After Saddleback Forum, Some Questions Still Unanswered

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Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain spoke about how faith influences their policies during a recent forum at California's Saddleback Church. But some in faith community may still have serious questions for the candidates. The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, Dan Gilgoff, and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield discuss broader issues of interest to the faith community.

LYNN NEARY, host:

I'm Lynn Neary and this Tell Me More from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. A little later in the program, the Barbershop guys stop by and we'll open our mailbag in Backtalk to hear what you had to say about our program this week. But first, we continue our discussion of politics in this week's faith matters conversation. As we just heard in our political chat, matters of faith are critical for many southern voters, and today, we are examining last weekend's faith issues form at the Saddleback Church in California. The format allowed Senators Barack Obama and John McCain a chance to discuss their beliefs and explain how they play out in their campaigns. McCain and Obama took questions separately from Saddleback's Pastor Rick Warren, but critics say some important topics were not covered. Joining us to discuss this are Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, president and founder of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, Dan Gilgoff, political editor for beliefnet.com and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Welcome to the program.

Reverend SAMUEL RODRIGUEZ (President and founder, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference): Good to be with you, Lynn.

Mr. DAN GILGOFF (Editor, Beliefnet.com): Good to be here.

Rabbi BRAD HIRSCHFIELD (President, National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership): Thank you.

NEARY: Great! Well, before we talk about what was not asked, we have some tape of some of the questions that were asked, a little sampling. Let's listen to them.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. RICK WARREN (Pastor, Saddleback Church): Who were the three wisest people that you know? That you would rely on heavily in an administration?

What would be, looking over your life, everybody's got (unintelligible) because nobody's perfect, would be the greatest moral failure in your life and what would be the greatest moral failure of America?

At what point is a baby entitled to human rights?

There's a lot more I'd like to ask on that, but we've got 15 other questions here. Define marriage?

NEARY: All right. There we go, just a few of the questions that were asked during the forum. Dan Gilgoff, let me start with you. This was advertised as a debate that would go beyond divisive issues, and of course, as we heard there, a couple questions on some of the most divisive issues that we face. But on balance, do you think that it actually did that, it went beyond the divisive issues?

Mr. GILGOFF: I think to a certain degree it did, but perhaps to an extent less than the event had advertised. Going in Saddleback and Rick Warren had committed to discussing issues that, sort of, transcend the cultural divide in our country rather than exacerbate it. This was supposed to be a kind of post-Christian right forum. Some of the issues that Warren mentioned, going into the event like climate change or HIV/AIDS really didn't come up in the forum. I actually think it was a helpful reminder with all of the media attention on the supposed evangelical middle emerging in serious ways since 2004. That evangelical movement and even figures considered moderate, like Rick Warren, are still very much placing a high priority on traditional culture or issues like abortion and gay marriage. I think Saturday evening's forum is a helpful reminder of that.

NEARY: Rabbi Hirschfield, what do you think of that issues that were covered in the forum?

Rabbi HIRSCHFIELD: Look, I think that Rick Warren and his community get an A plus for maintaining an air of civility around issues about, which we're not often too civil with each other. But I think it's a level of getting to any depth. It's best a C minus because in point of fact, the civility in this forum was guaranteed by not probing more deeply about those issues in the way they can really tear us apart. I mean, just yesterday, Reverend Warren was interviewed by Dan Gilolff on beliefnet.com, where I write the Windows and Doors blog, and actually compared those people who don't share his views on right to life and abortion with people who deny the Holocaust. He suggested that actually, the 40 million abortions that have been performed in this nation represent 40 million murdered people, and that he could never support anyone who didn't have a totally strident right to life position because it would be like voting for a Holocaust denier. And although I don't want to ascribe bad intent, that is an incredibly pernicious comparison and should give people real pause about what's really going on here.

NEARY: Did you feel that the whole point of view of the forum came from a very Christian perspective to begin with? And if so, did that bother you, Rabbi Hirschfield?

