Above Obama's "pay grade"

mccaintimeYou know that your social life has taken a dramatic downturn when you are sitting at home on a Saturday night watching the Saddleback Church Civil Forum. But I've been interested in whether the long-heralded, loudly trumpeted transition of "evangelicals" away from the "religious right" is, in fact, true. While Obama didn't seem to move mountains with the crowd, they did give him a raucous, standing ovation when he arrived on stage. On the other hand, Warren asked them to stand up at the end of Obama's answer period so maybe they were asked to do the same before he came out. The crowd, as may have been expected, was much warmer and responded much more favorably to McCain's answers.

Whatever else you might say about this forum, it provides a good snapshot of how evangelicals are feeling about the two major candidates. While the media have breathlessly reported that Democrats and Obama are appealing to evangelicals -- and young evangelicals in particular, the numbers have not (yet, at least) supported the claim.

Still, the Washington Post and Washington Times both continued the drumbeat this week with stories about young evangelicals being up for grabs.

And here's a paragraph from a Politico report on the Saddleback forum:

Chastened by John Kerry's narrow loss in 2004 -- and exit polls showing that the so-called God gap played a key role in that loss -- Democratic leaders have been on a mission to reframe the values debate by appealing to a generation that polls show is more receptive to considering candidates with differing views on abortion and other hot-button issues -- and whose support Obama has aggressively courted.

I'm not sure how well that paragraph is phrased. Certainly polls suggest that young evangelicals are identifying slightly less with the Republican Party than their seniors and are reporting greater interest in more media-friendly political issues, but they also care more about abortion than the average evangelical. Are they really more receptive to candidates who support legalized abortion on demand, such as Obama? I'm not sure if the data support that. In fact, most observers agree that abortion is the key issue to opening up the Democratic Party to more evangelical voters.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life held a discussion with various media experts earlier this year on closing the "God gap" between Republicans and Democrats. It's really interesting to read what folks like Amy Sullivan, E.J. Dionne and Ross Douthat have to say about the issues in play. Douthat in particular dealt with the abortion issue. In a much larger and quite charitable discussion that I'm doing no justice to by cherry-picking this bit, Douthat said:

It would be my contention that there is very little evidence based on the experience of developed countries -- both in the United States and comparing it to Europe, which has different abortion laws and in many cases more restrictive abortion laws -- it's very difficult to imagine that the abortion rate can be significantly reduced in the United States so long as there is no real ability to place serious restrictions on it in the first two trimesters. As long as there isn't that ability, it remarkably reduces the amount of space for compromise on the issue.

Keeping that in mind, let's look at how the two candidates answered Pastor Rick Warren's questions on the matter. Pretty early on, he asked Obama, "At what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?" Here is my rough transcription of Obama's response:

Whether you are looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity is above my pay grade. But let me speak more generally about the issue of abortion. Because this is something, obviously, the country wrestles with. One thing that I'm absolutely convinced of is that there is a moral and ethical element to this issue. And So I think that anybody who tries to deny the moral difficulties and gravity of the abortion issue is not paying attention. So that would be point number one. But Point number two: I am pro-choice. I believe in Roe versus Wade. I come to that conclusion not because I'm pro-abortion but because ultimately I don't think women make these decisions casually. I think they wrestle with these things in profound ways. In consultation with their pastors or spouses or their doctors or their family members. And so for me, the goal right now should be -- and this is where I think we can find common ground -- and by the way, I've now inserted this into the Democratic Party platform -- is 'How do we reduce the number of abortions?' Because the fact is that although we've had a president who is opposed to abortions the last eight years, abortions have not gone down.*

That last statement is incorrect. Abortions are actually at their lowest rate since 1975 and dropped nine percent between 2000 and 2005. Thus far, only FOX News made a note of this.

Either way, Warren followed-up by asking whether Obama had ever voted to limit or reduce abortions. Obama didn't answer the specific question but talked about working to reduce the number of abortions. obama time cover 102306 When Warren, noting the 40 million abortions that have taken place since Roe V. Wade, asked John McCain the same question about when life begins, McCain answered:

At the moment of conception.

In follow-ups, he talked about his 25-year pro-life record and mentioned, not so subtly, the importance of a strong judiciary.

I'm fascinated to see how the media covers the differences in this question in particular. A few early reports are trickling in and I'm watching cable news reaction. It looks like Obama's "pay grade" answer is one of the main hooks that reporters are using, and rightfully so. The Los Angeles Times thought it was the story of the night. Reuters' campaign blog made a big deal about it. This Fox/Associated Press account notes the thunderous applause McCain received for his abortion answer and the trouble Obama had with his. Jake Tapper, reporting from Saddleback, had a good write-up of how Obama fared with the crowd. Perhaps he'll have something soon on McCain's performance. Andy Barr at The Hill has a great, completely straightforward report on the two candidate's social issue answers. The Wall Street Journal has a lengthy play-by-play up.

I could see three different stories coming out of this forum. 1) There's the story that people seem to be jumping on -- the significant difference between how the two candidates' answers were perceived by the forum's audience and will be perceived by evangelicals in general. 2) There's the ongoing discussion about the difference between how the candidates discuss their personal faith. I'm not sure what the differences mean but Obama easily referenced Scripture while McCain chose to tell anecdotes about his faith. With evangelicals seemingly trying to outrun the baggage of the "religious right," which candidate's approach -- both in terms of their religious conversations and their positions on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, welfare, AIDS, poverty, educational choice and Supreme Court justices -- appeals more? 3) There's the story about what this forum means for Rick Warren and his empire. I was wildly and viscerally under-impressed with him but, then again, I'm not his target audience given my reaction to Purpose Driven Life. So in no way do I "get" his appeal. But does this succeed in bolstering his reputation among evangelicals? And if not them, will the media give him even friendlier coverage? Will his call for increased civility, at least, resonate?

Anyway, please let us know if you see any particularly good or bad coverage in the days to come.

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