The morning after Pastor Rick Warren interviewed both major presidential candidates at his evangelical church in Orange County, he delivered a Sunday sermon urging his congregation to judge Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain on how their characters would affect their decisions as leaders.
“Don’t just look at issues, look at character,” Warren said to a crowd of nearly 3,000 during one of two morning sermons at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest. “Look at the candidate and say, ‘Does he live with integrity, service with humility, share with generosity, or not?’ ”
Dressed in his usual bluejeans, Warren delivered the sermon titled “The Kind of Leadership America Needs” using Bible passages about faith and compassion. He did not speak of the differing views expressed by Obama and McCain when they appeared on the same stage Saturday, saying simply that “they were very different in personality, in philosophy, in direction, in goals and in vision, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Some who attended the Sunday services said Warren’s nationally televised conversations with the contenders offered a glimpse of the candidates’ qualities.
“It was a powerful forum in that we were exposed to the soul of who these two men were,” said Jim Christensen, 54, of Rancho Santa Margarita. “Before this, I only got what pundits wanted us to hear. Issues of character, issues of value, you don’t usually hear those types of things.”
Christensen said he was glad that Warren asked difficult questions, such as inquiring about each candidate’s greatest moral failure. “It gave us a chance to compare and contrast how they could handle things in different situations,” he said.
Christensen, a registered Republican, said that before Saturday’s forum, he wasn’t sure who he would vote for. He said he was drawn to McCain’s answer that a baby gets human rights at the moment of conception.
The forum, which took place inside the country’s fourth largest church, highlighted once again the prominence of religion in politics.
Warren told his congregation that someone had asked if there was any kind of president he would not vote for.
“I could not vote for an atheist because an atheist says, ‘I don’t need God,’ ” Warren said. “They’re saying, ‘I’m totally self-sufficient by [myself].’ And nobody is self-sufficient to be president by themselves. It’s too big a job.”
The forum came under criticism from one organization that issued a statement Sunday complaining that presidential candidates should not have to answer questions concerning their faith.
“Campaign 2008 is starting to feel like a Sunday-school Bible drill,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, a group that advocates for separation of church and state. “I don’t see what good it will do for the American people to again hear the candidates spout pious platitudes about their favorite Bible verses or how devout they are.”
The group also complained that the event was hosted by Warren.
“Why should one of these important events be orchestrated entirely by only one pastor who comes out of one narrow segment of our diverse country?” Lynn asked.
Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” said the forum was more than a conversation about faith.
“A lot of people misjudged our motives and why we were trying to do this as a church and how we were doing it,” Warren said. “Afterward, so many did say that this has the potential to change the climate of the election.”
A. Larry Ross, a spokesman for the church, said virtually all of the attendees were given free seats. But about 250 were charged from $500 to $2,000 per person to help defray expenses. Ross said much of the revenue would cover the cost of accommodating news crews from as far away as Japan and Europe. Any surplus, he said, would support the church’s charitable work.
Rockwell Bower, a UC Irvine student who attended the forum, said he worried that the price of admission might have shaped the crowd to a degree. But the 21-year-old, who said he wore an Obama T-shirt, added, “It was good to have that kind of civil discourse with the candidates.”
Some who did not attend the event at the church said they didn’t mind watching the interviews on television. Pam Paugh, 54, said Warren asked the kinds of personal questions she wished she could ask the candidates.
“It was a courageous step for Rick Warren, that he stepped out and asked questions that represented us,” said Paugh, who was visiting the church from Boring, Ore.
Paugh said she liked that McCain answered Warren’s questions directly. “He solidified for me what I thought he was about,” she said. She said the character of a candidate was as important to her as issues like the economy and healthcare.
Times staff writers Stuart Silverstein and Ari Bloomekatz contributed to this report.