Rabbi HIRSCHFIELD: No. In fact, I was disturbed it wasn't more overtly Christian. For example, I was waiting to hear him say, each of you has described yourselves as a Christian. Can you share with us one biblical passage or teaching of Jesus which you would want to bear in mind each day as you began work in the oval office? That might have surfaced some interesting issues of their personal faith, not just their ability to dance around an otherwise polarizing issue.

NEARY: What about you, Reverend Rodriguez? You've expressed a desire to broaden the religious debate among the candidates. How close did this forum come to doing that for you?

Rev. RODRIGUEZ: It was in essence, Christian right wing, white evangelicalism on a diet. It was light. Immigration reform did not come up as Dan to previously. Global warming, AIDS, Darfur, religious prosecution in Tibet and in China and different parts of the world. Even the issues of poverty and social justice, where Pastor Rick did attempt to somehow broaden the agenda, they were limited in their scope and more issues and more focus was placed on foreign policy initiatives instead of domestic realities that are troublesome to many in my constituency and many in the multi-generational under 40 evangelical community.

NEARY: What about you, Dan Gilgoff? We just heard from Reverend Rodriguez sort of a list of some of the things that he would have like to hear discussed. Anything in particular that you didn't hear discussed that you think should have been there?

Mr. GILGOFF: Well, I think that the perhaps disturbing aspect about it was not so much a topic that wasn't addressed. But was that it - the event didn't live up to the billing as one that was supposed to expand the agenda. And I also think that - I got to talk to Pastor Warren after the event for an interview this week. And a lot of what he said during the course of the interview, I thought the lives - some of his stated commitment to embrace both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, and looking to tackle the major issues of our time.

NEARY: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, journalist Dan Gilgoff, and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield about the faith forum, which was held last weekend. And we're talking about what questions were left out. Let me turn to you again, Rabbi Hirschfield. I'm interested in something you said earlier and correct me if I'm quoting you wrong. But you were saying you would have liked to have heard the candidates to be asked the question that more specifically address their Christian beliefs. And I guess I was a little surprised to hear that. Maybe - why? Why would that have helped us learn something about the candidates?

Rabbi HIRSCHFIELD: I think that the more people can explain who they claim to be, the better educated the voting public is. See, I'm not actually concerned about what any candidate believes or doesn't believe. I'm concern about not knowing what they believe. So rather than pretend we can have those conversations, it seems to me the real benefit that wasn't realized here was the opportunity to talk in what would have been perceived of is a relatively safe, relatively new space about a range of issues that simply aren't going to be discussed any place else. And I think that was a lost opportunity.

NEARY: What about you, Reverend Rodriguez? Did you feel that you heard questions asked of the candidates that in any way really did probe their beliefs, specifically their Christian beliefs?

Rev. RODRIGUEZ: No, not necessarily. What I saw was more of a comparative analysis between soundbites and narratives, reflective thinking versus instinct military thinking. It was basically an attorney versus a military commander in essence in respect to their responses. And there was in my opinion, a lack of thorough understanding. If I'm an evangelical and I'm watching CNN, and somehow understanding both of them speak about Christ. Recently, Senator McCain spoke about his salvation experience. And I do mean recently. Senator Obama has talked about his journey. But very little was exposed in respect to my kind of activity, to my personal born-again experience in respect to one of the candidates. So I do agree with the rabbi. Little was contextualized within the framework of scripture or even a Christian world view.

NEARY: You know, I think you do have to ask why candidates should be required to answer questions about their faith at all. Rabbi Hirschfield?

Rabbi HIRSCHFIELD: In no way, do matters of faith need to be public issues. But once, as a candidate for office, you put into play your personal beliefs in the hopes of capturing the attention of part of the voting public. It then seems to me you have to unpack those beliefs so that everyone can make a fair decision about what those beliefs are, how are they going to shape your candidacy, and ultimately, how those shape your job if you're elected to office.

