I do not know where I will be when the actual Saddleback shindig takes place tonight (I am on the road), but here's a few of the latest details about what is supposed to unfold -- via the Los Angeles Times (naturally). Click here for a Times blog item with lots of other gossip and stuff, in the hours before the forum. This is one case where you really need to read the Associated Press. More on that in a second.
This event is not a debate, but will clearly touch on a few issues that come up in debates in the future, all with a faith and social justice thrust via the person doing the questioning -- Rick "Purpose Driven Pastor" Warren. I think this is a very good summary of the format:
... (For) the 3,000 people in the audience and viewers watching live on cable television, this first onstage matchup will offer a preview of the three critically important presidential debates, the first next month at the University of Mississippi.
Though appearing separately, the candidates will field similar questions about their faith, abortion, same-sex marriage and humanitarian efforts abroad. It is a chance for both to hone their comments on sensitive topics and practice connecting with an audience not chosen by their tightly controlled campaigns.
But, believe it or not, the story then veers off into a lengthy discussion of the two candidates' strengths and weaknesses in a traditional, political, debate forum -- after telling the readers that the Saddleback gig will, essentially, be very different. What we need to know is something about how the two candidates will or will not be able to relate to Warren and the 3,000 people in the church's plush theater chairs.
What do we get on that? Next to zippo.
Meanwhile, Rachel Zoll of the Associated Press pushes straight to the point.
For Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, their appearances at a forum Saturday night at Warren's evangelical California megachurch bring risks along with rewards.
The event will play to one of Obama's strengths, talking about his Christian faith, but it will also underscore the gulf between his views and those of the most conservative Christian voters. Many of McCain's positions are more in line with the evangelical worldview, but he is uncomfortable -- and some critics say unconvincing -- while talking about his personal beliefs.
Warren is an anti-abortion Southern Baptist who is nonetheless part of a shift away from the religious right's strict focus on abortion and marriage. The environment, poverty and education have also become pressing concerns, especially for younger evangelicals.
Warren is best known for building Saddleback Church into a 23,000-member megachurch in Lake Forest, Calif., and for writing the multimillion-selling book "The Purpose-Driven Life." But he and his wife, Kay, are also leading advocates for HIV/AIDS victims worldwide. They have invested enormous resources in their PEACE Plan, now under way in Rwanda, which aims to combat corruption, illiteracy and other social problems through church partnerships with government and business.
Older-guard evangelical leaders who oppose broadening the agenda have been leaning on Warren. In a stream of statements in the days leading up to the forum, they implored him to press the candidates about their positions on abortion.
Larry Ross, who represents Warren, said the pastor has been consulting with other clergy and with experts in different fields to develop questions for the candidates about leadership, the Constitution, human rights and "sin and righteousness issues."
Note that Ross has years of experience working for (wait for it) the Rev. Billy Graham.
There's lots of solid info in this Zoll piece. This is the story you need to read before tonight.
However, if GetReligion readers have seen interesting news or commentary -- left or right -- on this event, please leave us the URLs in the comments pages.