic stem cell research. Warren had asked if they still support it in light of recent advances in adult stem cell research showing that adult stem cells can be reprogrammed into having nearly identical qualities as embryonic stem cells.
McCain, saying the question has been one of "great struggle" for those in the pro-life community, said, "I am wildly optimistic that skin cell research, which is coming more and more into focus and practicability, will make this debate an academic one."
Said Obama, "[I]f, in fact, adult stem cell lines are working just as well, then of course we should try to avoid any kind of moral arguments that may be in place."
• McCain said his greatest personal moral failure was the "failure of my first marriage." Obama said his greatest moral failure has been selfishness which has prevented him from doing "God's work," as well as his experimentation as a teenager with drugs and alcohol.
• Obama called it a "great idea" to put together an emergency plan to place the world's 148 million orphans with families. Warren raised the idea at the forum.
"I think it's something that we should sit down and figure out, working between non-governmental organizations, national institutions, the U.S. government and try to figure out what can we do," he said.
Said McCain, who with his wife adopted a daughter from Bangladesh, "I think we have to make adoption a lot easier in this country. That's why so many people go to other countries ... to be able to adopt children."
A complete transcript of the forum is available at: http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0808/17/se.01.html.
Michael Foust is a member of Judson Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and is an assistant editor for Baptist Press.