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The Purpose-Driven Campaign: The Candidates’ Forum With Rick Warren

Given the increased discussion of faith and values in the 2008 presidential campaign, it is perhaps fitting that candidates John McCain and Barack 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.

Warren has billed the event as a “civil forum” to discuss “pressing issues that are bridging divides in our nation, such as poverty, HIV/AIDS, climate and human rights.” Senior Fellow John Green answers questions about what the candidates stand to gain from speaking with Warren, the challenges Warren faces as he attempts to broaden evangelicals’ political agenda and what a major Pew Forum survey says about megachurches and their members.

Featuring: John Green, Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Interviewer: Mark O’Keefe, Associate Director, Web Editorial, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

In this Q&A: What do the candidates stand to gain? Rick Warren’s influence Criticism from conservatives Megachurch demographics

Question & Answer

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 close election.

Obama’s stance on some issues, such as his support for abortion rights, differs from what Pew Research Center 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 Warren.

What kind of religious influence does Rick Warren have?

Rick Warren is a Southern Baptist – in fact, a fourth-generation 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 of time.

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.  

Warren 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 important book.

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 identify Warren. 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 abortion.

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 Saturday?

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?

Saddleback 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 important phenomenon.

A 2005 Hartford Seminary study 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 population.

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 (62%).

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.

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