The morning after Rick Warren's presidential forum, Salon dubbed him the event's “real winner.” But as the days pass, it's increasingly difficult to distinguish winners from losers in Saturday's faith-based revival of civil society.
Did McCain have an unfair advantage? And what did Warren really know of McCain's whereabouts? (If the Times is correct, McCain wasn't in a “cone of silence.”) Was Obama too thoughtful? Or did his purpose-driven BFF give him a shot at the elusive white evangelical vote?
You can track pundits across the blogosphere debating these and more substantive issues raised at the church. (Don't bother looking in the legacy media, because you won't find much.) But I'm interested in what Warren did and did not do and why we should care.
Warren said he wanted to model a new and improved civic discourse that demonstrated we can “disagree without demonizing each other.” By offering ample time to answer value-laden questions, he hoped to elicit a deeper, fuller, and truer picture of the candidates than the media usually provides.
Although good in theory, the practice was far from perfect. Warren seemed more intent on moving through a litany of questions than in probing his guests. Rather than push back on changed positions, bad decisions, and ethical dilemmas, he moved along. When McCain said his first marriage was his greatest moral failure, Warren could have asked why and how? Likewise when McCain stated his unequivocal pro-life position, Warren might have raised his support for stem cell research. (Even when McCain alluded to this later, Warren let it be.) Likewise, how did Warren allow Obama's quip about his pay grade go unchallenged? And couldn't he have asked the Illinois senator for more specifics on Iraq, welfare reform and taxes?
True civil discourse requires engagement. Warren had a shopping list. Given his venue, his expressed intentions, and his relationship to both men, he had a responsibility to speak truth to power or, in simpler terms, to ask tough questions.
Of course, it's a bit hypocritical to criticize Warren for what most reporters don't and won't do. But he did set himself up by promising to do what the media doesn't: push, probe, and penetrate.
If Warren didn't demonstrate a new model for civil discourse, he did provide a new face for evangelicalism. He is central casting's conjuring of the not-your-father's-Jerry Falwell pastor. From his trim goatee to his larger-than-life size, Warren embodies the same cool/compassionate, hip/square persona that made Oprah America's confessor. Warren's committed to ending abortion and saving stem cells but he's also concerned with climate change and adopting orphans. His easy embrace of both Obama and McCain bestowed blessings on two candidates who've hardly been evangelical poster boys. Just as significant, their presence in his church hallowed his role as a political player—and his message that faith and politics are entwined.
The legacy media needs to take note: How will Warren's enhanced standing play out in the evangelical world (already James Dobson seems to be chafing) and beyond? Now that Warren has an entrée with both parties, what will he seek after the election?
Similarly what does Warren's forum say about religion, politics and the media? One possibility is that voters want new models for debate and discourse, coverage and content. The blogosphere's lively and democratic interchanges reflect this impulse. There's less resistance to religion online and more appreciation for novelty, irreverence, and the next big thing. Just as citizen journalists are calling for a new kind of reporter, Rick Warren is calling for a new kind of discourse (including political coverage). The fact that the presidential candidates went along is noteworthy.