NEARY: You know...

Rev. RODRIGUEZ: If I may jump in. I do believe that the overall - the debate and the forum, actually, the forum does enable the Democratic Party to make significant inroads in respect to the evangelical community. Four years ago, we would of course, none of us would believe that John Kerry would be side-to-side with George W. Bush in such a forum, discussing faith issues. Moreover, discussing evangelical issues. So I do believe it benefits at the end of the day, the Democratic Party. What I would have loved to have seen would have been some sort of final disclosure or a disclaimer stating that this is a nation still committed not to a Christian role view, but to religious pluralism. In light of religious totalitarism around the world we celebrate the fact of religious diversity rather than religious exclusivity.

NEARY: Were any of you, and you can begin Reverend Rodriguez, were any of you surprised at all by any of the answers you heard? Especially given that there has been a lot of discussion about whether they had been prepped somewhat for this and you know whether Senator McCain was actually in a cone of silence that in fact they may have known a little bit what was coming and even given that, were you surprised by any of the answers?

Rev. RODRIGUEZ: This is Samuel Rodriguez. I was surprised with Senator Obama's conviction and commitment, not to cater to the constituency before him. His response in respect to the abortion question, it's above his pay grade and I know that sounded a tad aloof and many critics and pundits, post pundits saw it as some sort of inter reflective response that he was alluding or avoiding the question. I found it to be sincere that I have discussed this with Senator Obama and that's his answer privately and publicly. His commitment to abortion reduction, what a shift for the Democratic Party. So I was surprised for Senator Obama's responses being so sincere and not catering to the audience that he was addressing at that moment.

NEARY: Rabbi Hirschfield.

Rabbi HIRSCHFIELD: What I was surprised by frankly was their inability to more fully answer some of those questions. I think the example of the being above my pay grade on issues of when life begins, I actually think it is quite a sophisticated answer but I don't think that Senator Obama is prepared to explain why it is a sophisticated answer. I think in a country in which we see people tearing each other apart over this question to have been able to explain why a level of humility or modesty about being able to answer that question in the definitive and final way would have actually been a profound religious teaching and I am disappointed frankly that he wasn't able to give it.

In much the same way that when John McCain blurted out instantaneously about when life begins at conception, with no sense what the implications of that might be for the people who disagree, I had the same kind of feeling. I'm not opposed to anyone weighting in on that issue, I'm deeply concerned about people who give a knee jerk reaction that precludes the wisdom that the other side has in this ongoing conversation because I think how wedge issues actually become growth issues for the public.

NEARY: Dan Gilgoff I'm wondering as I'm listening to this if in the heat of a presidential campaign it ever really is possible to get beyond the culturally divisive issues to some greater understanding of a person's really deeply held religious beliefs?

Mr. GILGOFF: I think it is. I think that Barack Obama for a Democrat is trying to do that in a way that is pretty different than the Democratic nominees had preceded him in talking about his faith really for the last year and a half since declaring his candidacy for the president. I think the fact that someone like Barack Obama befriended Rick Warren early on, went to appear at Saddleback Church and this was not the first time he had done so tells you a lot about that question that you asked about how serious the Democrats seem to be about revealing what their religious beliefs are and how they inform policy. I think the question is, the big question in this election is will the Democrats make any real in-roads among evangelicals and some other religious constituency given how hard Barack Obama is working to do that.

NEARY: Dan Gilgoff is political editor for beliefnet.com and author of the book "The Jesus Machine." He joined us from New York. Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and author of the book "You Don't Have to Be Wrong For Me to Be Right." He joined us from our New York bureau. Reverend Samuel Rodriguez is president and founder of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and he joined us from Sacramento, California. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. GILGOFF: Thank you.

Rabbi HIRSCHFIELD: Thanks.

Rev. RODRIQUEZ: Thanks.

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