Given the increased discussion of faith and values in the
2008 presidential campaign, it is perhaps fitting that candidates John McCain
Obama are scheduled to make their first joint appearance of the general
election season at an event moderated
by Pastor Rick Warren at his
22,000-member Saddleback Church in Lake
Forest, Calif., on Saturday, Aug. 16.
Senior Fellow John Green
The first joint
appearance of these two presidential candidates will be at a church. What is
the significance of that?
It’s very significant. One of the hallmarks of the 2008
presidential campaign up to this point has been the increased level of
discussion of faith and values. This includes not only the candidates’ own
faith and how they connect that faith to their political values but also a
general discussion of religion. So it’s quite fitting that the first joint
appearance between the presumptive nominees of the major political parties would
be in a religious forum.
Why are the
candidates devoting so much attention to religion and values?
They are devoting this level of attention because there are
votes to be gained by talking about religion and values. Take, for example, the
white evangelical Protestant community, which constitutes more than one-fifth
of registered voters. An August 2008 survey
by the Pew Research Center
for the People & the Press shows that McCain leads Obama among white
evangelical voters 68% to 24%. In June, McCain's lead was slightly smaller (61%
to 25%). The August survey also shows that the candidates remain virtually
tied among a crucial group of swing
voters, white non-Hispanic Catholics (44% for Obama, 45% for McCain). In
addition, there are the members of mainline Protestant churches that the
candidates would like to impress. This forum with Rick Warren fits in very well
with what we know about the strategies of both of these campaigns to reach out
to these key religious groups, any one of which could make a difference in a
Obama’s stance on
some issues, such as his support for
abortion rights, differs from what Pew
surveys have found to be the views
of evangelicals. What does he stand to gain from appearing at an evangelical megachurch?
On the other hand, why would McCain, who has been somewhat reluctant to talk publicly
about faith, see a large church as an attractive venue?
Rick Warren is a very prominent person. Obama knows Warren; he has spoken at Saddleback Church before – back in 2006 – so this
is, in some sense, familiar ground for him. Also, Obama has made a real effort
to reach out to evangelicals and other conservative Christians, hoping to
persuade a large number of them to vote for him in the fall. In that sense, this
event seems to be a very good opportunity for the Obama campaign, even though
there will no doubt be some people in the audience, and certainly some
evangelicals across the country, who will disagree with him. But he can assume
that the event itself will be very civil, that Rick Warren will treat him
fairly and that his point of view will be heard.
There are also a lot of positives for McCain, who has shown
a certain reluctance to talk publicly about faith and values, and whose
campaign could benefit from a fuller discussion of these matters. At the forum,
he will be in a civil environment where he is unlikely to be confronted or ridiculed.
However, both candidates may face some really interesting questions from Rick
What kind of
religious influence does Rick Warren have?
Rick Warren is a Southern Baptist – in fact, a
Southern Baptist pastor. The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant
denomination in the United
States as well as the largest denomination
in the evangelical Protestant religious tradition. Warren has built one of the country’s largest
and most successful megachurches, and he built it in a relatively short period
In addition, he has written some very influential books. The
first of these was The
Purpose Driven Church, a book on how to make churches grow
without compromising their religious values. A lot of churches have been very
interested in this approach because churches in the United States are voluntary
institutions and the only way they can accomplish their mission, whatever that
might be, is to attract and keep active members. Several hundred thousand
pastors from around the world have received training in Warren’s approach to church building.
wrote another best-seller, The
Purpose Driven Life, which applies those ideas at the individual level.
More than 20 million copies of The
Purpose Driven Life have been sold worldwide, making it an extraordinary and
How well-known is Warren nationally?
Although Rick Warren is well-known in religious circles, his
name is not quite a household name yet. A 2007 poll of likely voters in Western states,
conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, found that less than one-fifth could
Because of their location and involvement in public affairs, these survey
respondents were more likely to have heard about Warren
than the American public as a whole, so Warren's
national name recognition may have been even lower. By comparison, a 2007 Pew Research
Center survey of a
national sample of the adult population found that eight-in-ten people were
familiar with evangelist Billy Graham and roughly one-third were familiar
with religious broadcaster James Dobson.
Warren has received recent media
attention due in part to his interest in public affairs, in particular the
issue of AIDS in Africa. He sees attention to issues like this as a natural extension
of his work as a church builder and evangelist. In that sense, sponsoring the
civil forum between McCain and Obama is just another step along this road of
greater interest in the political process.
In past years, Warren hosted a Global Summit on AIDS and the Church. Obama spoke
there in 2006 and Hillary Clinton was a speaker in 2007. The participation of
these Democratic senators upset some religious conservatives. What was the
basis of their concern?
There were two kinds of objections raised by evangelical
critics of Warren.
Perhaps the most prominent one simply had to do with the more-liberal positions
that Obama and Clinton have on issues such as abortion and homosexuality,
matters that are still very important to the evangelical community. As best as
I can tell from Warren’s
public statements, he is pro-life, but he has come to the conclusion that
evangelicals should be concerned with a wider range of issues – not just
abortion and homosexuality. The fact that Obama and Clinton agree with him on
the importance of combating global AIDS is more important to him than the fact
that they would disagree with him and other evangelicals on the issue of
There has been a secondary objection on theological grounds.
