It looks like I was wrong; McCain didn't go down in flames at the Saddleback Church forum. I didn't consider how effective it always is to simply ignore the question and "answer" with excerpts from one's standard stump speech.
There are a few things worth discussing, though. I won't deal with every question, just those that have to do specifically with faith, because no matter what else was discussed, that's the frame for this event. My perspective in analyzing the forum is that of conservative Christendom, namely the gut reactions Christians will have in watching this.
Obama started well on the "3 wisest people" question. Christians like to hear men say they listen to their wives even when they know it isn't true. On the "greatest moral failing" question, Obama hit two home runs in a row. Framing his teenaged failings in terms of selfishness, of focusing on himself - very slyly giving a nod to Warren's "it's not about you" mantra - is exactly what Christians want to hear. Obama's answer is known as "giving your testimony" in conservative Christian (CC) circles; it shows a personal intimacy with the forms and content of Christianity. Obama's answer for America's greatest moral failing, quoting from Matthew 25, was pitch-perfect. You cannot argue with that answer, you cannot distort it, you cannot claim that Obama doesn't love America enough. And that he expanded it to apply to racism and sexism was good as well.
As for Obama's worldview, again he shows an ease with the concepts and vocabulary of American Christianity. "Get myself out of the way" is very good. The "acting justly, loving mercy, walking humbly with our God" is a reference to Micah 6:8, one of the most popular Bible verses within Evangelical Christianity. That's just bloody brilliant rhetoric there, not only in knowing to use the verse, but knowing exactly when and how to use it. Again, I think Obama really believes this stuff, which is why he's able to be so natural with it all. He's actually read the Bible - unlike most Evangelicals - and it's important to him.
On abortion, Obama dodges the "baby rights" - nice framing, Warren - question very well. Then he says, in effect, that he trusts women to make the right choices. Since the majority of Americans wants abortion to be legal, very safe ground. The late-term abortion stuff is still irritating, but Democratic politicians apparently believe that because late-term abortions always happen because of solid medical reasons, they can sound pro-lifeish without endangering fundamental rights. They're wrong, of course, but given other things Obama has said on this it went better than I'd hoped.
As for marriage, Obama's position, like the majority of Democratic politicians, is simply unacceptable. But he did manage to point out that his marriage is not threatened by what other people do, which is a theme Democrats need to focus on much more. The failure of a marriage is the responsibility of those in the marriage, not anyone else. Personal responsibility, people.
Obama's answer on stem cells was good; CCs are very concerned about it, but he took the bogus religious angle out of it entirely.
On the problem of evil, Obama did well to mention the evil that's done in the name of good.
I expected the worst when it came to faith-based organizations, but Obama did pretty well. However, in response to the straw worry about religious groups being forced to hire people who don't believe the same, Obama should have asked, "If the focus is helping people, why does it matter what a person believes?" Volunteers, of course, are not covered under any of this. Perhaps parachurch organizations could focus on getting Christians to give of their time and effort rather than receiving money.
One last thing for Obama, I liked his answer about taxes. I like that he really answered it, unlike McCain, and that he pointed out how those who make $250,000 are in the top 2% of America, that if we want things like roads we need to pay for them, and how it's immoral to leave our debts for our children to handle.
On to McCain, my friends.
My friends, did you notice how many times McCain said, "my friends," my friends? My friends, I didn't count, my friends, but my friends, does that verbal tic really work, my friends?
And does the word "friends" now seem like some alien thing to you as well?
Anyway. . .McCain. The Man Called Petraeus just might be The Man Called McCain's Running Mate. If not, someone should ask him why he would choose anyone else. Notice also that McCain didn't mention his wife; again, that's close to being a pro forma answer to those questions.
McCain's greatest moral failing was the failure of his first marriage. That'll play well enough, as will his contention that America hasn't always focused on greater things but we're still the best at it U-S-A U-S-A!
On what it means to be a Christian, McCain's answer was far too short. It should have been his longest answer of the night, and it highlights how he doesn't know what to say. His story about the Vietnamese guard showing compassion is touching, but you simply can't tell a story from 40 years ago and have it fully count toward one's spiritual status today. There will be some lingering - though probably ill-defined - discomfort over that.
On abortion, McCain thinks periods are murder. Oops, I mean, "life begins at the moment of conception." If we had any operative 527s this year, contrasting that statement with McCain's previous statements supporting Roe v. Wade would make a good commercial. He's definitely trying to throw in with the hard-core anti-choice movement.
McCain opposes a constitutional amendment defining marriage unless a federal judge overturns a state law. Which means he supports that amendment, really. But it was a good answer.
Warren should have pressed McCain on stem cells. If he believes rights accrue at the moment of conception, why is he able to say that he supports embryonic stem cell research? Starting his answer with that declaration of support won't help McCain among the CCs, but the rest of it was ok.
I'll give you the transcript for McCain's answer to the problem of evil:
Defeat it. WHARRGARBLE Osama blah blah blah ARGLEBLEARGH ramble ramble ramble.
The CCs will like it, of course.
McCain fumbled on the question of religious persecution. CCs are very concerned about
religious Christian persecution around the world, and think it's the US government's responsibility to do something about it. Mentioning only the President's bully pulpit is a weak answer.
I'll mention the privacy issue only because McCain completely lost focus of where he was and what he was doing in order to mention his opposition to card check - without even coherently getting that across as well. Even when his entire strategy is to stay on message no matter the question, he still can't quite do it.
I've said before that Barna Evangelicals are unreachable, so Obama's performance doesn't matter with them. McCain's performance was acceptable, making it easier for them to support him. However, he didn't really say anything other than his abortion response that would excite and motivate Barna Evangelicals to get out and vote for him.
As for other Christian groups, I think Obama came out ahead because of his aforementioned ability to speak about faith in an intimate, dynamic way. Obama talks like a Christian. McCain talks like a politician being made to talk about Jesus. Not a disaster, but not much help either.