“What does it mean to you to trust in Christ?” Pastor Rick Warren asked Sen.. Barack Obama, D-Ill., Saturday evening. “And what does it mean on a daily basis? I mean, what does that really look like?”
For the crowd of more than 2,000 sitting at Saddleback Church, Obama had the right answer, on this one at least.
“As a starting point, it means I believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins and that I am redeemed through him. That is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis. I know that I don’t walk alone, and I know that if I can get myself out of the way, that I can maybe carry out in some small way what he intends. And it means that those sins that I have on a fairly regular basis hopefully will be washed away.” Quoting from the book of Matthew, Obama said it also meant an obligation to “the least of these.”
But where Obama had more trouble with the crowd – which sat politely throughout the forum – was when Warren delved into the social issues that put Obama and his liberal views at odds with the majority of white evangelicals.
“Forty million abortions since Roe v. Wade,” noted Warren. “At what point does a baby get human rights in your view?”
Obama said that “whether you are looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade. “
“I am pro-choice,” the Democratic senator acknowledged. I believe in Roe v. Wade and have come to that conclusion not because I’m pro-abortion, but because ultimately I don’t think women make these decisions casually. They wrestle with these things in profound ways. In consultation with their pastors or spouses or their doctors and their family members.”
He mentioned that everyone could find common ground on the goal of reducing the number of abortions, which he’d put into the Democratic party platform. No one seemed to care much.
Likewise, Obama’s support for research involving embryonic stem cell research was met with the distant sound of crickets.
“Keep in mind the way that stem cell legislation that was vetoed by the president was structured, what it said was you could only use embryos that were about to be discarded, that had been created as a consequence of attempts at in vitro fertilization,” Obama pointed out.
He also suggested that “it’s not like people who are in favor of stem cell research are going around thinking to themselves, ‘Boy let’s go destroy some embryos.’ That’s not the perspective that I think people come to that issue on.”
Asked which existing Supreme Court Justice he, as president, would not have nominated, Obama immediately said he “would not have nominated Clarence Thomas…I don’t think that he was a strong enough jurist or legal thinker at the time for that elevation. Setting aside the fact that I profoundly disagree with his interpretation of a lot of constitution.”
For good measure, he added he would not have nominated Antonin Scalia, “although I don’t think there’s any doubt about his intellectual brilliance.”
Chief Justice John Roberts, whose confirmation Obama voted against, “was a tougher question only because I find him to be a very compelling person.”
Another point of clear difference came when Obama was asked whether faith- based organizations should have to forfeit federal funds if they discriminate in hiring for those federally-funded programs — an issue of importance for religious conservatives who want to be able to hire people of their own faith.
Obama said, “We do have to be careful to make sure that we are not creating a situation where people are being discriminated against using federal money. “
Warren tried to make Obama see the issue from his point of view. Imagine if Saddleback Church wanted to provide aid to Hurricane Katrina victims, he said, “and I wanted to hire some people to do relief…If I took federal money to help in that relief I wouldn’t be able to say, ‘I only want people to believe like we do?’”
“We do want to make sure of is that as a general principal we’re not using federal funding to discriminate,” Obama again said, “but that is only when it comes to the narrow program that is being funded by the federal government. that does not affect any of the other ministries that are taking place.”
Obama found more support when he said, “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now … for me as a Christian it’s also a sacred union. God’s in the mix.”
He received applause for that sentiment and also, interestingly enough, when he said he believed in civil unions for same sex couples, so that “gay partners to want to visit each other in the hospital for the state to say, you know what, that’s all right, I don’t think that in any way inhibits my core beliefs about what marriage is. I think my faith is strong enough and my marriage is strong enough that I can afford those civil rights to others even if I have a different perspective or a different view.”
A lighter moment came when Warren, a best-selling author, asked Obama how he defines rich when it comes to taxes.
“You know, if you’ve got book sales of $25 million…” Obama joked.
“Okay, all right, I’m not asking about me,” Warren laughed.
Obama said that those making more than $250,000 are doing well.
“I’m not suggesting that everybody that is making over $250,000 is living on easy street," he said, "but the question that I think we have to ask ourselves is if we believe in good schools, if we believe in good roads, if we want to make sure that kids can go to college, if we don’t want to leave a mountain of debt for the next generation, then we’ve got to pay for these things. They don’t come for free. And it is irresponsible, I believe it is irresponsible intergenerationally for us to invest or for us to spend $10 billion a month on a war and not having a way to pay for it. That I think is unacceptable.”
The crowd clapped about that, too.
– Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller