The Rev. Rick Warren is so prominent and respected that just being seen with him is a boon for any presidential candidate. For Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, their appearances at a forum tonight at Warren's evangelical California megachurch bring risks along with rewards.
The event will play to one of Obama's strengths – talking about his Christian faith – but it will also underscore the gulf between his views and those of conservative Christians.
Many of McCain's positions are more in line with the evangelical worldview, but he is uncomfortable – and some critics say unconvincing – while talking about his beliefs.
The candidates will appear separately, spending one hour each with Warren, before coming together on stage for a handshake. The pastor, who does not endorse candidates, will be the only one asking questions.
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Warren is a Southern Baptist who is opposed to abortion, but he is nonetheless part of a shift away from the religious right's strict focus on abortion and marriage. The environment, poverty and education have also become pressing concerns, especially for younger evangelicals.
Warren is best known for building Saddleback Church into a 23,000-member megachurch in Lake Forest, Calif., and for writing “The Purpose-Driven Life,” which has sold millions of copies.
Larry Ross, who represents Warren, said the pastor has been consulting with other clergy and with experts in different fields to develop questions for the candidates about leadership, the Constitution, human rights and “sin and righteousness issues.”
“The more liberal camp just assumes that Pastor Warren is going to make this a Christian litmus test of the presidency. Others, who are more conservative, fear he is going to wimp out on some of the issues,” Ross said. “He says, ‘Neither group understands or knows me.' He's going to ask tough questions, fair questions, not gotcha questions.”
Obama will likely be asked to explain his support for abortion rights and other issues that clash with conservative Christian theology.
The Obama campaign has been diligently courting religious voters with a presence on Christian radio and blogs.
In June, Obama met with a large group of evangelical leaders, including the Rev. Franklin Graham, who challenged him on his beliefs in salvation, his support for abortion rights and other issues.
The benefit of the forum to McCain, who attends a Baptist church, is less clear.
While many of his views, including opposition to abortion, match the outlook of conservative Christians, he is far less comfortable than Obama discussing his faith. McCain supporters have taken to circulating excerpts from his memoir “Faith of Our Fathers” that explain his beliefs.
Yet, many evangelical leaders have backed him only reluctantly. And he put conservative Christians on edge Thursday by floating the prospect of picking a running mate who supports abortion rights.