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Back in the Saddle
A former Saddleback congregant-turned-cub reporter purposely drives to Rick Warren's candidate forum
When I stepped onto the campus of Saddleback Church on Aug. 16 for the Civil Forum On the Presidency—starring Rick Warren and a couple of out-of-state senators—the place was nothing like I remembered it.
I started going to Saddleback when I was in the ninth grade; by then, Warren wasn't holding services in his Lake Forest living room anymore, but the church hadn't quite achieved its current, imposing, 22,000-parishioner, 120-acre glory. There was the pristine Main Worship Center (which I'd been in for Easter services), two tents for the middle- and high-school ministries, and some portable buildings that have since become permanent. When I left high school, I stopped going, so I found myself a little out of my element when I arrived on Saturday.
Still, I had high expectations before the forum. Earlier in the week, I'd spoken with Tom Holladay, a teaching pastor at Saddleback Church and Warren's brother-in-law, who told me that Warren really wanted to "take the campaign in a different direction than campaigns tend to want to go."
Holladay argued that this was not a case of forcing Christianity into the political field."We're in a democratic country where we have freedom of religion," Holladay emphasized. "So it's not an issue of imposing one religion on another, but it is an issue of people of faith being able to hear how they [the candidates] would choose on certain issues of faith."
As I melted in the heat for a couple of hours before the forum started, I buttonholed some church members about the event. Jennifer Sakamoto, a volunteer for Saddleback's child-care program, echoed Holladay's sense of curiosity. "I want to hear what they really feel about issues that are important to me," she said, naming abortion, AIDS and human rights as being among them.
Holladay also got my hopes up about getting a close look to the candidates, the cleric and their audience. But when I got there, I was sent not to the Main Worship Center where Barack Obama and John McCain were to chat amiably with the girthsome, goateed Warren, but to Room 404, the "auxiliary press room," where I, like the rest of America, watched the forum on television.
Several other visibly deflated reporters were there. While Fox News, CNN and KDOCenjoyed their view from the front row, I sat down next to the correspondents from The Orange County Register (who probably suspected I sat there on purpose), while reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle, a German television station, KNX-AM 1070, the Washington Times and more milled around us.
At 5 p.m., after the church provided us with more pizza and soda than we could ever consume, the press room heaved a collective sigh and resigned itself to watching the video feed.
After stating that he does not believe in "the separation of faith and politics," Warren asked questions that challenged both men on several hot-button issues dear to Christian conservatives. The most anticipated was, of course, the question of abortion: McCain (pro-life) received thunderous applause for his response, while Obama (pro-choice) got none.
And in addition to the home-field advantage of being in a church mostly filled with well-off white Republicans, it appears McCain could have had another edge: When Warren introduced Obama first, he assured the audience that McCain had been placed in a "cone of silence" and was unable to hear Obama's interview. The New York Times reported the next day that McCain was not on the campus, but driving to the church in his limo. There is some speculation that the rapidity of McCain's answers may be due to his being able to hear the interview, though of course everyone has denied that he was listening.
While the audience clearly favored McCain, he wasn't as popular in the newsroom. His answers raised some mild scoffing during the commercial breaks. When he said that his $5 million answer to the command to "Define rich" would be distorted, one reporter shouted, "You bet." There was also some definite eye-rolling every time he addressed the audience as "my friends."
After the forum ended at 7 p.m., I talked to some church members as they made their way out. Most said it helped them make a decision about who they will vote for in November and that the interview-style discussion was very popular.
"The debate format has proved to be not much of a debate," said Grant Bornzin, of Lake Forest. "This is a better way of exchanging ideas and information."
The rush to the exit on Portola took me past several dwindling protests. In an e-mail I received before the forum, ANSWER LA and the OC Peace Coalition proclaimed that they would be protesting "the war, etc."
Many, like those supporting Ron Paul's Campaign for Liberty, were using the forum for media coverage. Others actually had a problem with what was happening in the forum, like the group of Obama supporters who had been watching the video feed online.
"We thought it was B.S., so we came down here," said Julia Letzel, a local student. "He asked a religious question, and clearly, the separation of church and state means nothing anymore."