Showdown at Saddleback?

Pastor Rick Warren opened last night’s Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency affirming separation of church and state but not of faith and politics. He said the forum would attempt to restore civility to political discourse — apparently an unattainable goal unless the candidates’ onstage interaction was limited to a brief PR handshake’s length of time. The photo op occurred between Obama’s 50 minutes of interrogation and McCain’s. Warren asked each candidate a similar set of questions so that the audience could, according to Warren, “compare apples to apples.”

Obama, who went first, gave his most surprising answer of the evening when Warren asked which current Supreme Court justice he would not have nominated. “Clarence Thomas,” Obama finally replied, explaining he did not think Thomas was a “strong enough” jurist or legal thinker at the time of his appointment.

After scaring conservatives everywhere by saying he relies heavily on Michelle’s wisdom and honesty and would also rely on the wisdom of the ages accumulated in people like Sam Nunn, Ted Kennedy, and Dick Lugar during his presidency, Obama made a case for his Christianity. “I believe Jesus Christ died for my sins,” he said, calling his faith a daily “source of strength and sustenance.”

When asked at what point a baby should get human rights, Obama replied that the answer was above his pay grade and many scientific and theological factors prevented him from knowing the answer. Apparently, an Ivy League education doesn’t teach you how to figure those things out.

At Warren’s request, Obama defined “rich” – depending on geographic location, size of family, etc. – as making more than $250,000 and middle class or below as $150,000 or lower. He said his plan includes tax cuts for the second group and increases for the first. He added that if Americans want amenities such as good roads and good education and also no debt for future generations, then Americans have to be willing to pay for them.

McCain was less specific when he answered that question later, responding, “I don’t want to take any money from the rich — I want everyone to get rich.”

He was not vague, however, when Warren asked him at what point a baby should receive human rights. “At the moment of conception,” McCain immediately replied. He was similarly brief and forceful when pledging to track down Osama bin Laden and identifying radical Islam as an evil that needs to be defeated. McCain claimed his greatest moral failure was the failure of his first marriage, and he (“with all due respect”) took down Ginsburg, Breyer, Souter, and Stevens on the question of which of the Supreme Court’s justices he would not have nominated.

McCain gave the most powerful testimony of the evening — most of his responses were in anecdotal form — when talking about Christianity and worldview. He spoke of a time as a POW when a rope was tied around his biceps, then around his head, and his head pushed between his knees. As he sat in that position, a “gun guard” came in and quietly loosened the ropes, waiting four hours before tightening them again. Then, on Christmas Day, McCain was allowed to stand quietly outside his cell for a few moments. The guard walked by again and used his gun handle to draw a cross in the dirt. He then erased it and continued on his way.

“For a minute there, it was just two Christians worshipping together,” McCain said.

McCain’s performance was very strong. Obama’s? Well, to be charitable, just say “less so.”