Saddleback: A Defining Moment in Outreach to Evangelicals

Democratic efforts to reach out to evangelical voters began on November 3rd, 2004, the day after exit polls showed “values voters” were decisive in President Bush’s narrow re-election.   Any hopes that those efforts would bear electoral fruit may have ended on August 16th, 2008.

On that day, the two presumptive presidential nominees answered questions about faith and politics in front of thousands of Christians at Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California.  Sitting in the front row for the event, I witnessed a defining moment for both candidates in their pursuit of evangelical voters. 

Barack Obama’s hour with Warren was a giant missed opportunity.  Obama missed an important opportunity to explain to other Christians why he remained for so long at Jeremiah Wright’s racist and anti-American Trinity United Church in Chicago.  And he missed an opportunity to show some moderation on one the most durable election year issues, abortion. 

In Obama’s now infamous response to Warren’s question about when he thinks a baby gets human rights, Obama drew an audible gasp from the audience when he stuttered his way to saying that “answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.”

Even if Obama meant, as some of his surrogates insist, that it was a question to which only God knows the precise answer, Warren specifically asked Obama for his view, not God’s.  And since the next president, perhaps more than any other person in the country, will make decisions that will profoundly affect the lives and human rights of babies, it is disappointing that Obama’s response was so flippant.  My old boss Ronald Reagan also struggled with the question of when life begins but was wise enough to live by the conviction that if there is any doubt, we should always err on the side of life.

When I spoke with Sen. McCain several days after the forum, he was still astonished by the glibness of Obama’s answer. 

But no matter when Obama says he thinks babies should be given human rights, his voting record — which includes twice voting against legislation that would have required abortionists to give medical care to babies “born-alive” after botched abortions — makes clear that under his leadership those rights wouldn’t be conferred until sometime after birth.    
Following his “pay grade” gaffe, Obama made matters worse by launching into a full-throated defense of his support for Roe v. Wade.  Then, asked whether he has ever voted to limit or reduce abortions, Obama claimed that he favors limits on late-term abortions.  But he has never voted for restrictions on any abortions.  Obama also claimed to oppose designing embryos only for the purpose of scientific research but has supported laws that would fund research precisely with that purpose.
Obama also slipped up when he named Clarence Thomas as the justice he would not have nominated to the Supreme Court.  I am not surprised that Obama named Thomas, given, as Obama said, that they have profoundly different interpretations of the Constitution.  But Obama’s primary reason for opposing the court’s lone black justice was revealing.  He said,

 “I would not have nominated… ah…ah…Clarence Thomas.  Ah…I don’t think that he…ah…ah.  I…I…I…don’t think that he was an ex….ah…a strong enough jurist or legal thinker…ah…at the time… ah…for that elevation.”

Obama was clearly about to say that Thomas wasn’t an experienced enough candidate for the Supreme Court.  But Obama quickly stopped himself and re-worded his statement to impugn Thomas’s intelligence.  It is easy to see why.  Criticizing Thomas experience would beg the question:  And you have enough experience to lead a nation at war?  Obama’s quick re-direction showed that he is very much aware of, and sensitive about, his own lack of experience.

Watching the forum up close, I was struck that while Obama is supposed to be the golden-tongued orator at ease with “God talk,” his language was stilted, meandering and filled with stutters and “verbal fillers.”  In answering Warren’s first two questions, (about the people from whom he would seek counsel and his and the country’s greatest moral failings) Obama said “um” or “ah” 38 times.  And that didn’t include his constant stuttering. In answering the same two questions (while using about the same number of words), McCain used only four “verbal fillers.” 

Also, in his answer to the straightforward question about when babies obtain human rights, Obama used 12 “ums” and “ahs,” while McCain used none.  Counting these verbal fillers may seem trivial, but any language expert will tell you that they can be revealing.  Obama’s stammering reinforced the notion that he is unsure of who he is and of his beliefs on some of the most basic moral issues.  It seemed as though Obama was measuring each word, calculating it for its political advantages and drawbacks and trying to determine which interest groups might be offended. 

McCain, in contrast, was decisive in his language and spoke with a strong, clear voice.  McCain spoke most forcefully about life issues (Warren: “When do babies get human rights?”  McCain:  “At the moment of conception.”) and the importance of offshore drilling.  McCain grew somber when he discussed how his experiences in Vietnam strengthened his faith and love of country and when he talked about becoming an adoptive parent.  

Near the end of his session, Obama said he was happy to answer Pastor Warren’s questions because, “I want people to know me well.”  But, in the immediate aftermath of Obama’s performance at Saddleback, a new national poll had McCain leading Obama for the first time in the campaign.  Another just-released poll shows McCain well ahead among religious voters.  Voters are indeed getting to know Obama well.  And the more they know, the more likely they are to conclude that if straightforward questions about basic moral issues are above Barack Obama’s “pay grade,” then perhaps the job of leader of the free world is, too.