The Campaign Goes Christian

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The first joint appearance of the general election season is tomorrow night. You’ve probably heard nothing about it. You’ll probably hear nothing about it.

Barack Obama and John McCain will both travel to Lake Forest, CA, tomorrow night for the Saddleback Civil Forum at Saddleback Church, one of America’s preeminent megachurches. (Today is the last day of the Obama family’s Hawaiian vacation.) The candidates will sit down with Rick Warren, Saddleback’s pastor and the author of The Purpose-Driven Life, to talk about global poverty, HIV/AIDS, and climate change. The topics will be a welcome departure, from Obama’s point of view, from the standard “values voters” issues of abortion and gay marriage.

The forum should be interesting for two reasons. First, it will be an opportunity to test my theory that Obama should do well in head-to-head events with McCain, and that, as such, regular town hall events would have been good for Obama, in contradiction to what the Obama camp apparently believes.

Second, the Christian demographic is very much in play in this election. John McCain is crushing Barack Obama among evangelicals, who seem to think that being a Democrat and being a respectable Christian are mutually exclusive. Last month’s NBC/WSJ poll put the gap at 64%-24%. (In 2004, Bush won that demo 8-2 over Kerry.) But Obama is doing surprisingly well among other Christians. The Washington Post and the Washington Times report that young evangelicals, concerned about global poverty, social justice issues, and the health of the planet, are considering Obama seriously. This, despite the fact that they probably don’t know Obama has introduced a bill to address global poverty and is one of the Senate’s leaders on the issue.

Furthermore, the Barna Group, a Christian research group, recently found that of the 19 “faith segments” it polled, only evangelicals lean toward McCain. Non-evangelical born-again Christians lean Obama 43% to 31% — if those numbers hold, it will be the first time in two decades the born-again vote has gone to the Democrat. “Notional Christians,” folks who consider themselves Christians but are not born again, favor Obama by an even wider margin, 44% to 28%. Obama also wins non-Christians, atheists, and agnostics. This represents a massive opportunity for Obama.

An additional factor: John McCain is unwilling to talk about his faith publicly, is less vocally pro-life than President Bush, and supports stem cell research, all factors that could depress evangelical turnout. McCain may own evangelicals as a religious group, but they may be smaller this year than in the past.

But let’s be frank. Who wins which religious group is unlikely to be affected by Saturday evening’s forum. It’s a Saturday after all, meaning that even the day-after coverage won’t leak into the work week. And the Olympics are on, with Michael Phelps’ quest for a record eight gold medals culminating on Saturday night. How much oxygen will there be left over for a forum on religion, AIDS, and global poverty? Not much, I suspect. It may take a gaffe, a lie, or a heated argument to really make news at Saddleback.

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