Both Obama and Clinton have spoken quite eloquently about their faith, and they
both come from the mainline Protestant branch of American Protestantism, which
tends to have a more liberal theology. Warren
comes from the evangelical Protestant tradition, which has a more conservative
theology. Some critics objected to the mixing of different theological
perspectives, perhaps fearing that Rick Warren and his associates might be
moving toward liberal theology.
This is similar to some of the criticism that was directed
at Billy Graham in the 1950s and the 1960s. Graham also made an effort to reach
out to other Christian churches even though many of them did not agree with him
theologically, and Graham also had relationships with numerous presidents –
both Democrats and Republicans – similar to those Warren seems to be trying to build. Rick
Warren has a long way to go to match the stature of Billy Graham, but he seems
to be following in some of the same footsteps.
There is a certain irony in the criticism of Warren. When evangelical
Protestants returned to politics with the Moral Majority in 1979 and 1980,
Jerry Falwell and other leaders had to persuade their fellow evangelicals that
Christians should be involved in politics because of pressing moral issues.
Many evangelicals of that era and, in fact, many evangelicals today, are not
particularly political people. They are much more interested in spiritual and
religious matters. Here we are a quarter of a century later and a new
generation of evangelicals see a new set of pressing moral issues and are
involved in a broader application of their faith in politics.
There is much talk
about the religious right and the religious left, but what about the religious
center? What might moderate believers be looking for from the candidates on
There are a lot of people in the middle in the United States
when it comes to their theology and their political views – and they can be
found in almost every religious community. Some of these people have strictly
moderate views when it comes to religious beliefs and practices. Some of them
have a mix of liberal and conservative views and that puts them in the middle
in the political sense. Sometimes these people are referred to as “centrists”
because they are moderate from the perspective of their own religious tradition
but not necessary moderate compared with the nation as a whole.
Much of what Rick Warren has been talking about may have
special appeal to these centrists, particularly in the evangelical community,
but more broadly in other religious communities in the United States. This agenda brings
religious values to bear on present-day problems. Whatever one may think about
the cosmic spiritual questions of salvation and eternal life, AIDS remains a
very serious problem in many parts of the world. Likewise, people have become
acutely aware of poverty, and the issue of the environment is in the news every
day. The expanded agenda of Warren and other evangelical leaders speaks
directly to these present-day problems.
With 22,000 members, Saddleback Church
clearly qualifies as a megachurch, defined by the Pew Forum and others as a
congregation with more than 2,000 members. What does survey research tell us
about megachurches and their members?
Church might be more appropriately
called a “mega-megachurch” because it is one of the very largest congregations
in the United States
and, in that sense, differs a bit from other megachurches. But overall, megachurches are an
A 2005 Hartford
found that there were more than 1,200 Protestant congregations with a weekly
attendance of 2,000 or more in the United States. The study also found
that the number of these large congregations had nearly doubled since 2000. The
study found that, like much of American religion, megachurches are quite
diverse, correcting many myths that have developed about these churches. For
example, most megachurches are part of a denomination, with nondenominational
megachurches being a minority of these large congregations, and some megachurches
are found outside the evangelical Protestant tradition.
The Pew Forum’s U.S.
Religious Landscape Survey provides some information on the members of
evangelical megachurches* as a whole, revealing that the members differ from
other evangelicals and the public overall in some important ways:
Education and Affluence. In demographic terms, evangelical megachurch members are better educated
than other evangelicals, with 36% having college or postgraduate degrees,
compared with 18% of other evangelicals and 27% of the entire adult population.
They are also more affluent, with 45% having a family income of more than
$75,000 a year, compared with 23% of other evangelicals and 31% of the entire
Party Identification and Political Ideology. In terms of politics, evangelical megachurch
members are more likely to be Republican than Democratic (49% to 18%) and
conservative than liberal (59% to 9%). In this regard, they are more Republican
and conservative than other evangelicals (37% Republican, 52% conservative) and
the public as a whole (26% Republican, 37% conservative).
Abortion and the Environment. Evangelical megachurch members are generally in favor of restricting
abortion (68% think abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, compared
with 61% of other evangelicals and 43% of the public at large). A large
majority also say stricter environmental regulations are worth the cost (58%),
much like other evangelicals (54%) and the public overall (61%). And although a
majority also favor increased government assistance to the poor (52%), it is at
a lower level than other evangelicals (57%) and the adult population overall
Political Engagement. Evangelical megachurch members also stand out in that a large majority
report paying attention to public affairs “most of the time” (61%, compared
with 51% of other evangelicals and 52% of the public overall). Furthermore, 37%
of evangelical megachurch members say that their religious beliefs are the most
important source of information for their political thinking (compared with 28%
of other evangelicals and 14% of the overall public).
* “Members of
evangelical megachurches” are defined as people who are members of evangelical
Protestant denominations, who attend church at least a few times a year and who
say that more than 2,000 people belong to the church they attend most often.
“Other evangelicals” are defined as people who are members of evangelical
denominations and who belong to churches with fewer members, and people who are
members of evangelical denominations and who seldom or never attend weekly
services. See survey topline
for exact question wording.
This transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling and grammar.